Directions: 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.
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.
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?
The employés, i.e., the two scriveners, Turkey and Nippers, and the office boy, Ginger Nut—what are they like?
The lawyer’s office and general surroundings—what are they like?
Focusing now on the “advent” of Bartleby describe:
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?
“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.”
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.
Early 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.
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.
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.
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.
There 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.
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.