I would prefer not to – origin



Maybe you have seen this sentence written on a shirt or maybe you have come across it on social media and wondered what’s the meaning behind it. Well, these words are taken from Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the scrivener”. Therefore, “I would prefer not to” does not represent just a simple sequence of words, but an entire philosophy.  

Herman Melville and Bartleby, the scrivener 


source: https://www.amazon.com/

Herman Melville is one of the most important American writers of the 19th century. He is famous world-wide for his novel “Mobby Dick”, which is considered one of the masterpieces of world literature, having a rich intertextuality and numerous interpretations. But Herman Melville is also famous for his short stories. “Bartleby, the scrivener”, “Billy Budd”, “Benito Cereno” are just a few examples.  

“Bartleby, the scrivener” can be considered a critique to the modern society. The elements that dominate the story are the feeling of alienation, of angst and the concept of passivity as a form of revolt against a society that alienates people from the true fundamental values and which imposes automatisms, thus reducing the human being to a predefined set of responses.  

The action takes place in an office on Wall Street, where Bartleby is hired to copy various documents. At the beginning, Bartleby works in an enthusiastic manner and manages to copy an impressive number of documents in a relatively short amount of time, but at a certain point he suddenly stops and his response to any type of request is: “I would prefer not to”. From this point, the narrative becomes really interesting and what happens to Bartleby in the end denotes a certain perspective on the world.

Without giving too many spoilers, the sentence “I would prefer not to”, which has many occurrences throughout the novella, typifies the polite refusal to be part of a society that dehumanizes the individual, and which fails to create a milieu that encourages the diverse manifestations of the self. The story also reflects the impossibility of opposing change, of opposing a world that is in the process of shifting its form. The complete passivity as form of revolt cannot be the solution.  

“Bartleby, the scrivener” is a really short story which can be read in less than 2 hours.  



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