How many times did Bartleby utter the same words, “I would prefer not to”? And how did the author and his clerks come to be influenced by the repetitions of the same expression?

BartlebyAnswer: Bartleby the Scrivener repeated the statement “I would prefer not to” many times in the story. Throughout the story, whenever he was asked to do something, he uttered the words— “I would prefer not to”. This statement influenced the author and his copyists in a mysterious way. This statement foreshadows Bartleby’s previous stay at a dead-letter office. Through this statement, the author made various realizations and understood Bartleby’s mysterious nature.

After joining the author’s office, Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing during the first two days. On the third day of his service with the author, the author called him to complete a small affair he had in hand to examine a small paper with him. But sparingly, Bartleby replied “I would prefer not to.” The author rose in high excitement, and crossing the room with a stride echoed, “Prefer not to”. He poured forth several questions on him, “What do you mean? Are you moon struck?” Then he commanded him, saying, “I want you to help me compose this sheet here—take it” and thrust the paper toward Bartleby. But Bartleby repeated the same answer—”I would prefer not to.”

A few days after this Bartleby concluded four lengthy documents quadruplicates of a week’s testimony taken before the High Court Chancery. It was necessary to examine them because it was an important suit. The author called Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut from the next room. They came and sat in a row. But Bartleby, when called said, “I would prefer not to”. The author was astounded by the totally unexpected reply. He reasoned with Bartleby, but still Bartleby gave the same answer, “I would prefer not to.” Then the author asked Turkey, Nippers and Ginger Nut whether he was right in his opinion, and they all supported him. But Bartleby was adamant.


Some days passed. One afternoon, the author said to Bartleby that he would compose the papers with him. Bartleby gave the same answer “I would prefer not to.” The author felt tempted to rebel again, and told Bartleby to go to the post office and see if there was anything for him. But Bartleby gave the same answer. The author told Bartleby to tell Nippers in the next room to come to him. Bartleby gave the same answer.

One morning the author asked Bartleby to tell where he was born. He replied, “I would prefer not to”. He asked him some other questions, but Bartleby answered, “At present I prefer not to give an answer”. At last drawing his chair behind his screen, the author told him to be a bit reasonable. Bartleby answered. “At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable.”

The author, out of impatience told Bartleby that in six days’ time he must unconditionally leave the office. He also offered to assist him in his endeavor to find a new abode, and gave an assurance of sufficient money. After six days, the author offered him money, but he did not take the money and made the same answer. The author left the money and told him to leave that room that day. The next morning, the author found Bartleby still there. When he asked him in an angry mood whether he would quit or not, Bartleby answered, “I would prefer not to quit you.”

Ultimately the author moved his chamber. But Bartleby still haunted the old place. The author offered him a place in his home, but Bartleby refused. He was later handed over to the police and put to prison. He died there.

The author himself and his clerks seemed to be affected by the repeated use of the word “prefer” by Bartleby. They began to use the word involuntarily. One day Nippers appeared in the author’s room and heard Bartleby reply “I would prefer not to”. He then gritted “prefer not, eh?” and asked the author what Bartleby had preferred not to. The author replied that he would prefer that Nippers would withdraw for the present. He then realized that it was not necessary for him to use the word “prefer” in his answer to Nippers. He trembled to think that his contact with Bartleby had already and seriously affected him in a mental way—

“Somehow, of late, I had got into the way of involuntarily using this word “prefer” upon all sorts of not exactly suitable occasions, and trembled to think that my contact with the scrivener had already and seriously affected me in a mental way.”

This episode foreshadows the later realization in the story, of the fact that Bartleby was fatally influenced by the word “dead” and became virtually a dead man even when he was alive. “Dead letters” sound like dead men, and a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness might be profoundly affected by his dealing with dead letters. These letters are annually burned by the cartload. Sometimes from out of the folded papers the pale clerk, (Bartleby) took a ring, while the finger it was meant for moldered in the grave. Hope was conveyed through a letter for someone who died unhoping. These letters were sent on errands of life,-but actually they did speed to death.

This episode brings many important realizations in the mind of the author. When Bartleby uttered the words, the author realized and observed something strange in Bartleby’s nature. There was not anything human about him when he uttered the words. “There was something about Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me, but in wonderful manner, touched and disconcerted me.” It was normal to dismiss Bartleby for the repeated refusal, but the author was each time stopped to implement his dismissal for his strange disposition. The author realized that they had been influenced by the word “prefer not” because repeated exposure to a particular thing affected the person who was exposed to it. He could make a connection of this episode with the rumor of Bartleby’s dealing with dead-letters. He understood that Bartleby was seriously affected by this contact with the dead letters while he had been working in the dead letter office. This expression reveals Bartleby’s personality and nature. It indicates that Bartleby lost all interest and enthusiasm of life. He always preferred not to do anything which he was asked to do. By making this statement, he avoided works and plunged into deep isolation. These words indicated his refusal to serve the mechanized and authoritarian world which only valued productivity of a person. Bartleby did not prefer to serve the world of work and business.

So, we see that the words “prefer not” occurred many times in the story. It occurred each time Bartleby was asked to do anything. It reveals the mystery of Bartleby’s refusal to do all kinds of works. It is a reflection of the influence of the “dead-letters” on Bartleby. It contributes to many important realizations in the author. It reveals the very nature of Bartleby, and embodies the author’s philosophy of the ultimate meaninglessness of life.