Launchpad: "Bartleby, the Scrivener," by Herman Melville

photographic portrait of Herman MelvilleDirections: This Launchpad, adapted from www.WhatSoProudlyWeHail.org, provides background materials and discussion questions to enhance your reading and understanding of Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” After reading the background, turn to read the story itself.

To help you understand the story and its wider significance, there are a series of questions for reflection. After discussing or thinking about these questions, click on the videos to hear editors Amy A. Kass, Leon R. Kass, and Diana Schaub converse with guest host Wilfred McClay about the story. These videos are meant to raise additional questions and augment discussion, not replace it.

About the Author | Summary | Read the Story


Thinking about the Story

Unlike its basic plot, the story’s meaning and implications are far from simple. So, we will proceed slowly, starting with what we learn of the characters, and then, moving to the heart of story, the relation between Bartleby and the lawyer. We conclude this section by attending to the story’s short coda.

The Characters

Early in the story, the narrator/lawyer says: “Ere introducing the scrivener (i.e., Bartleby), as he first appeared to me, it is fit I make some mention of myself, my employés, my business, my chambers, and general surroundings; because some such description is indispensable to an adequate understanding of the chief character [Bartleby] about to be presented.” Following this lead, and limiting ourselves to the first five pages of the story, look at each in turn:

The lawyer—what is he like?

  • What does it mean to be considered by others as “an eminently safe man?”
  • What do you make of his “profound conviction” that the easiest life is the best? Is the lawyer an ambitious man? What sort of business does he run?
  • The narrator mentions three times his friendship with John Jacob Astor, the United States’ first multi-millionaire who made his fortune through fur-trading and smuggling opium. What do we learn about the narrator from his mention of Astor? Why is he so proud of the connection?
  • The narrator is working as the Master of Chancery, a government office, when the story begins. He describes the position as “not a very arduous office, but very pleasantly remunerative.” What do we learn about the lawyer from his description of this office? Why is he so angry when the position is eliminated?
  • Why doesn’t the lawyer tell us his name?

The employés, i.e., the two scriveners, Turkey and Nippers, and the office boy, Ginger Nut—what are they like?

  • What is the work of a scrivener?
  • What do the attitudes and ways of his scriveners tell us about the lawyer as an employer? As a human being?

The lawyer’s office and general surroundings—what are they like?
Focusing now on the “advent” of Bartleby describe:

  • Bartleby—what is he like?

Describe the work quarters he has been given. What would it be like to work in such an office? WATCH: What is the lawyer like? What are his employees like?

WATCH: What is the work of a scrivener? What is Bartleby and the lawyer’s relationship with letters?

Bartleby’s Conduct with the Lawyer

Lithograph of a mid-19th century law office“It is, of course,” the lawyer/narrator explains, “an indispensable part of a scrivener’s business to verify the accuracy of his copy, word by word.” And, as we soon learn, “common usage and common sense” require copyists to assist, as well, in the proofreading of others’ copy, and to help out with other office tasks. But when Bartleby is asked, on the third day of his employment, to help proofread a document, he says, “I would prefer not to.” And, after twenty-plus other requests, Bartleby makes twenty-plus similar replies. We watch as Bartleby’s responses—almost all negative preferences, stated mildly but firmly and without anger or impatience—gradually extend from preferring not to proofread, then to copying anything, then to doing any tasks or activities whatsoever, even eating. He becomes more and more passive, gradually withdrawing more and more into his “hermitage,” his “dead-wall reveries,” and himself. To the lawyer, he gradually appears more and more like a “ghost,” an “apparition,” and a “cadaver.”

  1. How should we regard Bartleby’s responses to the lawyer?
  2. What does Bartleby’s strange appearance suggest about his attitude toward other people? Toward work or activity, in general? Toward the world?
  3. Why does Bartleby “prefer not to” do more and more actions as the story progresses?
  4. Is there a difference between stating one’s preferences (negatively or positively) and imposing one’s will? Does “I would prefer not to” differ from “I will not”?
  5. Is it possible to say why Bartleby acts as he does? Or, is he a mystery beyond comprehension?

WATCH: How does the lawyer respond to Bartleby? Does he understand Bartleby?

