A ridiculous idea about preference.
Although analysis has shifted towards discussing the narrator of Bartelby, The Scrivener, there is still much mystery surrounding the character of Bartelby and what he represents in the story. Bartelby’s famous phrase, “I would prefer not to” is a problematic one, in that it does not explicitly state Bartelby’s intentions. It is merely a preference which neither denies or confirms his actual willingness to complete a task. A choice, on the other hand, is something completely different. If Bartelby had said, I will not, he would have been making a choice. There are some distinctions, I feel, that must be established in order to understand the difference between a choice and a preference.
When one makes a choice, they are making a definite decision as what they do or do not want to do, see, experience, etc. A choice is much more expressive of one’s personality than a preference, in that a preference is an expression of what one would do, whereas a choice concerns what they will do. Bartelby’s preference, from that perspective, is problematic in that he would rather not do a task assigned to him, but that does not mean that he will not do it. His employer is unable, it seems, to understand this. When Bartelby says to him, “I would prefer not to”, the employer interprets Bartelby’s preference as an expression of his will rather than a mere preference. This illustrates a confusion as to what the will truly is, and how it relates to the decisions we make.
One of the prominent interpretations of Bartelby, The Scrivener is that it is a critique of western capitalism. The narrator represents a participant of the doctrine. He is used to expressions of the will which will allow him to earn profit or not. Bartelby’s preference to not accomplish his task puts the narrator in an awkward position, because capitalism seems to operate on expressions of the will rather than preference. The preference represents, in a sense, idealism. It is an expression of what we would do. Along with what we would do are several disclaimers. Often it is said that I would do X if it weren’t for Y, or something along those lines. In the case of Bartelby, he uses preference to show that he would prefer not to do this task. Were he to express his will he would be making a definite decision as to whether or not he wants to participate in the construct of capitalism, which he, like everyone else in society, obviously cannot do without great sacrifice. That being said, Bartelby’s preference, it seems, represents the part of society which does not subscribe to the capitalist mindset, yet lives within a world which runs on capitalist principles. It is an expression of hope for a different world in which one does not have to accomplish tasks to earn money to pay the bills, support a family, etc. It is, perhaps, a wish for change which, like Bartelby, is vague and unclear.