PS. On Labor Day and Work: A Real-life Bartleby

"I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, ‘I would prefer not to.’

I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume. But in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, ‘I would prefer not to.’

‘Prefer not to,’ echoed I, rising in high excitement, and crossing the room with a stride. ‘What do you mean? Are you moon-struck? I want you to help me compare this sheet here—take it,’ and I thrust it towards him.

‘I would prefer not to,’ said he.”

Herman Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener”

I neglected to mention, in my Labor Day piece on work, those who choose to work little or not at all, regardless of the consequences.  I first met such a person, who refused to do his job or in fact anything else the world required of him, in Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” which I read many years ago and filed in the “Interesting – Are There Really People Like That?” part of my brain, where it remained until I encountered just such a person, the 19-year-old son of my friend.

“I prefer not to.”

This boy has resisted moving forward and growing up from Moment One, when he had to be coaxed out of the womb via exercise and other, medical means.  Each birthday, he would wait till the last minute to blow out the candles, resisting, until it could be resisted no more, the idea that he was one year older.  His entire life has been a litany of Bartleby’s catch-phrase: “I prefer not to.” 

He has preferred not to engage in any but the bare minimum of the world’s demands, choosing instead the company of video games, endless hours of them.  And he looks it: instead of a muscular, hale post-adolescent in the prime of life, he is pale, bony, with cadaverous eyes whose 1,000-yard stare belie the fact that while you are talking to him, they are really playing Mortal Kombat.

Lies and alibis

He has a by-now boring list of alibis – the teacher didn’t tell us, I was in the bathroom, lost the assignment, etc., ad nauseam – by which he ignores assignments and just scrapes by. 

Intelligence isn’t the problem.  His recall is excellent, as evidenced by the voluminous quantity of useless video game crap with which he’s crammed his cortex.  In school, he’s earned an occasional A or B.  He just prefers not to.  One teacher let him sleep in the supply closet. 

“Work doesn’t come naturally to me.”

He has had every imaginable special education service, but the sad fact is that his brain, adequate in most other respects, lacks a self-starting work ethic. He once said “Work doesn’t come naturally to me.”  Well, duh!  It doesn’t come naturally to anyone, idiot; that’s why they pay us. 

Although he’s a born skeptic, early disabusing himself and others of the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and God, his brain is slow to develop maturity and knows nothing of the world outside video games.  Its reasoning powers, attention span, and mental muscle are as soft as, well, a mussel.

He is now attempting a second semester of junior college, courtesy of his most generous grandfather.  His first semester resulted in a C in a study-habits course (the kind of stuff I knew by the 5th grade, if not before) and a D in Sociology; he ignored half the final assignment and who knows which other ones.

Trainwreck of excuses

This semester, with challenging English comp and math classes, should be a trainwreck of goofing off, missed assignments, lies, and alibis, unless he is hounded and checked up on constantly.  His family is seriously considering the military.  It’d be like sending them Beetle Bailey.  If they accept him, it will weaken America militarily.  But they don’t care.

135,000 hits!

On a lark, I googled “Bartleby syndrome.”  I got 135,000 hits.  Here’s a good place to start:

These people, mostly boys, aren’t simply lazy.  Clearly a lot of anxiety and avoidance are involved.  Our real-life Bartleby would rather suffer any consequences than follow through with a challenging work assignment.  He shies away from all sports and other competition. 

Even though he has a part-time job (yard and house work), he has no compunctions about living rent-free and contributing nothing to his own support.  This is the child’s attitude that goodies simply come from adults with no attendant obligations.

On the other hand…

I should add, on the other hand, that some of the Bartleby hits had to do with people who had an “I prefer not to” feeling about their work that day, that week, or even chronically – and why not? 

We come back to one of the premises of the Labor Day post:  Why work? Most jobs are boring and/or degrading.  A tiny percent of people look forward to going to work.  But we go anyway – and are praised for our work ethic.  We buy houses. cars, and a lot of useless, showy stuff.

Maybe freedom means having nothing to lose – and perhaps some the Bartlebys of the world aren’t simply lazy: they have looked hard at the world of work, assessed the trade-offs, and found the courage to say “I prefer not to” – and damn the consequences.


PS.  Real-life Bartleby has made a strong start in his first week of school, putting in many hours of study (under a parent’s constant, watchful eye) and getting a 90 on his first math quiz.  Perhaps all that open discussion of the military option put the fear of God into him (don’t worry; I’m still an atheist - it’s just a hyperbole).  It’s only been a week.  We’ll see.

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Comment by Ant Mac on September 13, 2012 at 9:26pm

Ah. Well, the thought in our Socialisms isn't that government owes us a living you know. It is society that owes people support, in the theory. And we just use government to do the book balancing.


The logic goes something like, just as Society as a whole demands to own title to all the public lands, to mineral rights, water usage, etc etc, it follows that it also holds the obligation to support those who need it.


It worked just fine for the first generation too, because the people remembered the evil days where those with Capital ( Which ultimately in British Commonwealth countries came absolutely from Duke William II of Normandy invading England and stealing the country from its owners, every fortune followed back finds its root in that occurrence, ) used and discarded everyone else. So grateful that no one abused the system. Didn't hold true in the second generation though. :P


You guys were able to set up a slightly different system for your society, based on an open abundance of resources, i.e. land. I need not follow that train of logic down for you, and point out who was the US equivalent of the Saxon society.

Anyway, because it is humans doing it, Socialism is prone to some big faults, one of which is the dole. Wish there was an obviously better system to change to, myself.

Comment by Alan Perlman on September 13, 2012 at 11:54am

Good to hear to you, and thanks for the kind words. 

In America, we do have many people on the government dole, sometimes even for more than one generation, but these are poor, uneducated, mostly urban citizens, and both state and national governments have various programs to move people from welfare to work.  "Government owes me a living" is not part of the American ethos.

Yes, we get a day off for Labor Day, but a lot of people work anyway, because who would sell hot dogs for everyone's Labor Day barbecue?  But no mandatory 6-week vacations like they have in Europe.

Thanks again for reading my piece and for writng.  Best regards, Alan

Comment by Ant Mac on September 13, 2012 at 2:45am

Well written and sort of witty too. If I can make a comment that I do not mean as a pejorative in the least way, it is very much written by an American. I hardly think it would be even a subject for comment here in New Zealand, because it is such a common issue. Children whose father and grandfather never worked a single day, because they got the dole.


Do you guys even get Labour day as a holiday?. From what I have gathered about Americans and days off work, I guess you fellas celebrate Labour day, by labouring?. =]

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