Melville Stories

by: Herman Melville

Important Quotations Explained

"I would prefer not to."

This is the most famous line in Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," and perhaps one of the most famous lines in American literature. Whenever the Lawyer asks his scrivener Bartleby to do something, Bartleby responds, "I would prefer not to." At one point, the Lawyer questions him closely: "You will not?" and Bartleby responds, "I prefer not." The prefer, however, doesn't mean that Bartleby will do it despite his preference. Bartleby assumes a polite tone with his boss by using the term "prefer," and there is irony in the choice. If he says he "will not" do something, the Lawyer can easily interpret that as misbehavior and fire him. But as long as he says "prefer," Bartleby makes it seem as if the Lawyer is being pushy, or just asking for a favor rather than giving an order. Bartleby's response is so calm and delivered so rationally that the Lawyer briefly thinks that he himself must be the crazy one, and he has to ask his other copyists for confirmation that he's right.