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Shall We Debate the Greatest Line in Literature, or Would You Prefer Not To?

In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”[1]

I would prefer not to.

The phrase has a haunting quality to it. It lacks complete definition, like a ghost. It reverberates from another era, from a mode of thinking that is not dependent on modern logic or visual evidence. And like a ghost it appears from time to time, unannounced, 160 years after it was written. A woman wore it on a t-shirt at AWP. Mary Ruefle used it to describe Emily Dickinson’s life in her book Madness, Rack and Honey. It came back to me while writing my satirical novel, and I paraphrased it to describe the budding revelation in a character who had always shied away from confrontation (After a life of preferring not to…).

00298290.JPG“I would prefer not to” may be the greatest single line in literature. It seems so profound, yet is so vague as to mean a thousand different things, which may explain why it persists. The statement and Melville’s story (which by the way achieved little note when it was first published) have been studied and debated by hundreds of scholars, so I won’t go into the various theories here.[2]

I like the idea of preferring, of balancing the pluses and minuses inherent in a decision to come to the best possible course of action.

I like even more the idea of preferring not to, to weigh all the factors and decide that no, it’s not worth complying with what’s been suggested or commanded. It has an existential feel to it, a thoughtful rumination that connects even the most inconsequential choice to our larger lives. It means, in one sense, freedom from unnecessary compromise, or from buying into the practices and beliefs of a group, the fitting-in behavior by which many people live. It can also mean despair, the decision to opt out, completely, from the culture in which we find ourselves, as Bartleby did (and some critics believe Melville wanted to).[3]

It seems we don’t get to prefer not to anymore. Our government and corporate overlords prefer (or is that insist?) we follow the rules they have laid out for us, conform to their dictates about how we should live and what we should want. Prefer not to pay your taxes? Prefer not to have your online activities tracked? Every transaction, every interaction, every preference you reveal is now recorded, so it’s pretty hard to avoid becoming part of the system. Even my weekly screed is stored in a server somewhere, for posterity, or maybe evidence. I doubt Melville could have known how much the world would have changed in the century and a half since he wrote Bartleby, but I’m sure he suspected its nature would remain essentially the same. His phrase has as much meaning today as it did then.

I could go on, but I would prefer not to. Instead, let me ask what your choice is for the greatest line in literature…

[1] Bartleby the Scrivener, by Herman Melville, 1853

[2] You’re welcome

[3] If you really want to read more, here are some links: http://web.ku.edu/~zeke/bartleby/burling.html and  http://web.ku.edu/~zeke/bartleby/hunt.html


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


20 thoughts on “Shall We Debate the Greatest Line in Literature, or Would You Prefer Not To?

  1. I think context helps supply a lot of what makes a line good or superlative. Thus, while I’m not enamored enough of Hemingway to try to claim that he wrote the best line in literature, I think he comes up with a close second in quality to your Melville line. In “The Sun Also Rises,” when the faithless female character tries to tell the battle-injured-in-the-groin male character Jake that if only things with him had been normal they might have been happy together, he responds (and I think it’s the last line in the novel, which gives it a fine point of emphasis): “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” I find that line hard to top.

    Posted by shadowoperator | April 13, 2013, 1:43 PM
  2. Definitely in the running for greatest line. Maybe, if enough people respond, we could do a top ten. Hemingway’s line is especially poignant because it comes at the end, and seems to sum up not only the book, but the character’s (and Hemingway’s) take on life. There are dreams and there is reality, and although they may never intersect, isn’t it pretty to think they might? Thanks. Your comments always add so much to this blog.

    Posted by jpon | April 13, 2013, 2:16 PM
    • Thanks for the compliment; this blog always adds so much not only to my Saturday mornings, but to my life in general, by giving me a lot to think about. I often quote facts, figures, and fun trivia as well as important perspectives from your site to others all week long; they’ve gotten used to it by now, and some even say, “Well, what did you read this morning?” on a Saturday.

      Posted by shadowoperator | April 13, 2013, 2:32 PM
  3. It’s a marvelous phrase, Joe, on many levels as you explain. I can’t help but compare it to the way Joyce ends Ulysses with Molly Bloom’s soliloquy that ends with “yes I said yes I will Yes.”

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | April 13, 2013, 2:53 PM
  4. “To be, or not to be…” The enduring question of Western civilization. “I would prefer not to.” The enduring answer.
    But Hemingway is a diamond mine of brilliant lines, and Gatsby has it’s share. But clearly, you’d have to consider those three words in th Book of John, “It is finished.”

    And here’s the thing about The Saturday Morning Post: It’s the thing that starts me thinking on that day. It’s an easy read, but never a casual one.

    Posted by Jon Zech | April 13, 2013, 3:20 PM
    • Brilliant comment.

      Posted by Averil Dean | April 13, 2013, 7:39 PM
      • I assume you’re talking about Jon’s first paragraph, but I’ll take what I can get.

        Posted by jpon | April 13, 2013, 9:19 PM
      • See what your blog does, Joe? It makes people think. You always generate sparks from your readers. (Although I didn’t think to proof my comment. Two “Buts” two “Things” and a typo.)

        Posted by Jon Zech | April 13, 2013, 9:32 PM
      • I can only nod like a bobble-head since I haven’t read any of the classics and am therefore of no use to the conversation except as cheerleader.

        (I loved the post itself, too. *shakes pompoms*)

        Posted by Averil Dean | April 14, 2013, 1:54 AM
    • Beautifully said. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet around 1600; Melville wrote Bartleby in 1853. 160 years later, what is our response to this progression? What next line can our modern society offer?

      Posted by jpon | April 13, 2013, 9:27 PM
  5. Love this topic, Joe. My favorite first paragraph has always been from Toni Morrison’s SONG OF SOLOMON. The entire book is encapsulated in those few sentences.

    “On Wednesday, February 18, 1931, Robert Smith, a North Carolina Mutual Life insurance agent, teeters atop Mercy Hospital in an unnamed Michigan town. Wearing blue silk wings and promising to fly off the hospital roof, the formerly nondescript insurance agent draws a crowd of forty or fifty mostly African-American town residents. Mercy Hospital, known as “No Mercy Hospital” among locals because it does not admit blacks, stands at the end of a street called “Mains Avenue” by the post office but commonly labeled “Not Doctor Street.” The street received its nickname from the fact that a black physician, Dr. Foster, once lived and practiced there.”

    Posted by Teri | April 13, 2013, 3:55 PM
  6. First lines is a related topic that I love too–I once put a little test together to see if my writer friends could identify famous novel opening lines or paragraphs, one of which was Toni Morrison’s Beloved (124 was spiteful.)

    Posted by jpon | April 13, 2013, 9:32 PM
  7. My daughter’s first (and best, and most passionate, and most important) word was NO. She said/says it with such panache it has grown on me.

    Posted by girl in the hat | April 14, 2013, 1:57 AM
  8. The best line in English? “reason not the need” ain’t bad and neither is “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” then there’s one of my favorites: “The miracle has happened: I am happy.” (Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight).

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | April 14, 2013, 8:56 PM
    • I’m not familiar with that last one, but I hope to say it one day. (Maybe that’ll be the day I get a publisher.)

      Posted by jpon | April 14, 2013, 11:00 PM
  9. Well, in keeping with your selection (to which I defer, gladly), I could add “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

    Posted by Paul Lamb | April 15, 2013, 12:30 AM
  10. “So it goes.” It’s become a bit of a punchline, but in place punctuating “Slaughterhouse-5” it carries more sadness, resignation, and despair than any one phrase should be allowed to bear.

    Posted by Brian Santo | April 18, 2013, 10:21 PM

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