Are We All Just a Bunch of Sheep According to Herman Melville?

Are We All Just a Bunch of Sheep According to Herman Melville?

If someone random were to ask you the question, “How are you?” would you actually tell them how you are? Unless they were your really close friend or family member you are most likely to just say something along the lines of “Good,” “Great!” or “Alright,” and then continue on with your day. Why is that? 

Or, do you ever get irritated when someone doesn’t hold the door for you? It could be a complete stranger and you still have this expectation that they will hold the door for you and are very disappointed when they don’t follow this societal “rule.” Why is that? They are a complete stranger!

In Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville explores this idea of social expectations of our American culture. Bartleby is hired as a scrivener (secretary) for the narrator’s office and simply refuses to do any of the work he is told; even the simplest of tasks he refuses to complete. Bartleby does not through a fit or yell at the narrator but refuses in probably the most polite way possible: 

“I would prefer not to.”

Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville

All of his responses are “I would prefer not to.” Every time he says it, the narrator is left dumbfounded and speechless. It is not like Bartleby flat out refuses by saying “no I don’t want to” or even “No thank you” he just takes this odd middle ground of “preferring” not to. This weird middle ground area is very tricky for the narrator to navigate because he wasn’t expecting it at all, and it’s hard to fire someone who would “prefer not to” instead of someone who just says no. The first experience Bartleby and the narrator have together is incredibly uncomfortable and Melville does an excellent job of making this tension and embarrassment reaches the reader very personally.

“I stood gazing at him awhile, as he went on with his own writing, and then reseated myself at my desk. This is very strange, thought I. What had one best do? But my business hurried me. I concluded to forget the matter for the present, reserving it for my future leisure. So calling Nippers from the other room, the paper was speedily examined.”

Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville

Using Bartleby, Melville brings about this interesting idea of what our society expects of us and what happens when we challenge that expectation. In sociology and psychology terms, we have a set of social scripts for everything we do. For instance, when we go to the store, there is a certain script we follow, similar to a routine. That script is never challenged because that is what we all do and it is very comfortable for all of us. When your boss asks you to do something you are most likely to do it or talk yourself out of it probably using more words than “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby’s polite refusal disrupts the office script that the narrator is expecting and as a result, Bartleby gains a sort of power over him. 

Our society is so comfortable in it’s routine and with its scripts that we have literally zero ideas what to do and/or are irritated when the script is disrupted. In this sense, we are sheep. We all follow the same rules, have the same expectations, and don’t know what to do when someone says “no.” 

I don’t think that Melville was taking a stance that we should say “no” more often, I think he was just bringing to our attention our “following instincts” and showed how uncomfortable receiving a “no” is. It is very interesting to look at our society in that way, but it does not mean that you should start being rude to people for the sake of just changing the scripts it is just cool to see human nature and sociology in a work of fiction. We are creatures of habit, but I’ve bet you’ve never thought of it like that. Cheers to being a fellow sheep.



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