Free Will in Bartleby the Scrivener

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In Herman Melville’s, "Bartleby the Scrivener", the author writes a compelling story about a law firm owner, who is also the narrator, and an ambiguous character named Bartleby. The Narrator is a Christian man who feels inclined to help Bartleby. He hires him at the firm, hoping he will improve upon the work environment and atmosphere between him and his employees, but the narrator later on realizes that Bartleby frustrates him beyond words. Bartleby continually decides what he would like to do, and what he would prefer not to do throughout the entire story. He exhibits his demeanor in a polite way by not being rude, but also in a blunt way by subtly refusing to complete a task he is requested to do. It puzzles many of Bartleby’s coworkers as well as the narrator.

Bartleby would be best described almost as a puzzle. He does questionable things and exhibits a stubborn like behavior. Many other characters have a difficult time reading him because he does not talk much and keeps to himself. For example, the narrator once observes "Bartleby sits in his hermitage, oblivious to everything but his own peculiar business there" (Melville). Bartleby creates conflict throughout the story and repeatedly says "I prefer not to" to just about everything that the narrator (his boss) tells him to do. With this statement being his main monologue in the story, it simplistically portrays a theme of exercising free-will. One would typically describe "free-will" as an action that you’re capable of doing and deciding to do on your own without anyone else compelling on that choice.

Although we do not know much about the narrator, we can assume certain characteristics about him throughout the text. He seems to appreciate the essence of life and keep himself at a low stress level at all times. "A profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best" (Melville). Even with Bartleby being there at the firm causing issues, the narrator seems to back down from all confrontation. The narrator also seems to have many mixed feelings about Bartley. This is understandable if you put yourself in the narrator’s shoes. The author explains, "Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance" (Melville). What if you asked someone to do something and that person replied with a polite, yet to-the-point remark saying that they would not like to do it? It wouldn't necessarily infuriate you, but it may confuse you. It might make you begin to question the person’s integrity, but at the same time appreciate their politeness. While Bartleby exercises his free will toward his boss by refusing to do the things he is asked, he is also gaining a bad reputation for himself in the workplace.

A relevant article to compare the thought of free-will is one by Lee McIntyre called, Free Will in the Social Sciences. This article consists of many scientists’ opinions behind the definition of free-will, and the many different takes on it. Some of the scientists take the side of believing that we do acquire free-will. Others believe that free-will does not exist because everything is a forethought and happens in our heads before the action is even done. Scientists have conducted research to support this speculation. In 1983, Benjamin Libet conducted an experiment to find out if a person actually has conscious thought before they do something. He found that "a person's decision to move their finger can be detected 300 milliseconds before the person's conscious decision to act." (McIntyre).

Libet’s research has been challenged, because it doesn't quite make sense that every action is conducted before we even decide to do it. Everything we do and say has to have some reasoning behind it, and cannot already be pre-generated in our minds. If someone had stepped on your toe, your initial reaction is to try to get your toe out of harm’s way, so you pull your toe out from under the other person’s foot. Our reaction to that is up to us. We can decide if we want
to smack the person or forgive them. Decisions and unconscious reflexes are two completely different things. Choosing to smack the person may cause further consequences, such as that person reacting back and punching you, which also may result in knocking you out.

Another article written by Allan Moore Emery, called The Alternatives of Melville's "Bartleby", gives us the more opinionated side of free-will rather than all of scientific facts, because in reality, free-will is an opinion. Emery includes a theologist’s opinion in his article, including Jonathan Edwards, who wrote Freedom of the Will. Emery also throws in the opinion of Joseph Priestley, also a theologist, because it is quite similar to the opinion of Edwards. The two theologists believe that "free will cannot be comprehended or defined’. Decisions should not have any outside influences in order to be considered free-will" Emery). This is quite a compelling argument, but in the end, the matter of "free-will" is an opinion that has been widely debated about and may never be resolved.

With all other opinions from these articles set aside, Bartleby is human. He has wants, desires and needs, just as all of us. He chooses to create his path and destiny, if he would have decided to act another way, rather than choosing not to do anything, perhaps he may have had another future and he may have ended up with a different destiny. If he chose to exemplify himself as a hard working man, it may have resulted in him keeping his job, and presented him with a good reputation. It is debatable that destiny is able to be altered due to choices that you make throughout your life.

"It was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach" (Melville). This quote shows that with all of the narrator’s attempts to give bartleby a chance at the firm, the narrator could not help bartleby, hence the fact that he could not reach his soul. Melville concludes in the last line of the story, "Ah Bartleby, Ah humanity!" (Melville). That simple line summarizes the irony of Bartleby's life and all of the poor choices that he had made to land him in that spot, even though he could have changed it along the way.

Utilizing your free will can either make or break a situation, and for Bartleby, it was a break. His unwillingness to do anything is most likely what caused the things that happened to him. It caused him to get fired from his job, it caused him to get escorted to prison, and it essentially caused his death later on. The ability to make your own decision and practice free will comes along with a certain set of consequences.

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Free Will in Bartleby the Scrivener. (2021, Mar 17). Retrieved July 25, 2024 , from

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