I Would Prefer Not To
by Sandra Hawkins
I have been told it is necessary for me to write a Reading Response Essay for my English class, but I would prefer not to. I am told it is necessary for me to cook meals for my family, but I would prefer not to. I have been instructed in the ways of how someone my age should properly dress and act, but I would prefer not to. Now I am sure that any reasonable person would find all of these requests quite normal and question my motives concerning my preference, but before I decide to divulge my motives that you believe must exist, I would prefer to ask about your motives. What motivates you to go to work everyday? What motivates you to dress the way you do? What motivates you to be reasonable when it comes to normal requests? Ah, the ultimate question in need of an answer: Who determines what is reasonable and normal, and should we not determine these matters for ourselves? Chaos would result, you say, if every individual were granted that freedom. Yet, we all do have that freedom, and Herman Melville (1819-1891) through the interpretation of a man who prefers not to in "Bartleby, the Scrivener", subjectively conveys the mental anguish he experienced as a writer and man when the literary world attempted to steal that freedom.
Dear Bartleby was a harmless man with a demeanor that was capable of disarming many. From the onset of Melville's story, it becomes quite apparent that Bartleby is a man who prefers not to. He prefers not to honor any request from his employer that would make him deviate from what he prefers to be doing. Bartleby's employer quickly realized that, "there was something about Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me, but in a wonderful manner touched and disconcerted me" (2236). Bartleby gave no argument nor tried to justify denying his employers request. He would simply state, I would prefer not to. His only motive was to do as he preferred. Bartleby's employer found this expression of freedom very strange. Where did this man come from who has the audacity to break the pattern of normalcy that we all follow? He who will not "comply with my request-a request made according to common usage and common sense…(2337). However, what was "common" for others was not common for Bartleby. He chose to skip the mainstream and be true to himself. When the common or reasonable requests of the day stifled Bartleby's own inner reasoning he would simply choose to honor the request of his own soul. To force himself to live by the standards of normalcy set forth by society would be to kill the man who lived within. Bartleby did choose physical death over conformity at the end of the story. Melville chose a different path than Bartleby, not a physical death, but a death all the same.
Through Bartleby, Melville describes the deadness he feels within when having to conform his writings to the reasonable standards and common usage of literature. For Melville, the doorway that would lead to acceptance in the literary world was barred shut to his entry, the hinge held firmly in place by his own creativity, sparred by his own internal sense of reason. To walk across the threshold would require the loosening of the hinge. With the axis of his soul sliding downward, Melville stepped through the doorway. Melville quickly realized it was the doorway to hell. He had stepped into a world of mental torment; mental torment that even the good Reverend Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) whose sermons of fiery damnation could not measure up to (503). He had sold into slavery his mind and soul to the bidders of the celebrated literary world. Melville's gains were minimal when weighed against his losses. He shared with Nathaniel Hawthorne his inner turmoil, "What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, - it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches" (2290). Melville eventually acknowledged and accepted the reality that he could never conform to standards of normalcy and reasoning that conflicted with his own. As with Bartleby, Melville "preferred not to" deny the reality of who he was.
Bartleby chose a physical death rather than to be forced into accepting a world of reason that held no reason for him. As with Melville, he too made a choice; he chose a meager living and infrequent acclamations in the literary realm over death of his mind and soul. Yet, in 1919, "one of the most curious phenomena[s] of American literary history, swept Melville from the ranks of the lesser American writers…into the rarefied company of Shakespeare and a few fellow immortals of world literature so that only Whitman, James, and Faulkner are seen as his American equals" (2292). Melville was not alive to witness this revival. Due to his resolve to retain his literary freedom, he was able to attain everlasting literary success that resounds from his own realm of reasonable and normal.
As for myself, I would prefer not to disclose any motivational reasoning for my own preferences; less I confuse even further those who still cannot understand my denying "normal and reasonable" request. "If I were to regulate the writings of my mind- I would never write".
- Melville, Herman. "Bartleby, the Scrivener." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. 6th ed. Vol.B. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003. 2290-2337
- Edwards, Jonathan. "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. 6th ed. Vol.A. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003. 503
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