Bartleby is quite a peculiar character because he doesn’t do any of the tasks he is asked to do. Bartleby is a character who refuses the power of authority. Instead of following the rules, he decides to go along with his own. Whenever his boss, a lawyer asks him to do everyday work Bartleby’s response is always “I would prefer not to.” The word “prefer” contains a powerful feeling of being in charge. Bartleby is not giving satisfaction to his boss. Bartleby is taking ownership of his actions by directly telling his boss “ I would prefer not to.” Similar to Antigone by Sophocles, Antigone takes charge of her actions. No matter the rule that the king of Thebes has opposed to the people of the polis, Antigone disregards it showing that she prefers not to follow the rule. I argue that Bartleby and Antigone are similar because they both resist authority. However, Bartleby is different than Antigone because Bartleby shows passive refusal against authority while Antigone shows active refusal.
First, this essay will compare and contrast how these two characters use political resistance. Next, this essay will demonstrate how Bartleby and Antigone show self-reliance using the notion of rebellion. Lastly, the essay will show the consequences that these characters faced by performing political resistance. Melville creates Bartleby to show resistance against authority with Emerson’s belief in self-reliance.
Antigone is a character who is committed to herself. The number one rule that Antigone should follow is to not bury her brother against “Kreons express command.” Antigone did not follow the order of the king but she followed her own rules and did what she thought was the only correct thing to do. Even her sister Ismene went against her because her sister knew the consequences of going against the king’s command. Antigone posed a threat to the legal bureaucratic authority, by refusing to abide by the kings demands. Antigone is damaging the legitimacy of the polis because she is resisting political authority. Antigone is full of pathos because she is evoking feelings, throughout the play the audience can feel the emotion that she is feeling. She is desperate to have a proper funeral for her brothers because she knows that’s the right thing to do. She gets upset when no one is on her side, no one is helping her. She has trust in herself that no matter the consequences, she was in the right and holds that self-reliance. Antigone uses active refusal because she is directly burying her brother. Antigone didn’t get anyone to bury her brother for her. Antigone physically did the action of burying her brother to show she went against the king’s orders. She didn’t blame anyone for what she did or tried to deny it. She accepted the consequences.
On the other hand, Bartleby does not bring in the emotion that Antigone did. Bartleby shows a different type of political resistance. Bartleby is a character that makes the audience frustrated. His vocabulary is very limited to his phrase “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby is a scrivener, his job is to make copies of legal documents. Therefore when his boss tells him to make a copy, it’s expected that Bartleby will do so. We are quite surprised that he preferred not to make copies. This becomes frustrating to his boss the lawyer because his employee isn’t following his directions. Bartleby represents passive political resistance. His way of showing resistance is by not doing anything. Bartleby similar to Antigone is a threat to legal authority. The lawyer could have fired him on the spot because that was his right. The lawyer said, “I should have flown outright into a dreadful passion, scorned all further words, and thrust him ignominiously from my presence.”
Also, the lawyer plays an important character Bartleby the Scrivener. The lawyer is the authority. He is the boss, he gets to decide what his employees do. The lawyer doesn’t fire Bartleby instead he does the opposite, the lawyer becomes invested in him. The lawyer becomes obsessed trying to figure out who Bartleby is. As stated in the book Bartleby, The Scrivener “there was something about Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me but in a wonderful manner, touched and disconcerted me.” The lawyer goes as far as offering Bartleby his home and even giving the grub man money to make Bartleby the best food. No matter how odd Bartleby is, he has influence and got people interested in him. If all of the lawyer’s employees use the same tactic as Bartleby saying “I would prefer not to” then work is not complete. If everyone rebels against their authority by going against their orders, there will be a loss of legitimacy and chaos.
Melville’s goal with Bartleby was to get his audience to think about power in authority and resistance. Bartleby is a perfect example of someone who is going against the traditional order. Melville adds characters such as Gingernut, Nippers, and Turkey to contrast them to Bartleby. Gingernut, Nippers, and Turkey are docile and are constantly obeying the rules that the lawyer gives to them. The characters are examples of how people are supposed to act towards their authority. Bartleby doesn’t comply with the expectation, he is showing rebellion by resisting to a higher authority.
Self reliance as described by Emerson in Self-reliance and other essays is trust within yourself. Emerson would condone Bartleby and Antigone because they show individualism where Bartleby and Antigone are doing everything for themselves regardless of what others say. Both Bartleby and Antigone show self-reliance.Trust and living truthfully is something Emerson boasts about but at this age, it’s hard to achieve. People are no longer relying on themselves. As John Locke stated in the Second Treatise of Government, people leave a state of nature where people have complete freedom to do what they want to do for a government that does that for them. Emerson stated because of government people no longer rely on themselves. Bartleby shows self-reliance because he isn’t going along with authority. In the book Self-reliance and other essays, there is a quote ‘Infancy conforms to nobody’ This relates to Bartleby because when we think of infancy it’s a child-like stage where people live a carefree life. It seems like Bartleby wants to go back to this infancy stage where he is free to do what he wants but the government is a barrier for him. Since he’s an adult, he has to conform to the rules, that is the purpose of government, that is the purpose of the law, it is to follow and reinforce those rules. He doesn’t want to give up his freedom and his way of expressing that is by saying ‘I would prefer not to.’ Also, Antigone shows self-reliance because she is doing everything on her own. She isn’t being reliant on anyone else but herself, she has trust in herself that she can get through this alone. In contrast to Bartleby, Antigone is still committing an action to not only please herself but for others. Not to the king but higher Athenian deities. Overall Emerson would condone Bartleby and Antigone because they show individualism where Bartleby and Antigone are doing everything for themselves regardless of what others say.
The consequences for political resistance and authority for both these characters is death. For Antigone, the king of Thebes, Creon finds out that Antigone went against his orders and decides her punishment is death. Antigone knew the consequences before burying her brother, she was ready for death and decided to take her own life. This is different from Bartleby where he didn’t see death as his punishment. Bartleby didn’t expect prison, from the book Bartleby, The Scrivener, when the lawyer went to visit him, Bartleby was upset to see him. No matter all the efforts the lawyer made to keep Bartleby happy, Bartleby would not budge. He didn’t accept any of the lawyer’s offerings. Bartleby once in prison shut down, he didn’t want people to know him, he built a wall around himself and in the end, he died alone. In a different scenario where Antigone followed the king’s command and left her brother alone, she wouldn’t be dead. Same with Bartleby, if he listened to his boss and was cooperative with everyone he wouldn’t have died in prison. But both these characters wanted to resist authority.
Bartleby and Antigone showed political and authority resistance. Antigone’s form of resistance is active in which she physically went against the king’s orders regardless of the punishment. Bartleby’s resistance is passive because his way of refusing authority was to do nothing. Both these characters used political resistance by going against the authority commands, they showed self-reliance by being in charge of their actions and having trust within themselves, and both suffered the consequences of political resistance which was death. Bartleby and Antigone display the power of resistance and speaking on behalf of what you think is right.