Why are some people defiant and passive at the same time? Why do they refuse to cooperate with their family and their co-workers? Do they suffer from mental illness? Are they victims of their of own false pride? Maybe they’re just lazy. There is always a mysterious quality to this kind of rebellion. This quiet, stubborn revolt can be tragic and almost heroic, sad and comic at the same time. Think of Bartleby, the hero of Melville’s 1853 tale, “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” To any request made by his employer, he answers “I would prefer not to.”
Before I retired, I worked as a supervisor at a government office. One of our staff was an elderly, alcoholic woman. Like Bartleby’s employer I was not much of a disciplinarian. Like him, “I am a man whom from earliest youth believed that the easiest way is the best.” Whenever possible, I avoid confrontation. One morning, Florence showed up, as usual, late for work, drunk, and belligerent. If she just filed 15 folders before 11 o’clock, I told her, I wouldn’t write her up. I went to her office at 11 and as I expected she had filed no folders. I decided to schedule a disciplinary hearing that might result in her dismissal.
Florence tried to put me on a guilt trip. She cried that she was the sole support of her family. Her family was herself and her husband, Bob. Bob had once worked for the organization. He was a notorious drunk. His father was a high administrator. New York is a tribal place; his father was a tribal chief. Bob was under his protection. When his father died, Bob’s world fell apart. He received three demotions and was then fired for gross incompetence.
Florence never pulled her weight at work. Still the thought of her dismissal made me anxious. For a few nights, I even had trouble sleeping. After I told her I was charging her with insubordination, Florence didn’t come to work for eleven days. She didn’t call. I couldn’t reach her; her phone was disconnected. Office morale improved. The District director complemented me on my firmness. Even the Union Rep felt I had done the right thing. Still the whole business made me nervous. I didn’t look forward to the Hearing. Florence might make me look bad. She might counter my charges with an expose of some of my procedural errors.
Florence’s daughter called me on the twelfth day of her absence. Her mother, she told me, had died in her sleep. She added quickly that there wasn’t going to be a funeral.
Bartleby’s decline was slower. The lawyer didn’t have the resolve to evict his former employee from his office. Bartleby slept and ate there. Rather than evict Bartleby, the lawyer moved to new quarters. But Bartleby refused to leave the building. He would not submit to any form of pressure. He said, “I would prefer not to.” Finally he was declared a vagrant and was sent to the old New York prison, The Tombs. In that era, if a prisoner wanted to eat, he had to pay the grubman to deliver him food. The lawyer hired a grubman to provide Bartleby with food. Bartleby said, “I would prefer not to dine”. He laid down in the prison yard and died.