Henry David Thoreau suggests several radical ideas to change the American government in his essay Resistance to Civil Government, written in protest of slavery and the Mexican-American war in 1849. He boldly asserts that it is on the citizens who desire change to bring change, that they cannot sit idly by and wait for the opportunity of change. They must be actively searching for ways to improve whatever it is they see wrong and ready to do whatever is necessary to bring change, most importantly he says without resorting to bloodshed (Thoreau describes a scenario of refusing to pay taxes, saying “if a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them.” Thoreau’s overall dissatisfaction with the American government, along with the awareness of a much needed change and the steps which must be taken to achieve it can surprisingly be directly linked to the character of Bartleby, the enigmatic and downright demented copyist featured in Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener. Thoreau and Bartleby share some striking similarities among both their personal characteristics and with the worlds they must take part in – both are visibly disgruntled with the system they are a part of (Thoreau’s government and Bartleby’s corporate struggle), and both show signs of wanting to improve their conditions, the only difference being Thoreau is much louder in vocalizing his methods of protest while Bartleby silently enacts his own similar methods, coincidentally putting into practice what Thoreau preaches. While Thoreau ends his essay on an optimistic note of potentially bettering the country, Bartleby’s direct experimentation with his non-violent methods leave an ominous message for the future of such methods.
Thoreau really holds no restraint in condemning those who he feels need to be condemned in his essay. He opens by restating his mutinous opinion on government as a whole which he has expressed in writing time and time again, saying “that government is best which governs least.” The possible perversion of man, he argues, is what is potentially the most hazardous to the people, as government puts a select few in power, and any corruption within those in power will surely trickle down in some form to the populace being governed. Moving away from the suggestion of total anarchy, Thoreau casts blame on all those who express their opposition for issues such as slavery and the Mexican-American war but limit their action in doing something to stop these issues, saying that it is on the people to insist upon and make change (similar to his argument in Slavery in Massachusetts, where he argues: “the law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free”). He says that “it is not a man’s duty… to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong… but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.” For people to visibly rid their support of the American government’s stance on slavery Thoreau suggests people should stop paying their taxes, as taxes are the primary source of fuel from which the government can thrive. If the government does not receive money from taxes, then it can no longer properly function as funds are a necessity for a functional government, and without a functional government the people can decide on issues for themselves, again instead of leaving choices up to a small number of people in power. He stresses how action against the system is the only way to overcome it, and that confining to the processes of the system (processes such as voting) will do nothing to change it – “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it.” Refusing to pay taxes directly goes against the system by refusing to take part in it, as opposed to voting for lower taxes if the option comes available and hoping that the decrease in available capital will make the government less efficient.
Arguably the most important point Thoreau makes is that this revolution against the government cannot come from violence or bloodshed, as committing such atrocities would liken the general public to the corrupt government who allows for them in the first place. He calls his tax-evasion method “a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.” If change is going to occur it will be because of the civility of the people in the way they demand it, an idea which was relatively unheard of and unpracticed as of that time (note that this essay was written before Gandhi leading massive peaceful protests in India, in fact this essay helped inspire Gandhi in the first place). Despite the possibility of “peaceable revolution” failing, Thoreau ends certain that this idea will bring necessary change.
Viewing the story through the lens of a peaceful protester, Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener puts to practicum all of the ideas Thoreau puts forward in his essay. The story starts with a narrator describing his law office in a perfect equilibrium: while Turkey works well in the morning and is drunk and sloppy with his copying in the afternoon, Nippers is plagued with indigestion in the morning but works well in the afternoon. There was an increase in the amount of papers which needed to be copied however, so the narrator employs Bartleby, a “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn” individual with a completely unknown background. Bartleby works quite well in the beginning, furiously copying away “as if long famishing for something to copy.” Not long after however he begins to reject the duties assigned to him by the narrator, only responding to the boss’ requests with his repeated catchphrase “I would prefer not to.” Puzzling the workers in the office to no end, the narrator becomes captivated with Bartleby, his background and just why exactly he would not do what was asked of him, yet Bartleby is steadfast in not divulging any information about himself, leaving the narrator as well as the reader quite stupefied. Bartleby continues to “prefer not” to do everything asked of him all throughout the story, leading to the law office everything revolves around being moved, his eventual imprisonment and death due to “preferring not” to eat.