The Lawyer’s Conduct toward Bartleby

In responding to Bartleby, the lawyer “rall[ies] his stunned faculties” but becomes annoyed; he is repeatedly “disarmed” and “unmanned” by him but also and “in a wonderful manner touched and disconcerted”; he is full of pity but also repulsion; he is “thunderstruck” by Bartleby but recognizes his “wondrous ascendancy” over him.

After discovering that Bartleby lives in his office, he feels “stinging” and “fraternal” melancholy—we are both “sons of Adam,” he realizes—but he instantly rejects it as “sad fancyings.” Indeed, in several places, he describes his responses, using Biblical (e.g., “a pillar of salt”), generally religious, and specifically Christian references.

But despite his mixed responses and his appeals to religion, he tries (several times) to dismiss Bartleby, assuming after each such decision that Bartleby will heed his word. When Bartleby continues to stand fast, the lawyer instead moves his own offices. When questioned about Bartleby by the lawyer who took up occupancy in his former office, the lawyer, like Peter with respect to Jesus, three times denies any relation to or knowledge of him. Yet he will voluntarily converse with Bartleby two more times, trying again on both occasions to help him by offering, among other things, to take him to his own home, and later, after Bartleby is removed to the Tombs, by making sure that he is well fed.

  1. How does the lawyer see Bartleby? Does he see him as anything more than an employee or “Bartleby, the Scrivener”?
  2. What do you think of the lawyer’s treatment of Bartleby? How would you act if you were in the lawyer’s place?
  3. What is the source of Bartleby’s “wondrous ascendancy” over the lawyer? Or, more plainly, why does the lawyer put up with him? If you were the lawyer, would you have put up with him?
  4. Do you think the lawyer learns anything from Bartleby? If not, why not? If yes, what does he learn? (In this regard, think particularly about what he might mean when he says, “For a few moments I was turned into a pillar of salt,” as well as his many other biblical references, including his pronouncement, when he finds Bartleby dead: he lies “with kings and counsellors” [cf. Job 3:11-15]). If you don’t think the lawyer learns anything from Bartleby, what should he have learned? What have you learned?

WATCH: Does the lawyer, on balance, “do well by” Bartleby–or not?

Coda

Image of Trinity Church in New YorkEarly in 1853, Melville was asked by Putnam Magazine, the nation’s leading literary monthly, to contribute a work of short fiction. Apparently, he began by writing a story about a young wife who waits seventeen years for news from her husband, who left home to find work. As Melville conceived the story, the mailbox was a reminder of the passage of time: Unused, it rots and falls apart. Word never comes. For unknown reasons, this story was abandoned, but the forlorn mailbox and the absent mail seem to have found themselves into the Dead Letter Office, which is mentioned in the coda to “Bartleby, The Scrivener,” the story that was published at the end of the same year. In the coda, the mention of the Dead Letter Office is intended to give us some idea about the life of Bartleby prior to the events narrated in the story. But the lawyer/narrator specifically warns us that the information he divulges is an “item of rumor”: and “hence, how true it is I cannot now tell.” He includes it, he tells us, because of its “suggestive interest” to him and possibly to us, his readers, as well.

  1. Does the coda help you to better understand Bartleby? If so, in what way(s)?
  2. What would it have been like to work in the Dead Letter Office? What effect do you think it had on Bartleby, and why? How do you think his work in the Dead Letter Office may have changed the way he viewed his work as a scrivener?
  3. Does the coda help you to better understand the lawyer? Does it change your assessment of him—for the better or for the worse?
  4. What is the meaning of the lawyer’s final exclamation, “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”?

Thinking with the Story

This story, like the others in What So Proudly We Hail, is, of course, interesting in itself. But, again like the others, it can also be read as a mirror in which we can see ourselves as human beings and as American citizens, and through which we can become more thoughtful about what our national and civic identity might mean and require. This story invites reflection, especially about our personal and civic attitudes towards our neighbors: about the need for the virtue of compassion, and what it entails; and about the symbolic and literal meaning of “erecting walls” between ourselves and our neighbors. It also invites us to think about some of the implications of our American principles and ways.

