“Bartleby the Dandy:” An Ode to Passive Resistance

Bartleby the Scrivener, living entirely on ginger-nuts, is probably one of the most impressive characters of the 19th century short-fiction and arguably the best character of American realist author Herman Melville. The novella, narrated by a Wall-Street lawyer, whose whole persona was squeezed under the legal documents, under the disciplined hands typing and retyping, copying and recopying them, manifests a character; one might say the anti-hero, of the story. Described by the narrator as “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn,” he later becomes a mystic apparition, ginger-nut for the numbed mind of the lawyer who had skillfully escaped questioning his condition before.


As the story develops, the seemingly human machine, sitting at his desk, facing the dead brick wall and vigorously typing (“He seemed to gorge himself on my documents”) shows reluctance towards doing other errands apart from his own, articulating the ambiguous phrase “I would prefer not to.” This reaches to the extent of him preferring not to do any work at all, dangling in the office all day, and looking at the dead brick wall.

As a round character, Bartleby encapsulates the mechanized status quo of the 19th century and reacts to it with a passive resistance, acting via inaction. I assume it’s relevant to introduce here a contemporary novelist, Albert Cossery, who has reinterpreted the 19th century “Dandy,” thus proclaiming himself the modern embodiment of it. Dandy is the one who refers to work through loathing, who has no home, and whose home is everywhere. Cossery, as such a being, celebrated the underground movements and withstood any type of power (power always being political by the nature).  He admired Arthur Rimbaud, the glorious French poet, who ceased writing poetry choosing to live like a poem.

However, the dandy is inevitably an ignored and forgotten man, flavored with an existential sadness, even melancholy, which, of course, takes us back to Bartleby. “Immediately then the thought came sweeping across me, what miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed! His poverty is great; but his solitude, how horrible.” Bartleby, through his immobility transcends the power system, reaching to the existential sublimity, and eventually dies under a tree, because he preferred not to eat anything.

It is not arbitrary that the subtitle of the novella is “A Story of Wall Street,” and one cannot escape from the political connotations that the novella brings with it. Being written in 1853, “Bartleby the Scrivener” became the predecessor of the 2008 Occupy Wall Street demonstration, predicting the conflicts that the institution of greedy pursuit of interest would bring, and also suggesting passive resistance as the best way to withstand it. De facto, the philosophy of Dandyism is the most threatening reaction to power, as it realizes the absurdity of power and subverts it by doing nothing. But one should understand that nothing is always more than nothing.


Anush Ter-Khachatryan

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