There has been much debate around why exactly Bartleby “preferred” not to do anything asked of him by the narrator, with critics forming all sorts of opinions stemming from Bartleby reflecting a depressed Melville after the commercial failure of Moby Dick to Bartleby being simply deranged and therefore unexplainable. Evidence is littered throughout the story however that Bartleby does in fact have method to his madness, in that he is protesting the corrupted corporate world which he must be a part of in order to sustain himself and live. The one puzzle piece the narrator leaves us at the end of the story, the one thing which could remotely explain Bartleby’s bizarre actions is that he previously came from a “dead-letter” office, an office which destroys all undeliverable mail for the sake of protecting the sender’s and/or receiver’s identity. The most valuable piece of information to be absorbed from this short passage, a statement which seems to be constantly overlooked by Bartleby theorists, is that Bartleby “had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration.” His termination had in no way reflected his performance on the job, or even had to do with anything that he could possibly control, instead he is let go due to purely bureaucratic reasons, some “shuffling at the top.” Being terminated in such a way from a job he potentially enjoyed (it is assumed that to have the job in the first place he had to apply for it, and to apply Bartleby had to have some sort of interest in the dead-letter office) could have easily led to his disillusionment with the entire corporate structure, one which unfairly punishes hard workers (we can also assume that Bartleby has the potential to be a hard worker since his performance in the beginning as a scrivener was well-above satisfactory) for reasons which are entirely beyond them. Unfortunately Bartleby must continue to be a cog in the corporate machine since his job brings him the necessities to live, so he applies to the narrator’s law office as a scrivener. Somewhere along the way though his disillusionment with the entire system must have become apparent and Bartleby decides to take action in the most peaceful way possible – by “preferring not” to do work. He is not saying that he is unable to do the tasks asked of him, he is saying that he would rather not, with his reasoning possibly being that he would prefer not to continue the unjust circumstances and actions the corporate world is capable of creating
With this mindset of Bartleby’s character, a connection can easily be seen between Bartleby and Thoreau. Both of them are stuck in a process which they must be a part of (the government and the corporate world), both have been wronged although being a complacent member (Thoreau’s hard earned tax money is used to fuel a war he disagrees with and Bartleby is initially fired for nothing he could control), and both seek to correct the system by bringing it down. Both of the processes the two are protesting are even similar in content – both the government and the corporate world are run by a few select individuals (the dominant political party in charge and in Bartleby’s case the narrator) whose potential corruption will invariably ruin those underneath them. Most importantly though Bartleby actually puts into action the peaceful suggestions Thoreau suggests though, not waiting for the system around him to change but trying to make the change he wants himself, effectively taking the extra step and refusing to do what was asked of him. Instead of depriving his system with the necessary funds to keep it operational like Thoreau, Bartleby serves deprivation through starving the system of another resource it is dependent on: labor. Much like how Thoreau hopes to render the government useless, bringing the power back to the people, Bartleby could hope to make the corporate world ineffective and bring everyone to an equal playing field. Notable also is the method Bartleby chooses to protest, which is exactly what Thoreau asks of the people. Bartleby could have easily been a disgruntled employee and could have “gone postal,” but he does not lower himself to the level of cruelty the corporate would is capable of getting to and instead seeks change through peaceful resistance.
The most depressing realization of this comparison though is that while Thoreau ends his essay optimistic that peaceful protest will create change, Bartleby’s actual peaceful protest and death creates absolutely no change whatsoever. His refusal to do work is an utter failure. The only change he creates is the moving of the office he works in to a place further down the street where its operations continue. Instead of leaving the world a martyr for the working class, his actions leave the narrator with his head cocked sideways and shoulders shrugged, ready to tell the world a story of “a scrivener the strangest I ever saw or heard of.” The narrator is so thick-headed to the world around him, patting himself on the back for thinking that he is doing such a charitable act in keeping Bartleby on the payroll that he fails to realize Bartleby’s powerful message of protest, who stretches to as far lengths as starving himself. In the end Bartleby dies and the corporate world continues unfazed, probably replacing the forgotten Bartleby with just another “cog” who is apathetic to the potential injustices around him, someone who could at any time be laid off due to “a change in the administration.”
What was originally an absurd story about a copyist who for unknown reasons refuses to do his work, Bartleby, the Scrivener becomes an example of how ineffective civil disobedience can be in bringing change when compared to the writings of Thoreau. This leaves the fate of Thoreau’s pleas for standing up to the corruption of the government in a shaky future, as Bartleby proves that creating change certainly is not as easy as it looks. Perhaps more dire, direct actions do need to be taken in order for entities as large as the American government and the corporate world to change, all we are left with in Bartleby however is an amount of protest not being enough.