Doing for Others

As the story unfolds, the lawyer refers to Bartleby in multiple ways: as his employee, as a friend, and as an “incurably forlorn” fellow human being—one of the “sons of Adam.” But until the very end, despite the multiple possible relationships that these references imply, the lawyer constantly tries to do something for Bartleby. Indeed, one is tempted to see all of his exchanges with Bartleby, as well as all his efforts to “help him,” as an endless succession of dead letters, an endless and futile effort to find remedies.

  1. Was the lawyer right to try to help Bartleby? Why didn’t Bartleby respond to his offers of help?
  2. How are people like Bartleby best understood? As human beings with problems to be solved? As fellow sufferers in need of companionship or hope? In some other way?
  3. Does the following speech by the lawyer about how people behave with respect to the suffering of others tell us more about the lawyer/narrator or more about all people, ourselves included?

So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul rid of it.

  1. What does your response to the previous question suggest about our obligations to our neighbors and fellow citizens? What do we owe to one another?

“A Story of Wall Street”: Communicating with Others

A depiction of Wall Street, New York in 1850There are varying accounts of how Wall Street derived its name, but a generally accepted version traces it to an earthen wall on the northern boundary of the 17th century New Amsterdam settlement, erected, it is thought, to protect against encroachment by New England colonists or incursions by Native Americans. Though the original wall has long since disappeared, the story’s subtitle, “A Story of Wall Street,” points us to another general theme that Melville invites us to consider: the symbolic and general meaning and consequences of erecting walls.

  1. Do walls or “fences,” as Frost’s famous poem, “Mending Wall,” states, “make good neighbors”?
  2. Is the problem-solving mentality a way, whether intended or not, of avoiding the realities of suffering and pain? By trying to “help” Bartleby, is the lawyer avoiding dealing with the source of his suffering?
  3. Can walls aid, as well as diminish, communication between people? Think of the walls within the office—both the one which Bartleby stares at, but also the “walls” that the lawyer has erected to separate himself from Bartleby: the “high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice. And thus, in a manner, privacy and society were conjoined.”
  4. How can communication between people break down barriers between them? Can people still communicate if they do not share the same assumptions about the world? (The lawyer, you may recall, says that he has “assumptions” [about the reasonableness of people and the world] but Bartleby has “preferences.”) What are examples of shared assumptions that might have been necessary for the lawyer and Bartleby to have real communication? What shared assumptions, if any, might be necessary for participation in civic life?

WATCH: What is the meaning of the walls in the story? The subtitle, “A Story of Wall-Street”?

Questions about America

Wall Street is historically, economically, and symbolically a central American place and institution. Stones from the original wall of Wall Street were later used in building the first City Hall. After the American Revolution, the first Congress assembled there in 1789; there, George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States. Originally inhabited by private residences, Wall Street was by Melville’s time home to many law firms and well on its way to becoming the hub of financial markets that it is today. Thus, although the story of Bartleby may be read as a universal human tale, the setting itself, as well as the people who work there, invite us to think specifically about America and about the issues the story raises for us as American citizens.

  1. Individualism. Might either the lawyer or Bartleby—or both—represent the downside of American individualism? Does the depiction of either of these characters, both of whom live isolated lives without families, suggest something about the sufficiency of the American emphasis on independence? How would the story be different if Bartleby or the lawyer had families with whom they lived?
  2. Enterprise and Commerce. What does the story have to say about how commerce affects our lives? According to one interpretation of the story, “Wall Street is a place where the soul comes to die.” Does the story support this reading?
  3. Religion. Do the many religious references in the story convey any suggestions about the importance of religion in America? Is Melville suggesting—and if so, would you agree—that religion is needed to make America’s utilitarian and materialistic spirit more humane? Is it strong enough to do so?
  4. Law and Justice. Does Melville’s treatment of the lawyer(s) imply a criticism of law in America? Does Melville’s reference to the “Halls of Justice” as the “Tombs” and his brief treatment of the jail imply a criticism of justice in America? What would justice have looked like for Bartleby?
  5. Reason and Practical Rationality. What can we learn from the story about the strengths and weaknesses of America’s love of rationality, practicality, and useful activities? Do you think we as a society place too much or too little emphasis on these traits? Why?
  6. Is Melville’s story a cautionary tale? If so, about what is he cautioning us about?

WATCH: Do the many religious references in the story, especially to Christianity, convey any suggestions about the importance of religion in America?