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Bartleby the Scrivener | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How is the narrator's reference to John Jacob Astor in Bartleby, the Scrivener an example of verbal irony?

John Jacob Astor was notorious for his ruthlessness. He made a fortune in the New York City real estate market, where he applied cutthroat tactics and participated in numerous property foreclosures. In the same paragraph Astor is mentioned, the narrator says of himself he is an "unambitious lawyer." It's hard to take this description at face value, considering the pride he takes in his relationship with Astor. This calls the narrator's personality and self-awareness into question. In fact, with his "snug business among rich men's bonds and mortgages and title-deeds," he is participating in Astor's moral crimes. One possible reading of the story is that the narrator's charitable behavior toward Bartleby is a way of atoning for this participation.

Who is the protagonist in Bartleby, the Scrivener?

While the title would lead one to believe Bartleby is the protagonist, the short story reveals otherwise. The narrator's reason for telling the tale is to share the story of Bartleby, "who was a scrivener of the strangest I ever saw or heard of." While Bartleby incites the action in the story, it is the narrator with whom the reader engages. He is a rounded character, with both flaws (including his inability to see himself clearly) and virtues. The narrator's struggles with how to deal with Bartleby and his moral zigzagging are the focus of the story, and so he is the main character.

How is the title character of Bartleby, the Scrivener static in both a literal and figurative sense?

Bartleby is a static character because he stays the same throughout the story, both literally and figuratively. From a literal perspective, he first appears in the narrator's office as "a motionless young man" and is "singularly sedate." He is often described in terms of a cadaver or a ghost. These descriptions foreshadow his eventual death. From a figurative perspective, Bartleby is a static character because he never changes. The actions Bartleby does take in the story revolve around inaction. He refrains from doing work, he refuses to leave the office, and he stops eating when he is taken to the Tombs. Ultimately, his death results from his last inaction.

What evidence of Melville's struggles as a writer can be found in Bartleby, the Scrivener?

Melville had great literary success at the beginning of his career as a novelist, but it had hit bottom when he published Bartleby, although he continued to write poetry and fiction until his death. Leo Marx, a critic, wrote in a 1953 essay that the story describes Melville's situation as a writer at that time. In the story, Bartleby's job is to write—to copy legal documents. At first he "did an extraordinary quantity of writing," but when asked to help the narrator complete another copy, he said "I would prefer not to" for the first time. He continues with his own writing but refuses to participate in examining copies with the other scriveners. His actions could be compared to a writer who wants artistic freedom without having to answer to the demands of a readership. In addition, the narrator and the clients whose work he copies exert financial control over others. Bartleby's refusal to do anything he prefers not to can be viewed as a rebuke against the demands of the finance world on the artist.

How does the phrase "I would prefer not to," repeated by the title character in Bartleby, the Scrivener impact the way the narrator views him?

The narrator says, "Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance." The narrator is shocked when Bartleby begins rejecting assignments. He says he is ready to fire Bartleby immediately "had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner." Yet Bartleby's use of the word prefer makes his resistance seem both polite and a matter of choice. The utterance of his key phrase is an inconclusive statement—never an outright no. Besides, the choice is not real because Bartleby "prefers" not to do anything: work, move, eat. Still, on multiple occasions, the narrator adds that Bartleby's manner disarms him and even prompts him to feel charitable toward his employee. Bartleby's phrasing also suggests the narrator could still override the preference and compel Bartleby to do the work. It gives the appearance of deferring the actual decision to the narrator—at the same time working to disarm the narrator so much that he is reluctant to force the issue.

In Bartleby, the Scrivener, how does the narrator's interaction with Turkey foreshadow the challenges he has with Bartleby?

Each day during his lunch break, Turkey drinks to excess. He returns to the office afterward, and the quality of his work suffers greatly. The narrator notes Turkey makes "blots upon my documents," "would ... be reckless ... and was rather noisy." The narrator retains Turkey because "he was in many ways a most valuable person to me." He goes on to praise his morning work. The narrator tells Turkey he could stop working in the afternoons and retain the same salary. Turkey does not accept the offer and insists he come to work in the afternoons because he is so valuable. He does a bit of wordplay with the narrator who is uncertain about how to respond; the narrator does not, and Turkey stays on. This is similar to the situation with Bartleby, as the narrator clearly will tolerate a large degree of eccentricity in his employees.

What role do food and drink play in Bartleby, the Scrivener?

Food is used to describe the personality and behaviors of characters about whom little is otherwise known. For example, the nicknames of Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut are all related to either food or drink. Turkey's personality is defined by his drinking habit, while that of Nippers is defined by his indigestion. The two switch roles each day because of the effect of food and drink: Turkey's noonday drinking renders him useless in the afternoon, just as Nippers's meal helps to settle his indigestion and makes him more useful. Ginger Nut's only function seems to be to fetch snacks of ginger nuts and cakes for the other employees. Bartleby seems to exist only on ginger nuts, and over time, he eats less and less. After his exile to prison he refuses to eat, saying he "prefer[s] not to dine" and starves to death. Refusing to eat is one way in which the enigmatic character expresses himself and sets himself apart from the other clerks.

What is the significance of the characters who are nameless or known only by nicknames in Bartleby, the Scrivener?

The narrator's employees seem to have been working together in the office for a significant time. Their eccentricities, as the narrator notes, complement each other. Despite the comfortable work situation, the employees do not know each other's names. Everyone has a nickname. While nicknames can be part of an informal atmosphere, in this case their use is because the office is only about work. The scriveners' nicknames emphasize the characters' lack of humanity and roundedness. The narrator himself does not have a name or a nickname. The anonymity of the characters suggests that everyone in the story except Bartleby is playing a "role" on Wall Street.

Why is Bartleby angry when the narrator visits him in prison at the end of Bartleby, the Scrivener?

Bartleby shows no emotion throughout the story. However, when the narrator visits him in prison, he seems angry. Bartleby says, "I know you ... and I want nothing to say to you." The narrator believes Bartleby is under the impression his boss is responsible for him being in jail. The narrator denies this and reflects that he is "keenly pained at his implied suspicion." However, the narrator does bear some responsibility because he abandoned Bartleby when he switched offices. Despite promising himself he would look after Bartleby, in the end he leaves Bartleby's fate in the hands of others: the landlord and other tenants, then the grub-man. Bartleby's anger stems from his recognition of the abandonment, and he chooses to starve to death in response.

What role does the scriveners' occupation play in Bartleby, the Scrivener?

The law that the narrator practices is related to property and wealth; he deals in "rich men's bonds and mortgages and title-deeds." The scriveners are cogs in this lawyer's practice, as emphasized by the sheer inhumanity of their work: they are mechanically copying records of other people's wealth. The focus of the story is Bartleby's choice to no longer participate in this business. When he later "squats" in the narrator's office, he is critiquing the work that the narrator does. He "claims" the property, asserting the right of the individual to a home despite legal and financial concerns. This aspect of his resistance is emphasized when the narrator asks "what earthly right" Bartleby has to stay in the office, because he pays neither rent nor taxes, nor is the property his. Bartleby, of course, answers nothing, his point having already been made.

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