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Bartleby the Scrivener | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


How do the walls mentioned throughout Bartleby, the Scrivener emphasize the cold, mechanical nature of capitalism?

The office is located on Wall Street, where historically a literal wall had existed along the old northern border of New York City. This connects the concept of capitalism and wealth to the theme of isolation. Walls continue to isolate the characters inside the lawyer's office. Every window in the office is described as looking out at a wall or at "no view at all." From Bartleby's entrance into the office setting, he is walled off from the rest of the staff. The narrator refers to Bartleby's work space as a hermitage, even before it's discovered he's living there. The hermitage does have a window. However, the view is of a "dead brick wall" and it is "black by age and everlasting shade." The narrator notes that Bartleby often stares out the window at the wall. The walls symbolize the way in which he is trapped in a low-interest, low-wage job in a capitalist endeavor.

How does the narrator's description of his scriveners in the opening pages of Bartleby, the Scrivener prepare for the arrival of Bartleby in the office?

The narrator seems to hold the scriveners at arm's length, as if they are oddities to be observed and exclaimed over, despite having worked with them throughout his 30-year career. He looks at them as a group of men who inevitably have eccentricities "at which good-natured gentlemen might smile, and sentimental souls might weep." He is also a man who is averse to conflict, "an eminently safe man" who seldom loses his temper. He tolerates his peculiar employees Nippers and Turkey, describes them as valuable, and declares them to be "a good natural arrangement under the circumstances." The stage is thus set for the arrival of Bartleby, "the strangest [scrivener] I ever saw or heard of."

Why is the narrator so confused by the title character in Bartleby, the Scrivener?

The narrator's life revolves around his business. The first two lines reveal he is an older man who has been in business for 30 years. Later, he reveals he has done business with John Jacob Astor. Bartleby is brought on because of an increase in clients after the narrator is appointed to the office of Master in Chancery. Even the placement of Bartleby's office is to enhance Bartleby's usefulness to the business. The narrator places Bartleby out of sight but does not want to "remove him from my voice." He wants Bartleby to be available for any "trivial occasions." When Bartleby exerts independence and refuses an assignment, the narrator is confused. His world has always been about work. Someone who does not find satisfaction in upholding a good work ethic is difficult for the workaholic narrator to relate to. Bartleby upsets the hierarchical order of the office and implicitly rejects the value of the thing (work) the narrator values most.

How might the lack of dialogue and action on the part of the title character of Bartleby, the Scrivener contribute to the multiple interpretations of the story's meaning?

One way to judge a character is through speech. Throughout the story, Bartleby only speaks to the narrator and only when the narrator speaks to him first. The majority of the dialogue credited to him is the repeated phrase "I would prefer not to." His other speeches are, for the most part, similar expressions of preferences for inaction. There are two notable departures from this pattern. One is Bartleby's reason for deciding not to do any more writing: "Do you not see the reason for yourself," he says "indifferently." Another is his response to the narrator, who has visited him in prison: "I know you ... and I want nothing to say to you." In the first instance, Bartleby is inviting the narrator to share his vision of their work, something to which the narrator is blind. In the second he is blaming the narrator for abandoning him. Both responses, however, deflect the focus away from Bartleby and onto the narrator's reaction to them. Another way to judge a character is through actions. However, Bartleby is infamous for his passivity. His preference is to say and do nothing. Finally, characters are judged by what others say about them. With the exception of the narrator, the characters in the story rarely talk about or interact with Bartleby. His colleagues only talk about Bartleby when the narrator brings him up. The grub-man has limited interaction with Bartleby. The only person who has any type of meaningful interaction with Bartleby is the narrator, and those interactions are limited in scope. In addition, the narrator changes his mind often about Bartleby. For all these reasons, Bartleby's motivations are open to debate. The revelation at the end of the story that Bartleby worked in the Dead Letter Office provides some context for understanding him, but even the narrator is unsure what the information means or whether it is relevant.

How is it an example of situational irony when the only way the narrator can rid himself of Bartleby in Bartleby, the Scrivener is by moving offices?

Bartleby is the employee and was brought into the office by the narrator. By all rights he is the one who should be leaving. However, the office becomes his space. The narrator himself recognizes this. He fears Bartleby will "keep occupying my chambers, and denying my authority." The narrator worries about Bartleby outliving him because he might then "claim possession of my office by right of his perpetual occupancy." The employee forces the hand of his employer. If the narrator is to be rid of Bartleby he must take action, which means moving from his office. The fact that the narrator's law practice deals with property ownership adds to the situational irony. This turn of events is unexpected. Bartleby's action of "squatting" in the office upends the capitalist structure that the narrator protects.

Why does the narrator experience mixed emotions when leaving his office and saying good-bye to Bartleby in Bartleby, the Scrivener?

Throughout the story the narrator grapples with his responsibility toward Bartleby and what he might learn from or gain from Bartleby's refusals. He expects to be overjoyed when the day comes to leave his office and Bartleby behind. However, this is not the case. After leaving the office, he reenters with "[his] heart in my mouth." He says, "Good-bye, Bartleby; I am going—good-bye, and God some way bless you." The narrator also tries to give Bartleby money, reflecting his sense of sympathy and charity, but the scrivener lets it drop to the floor. While Bartleby is not interested in the narrator's money, he does need his protection. By leaving the office, the narrator has rejected the role of protector. The narrator knows he is abandoning Bartleby, and his conscience causes his mixed emotions.

In Bartleby, the Scrivener, how do the dual obligations of Christianity and work clash in the narrator's treatment of Bartleby?

The narrator's life revolves around work. It is his first and seemingly his only obligation. At one point in the story, the narrator makes Bartleby an obligation as well. He believes it is his mission in life, assigned to him by "an all-wise Providence," to "furnish [Bartleby] with office-room for such period as you may see fit to remain." As he continues to deal with Bartleby, the narrator rediscovers his conscience and begins to recognize there is more to life than work, as he becomes more concerned for Bartleby's welfare beyond that of mere employee. However, his "blessed frame of mind" and his path toward recognition and redemption is interrupted when his two obligations clash. Attorneys come to the office on business and try to interact with Bartleby, but he refuses them. Rumors start going around, and associates begin questioning the narrator. Ultimately the narrator chooses work. He says of Bartleby that he must "for ever rid me of this intolerable incubus." He's equating Bartleby to a nightmarish demon who has become a burden. In Christian lore, the incubus cannot even be gotten rid of via exorcism.

What is the significance of the bust of Cicero in Bartleby, the Scrivener?

The narrator keeps above his desk a bust of Cicero, the Roman philosopher who was murdered for his political activities. When Bartleby first says he "would prefer not to" do the narrator's bidding, the narrator reflects that Bartleby is so calm that he couldn't possibly dismiss him. He would as soon have thought of "turning [his] plaster-of-paris bust of Cicero out of doors," he thinks. Later, when Bartleby refuses to tell the narrator anything about his personal life, he keeps "his glance fixed upon [the] bust of Cicero." There are various ways to interpret the significance of the bust. One is to remind us that Bartleby, who is a scrivener or copier himself, is, like the bust, a pale copy or imitation of a real person. Another possible interpretation is that the narrator sees a parallel between Cicero and Bartleby in that both men were willing to die for their beliefs. A third interpretation is that Cicero's bust—which precedes Bartleby's arrival at the office—could serve as a cautionary reminder to the narrator of what happens when someone defies the system.

Why is the narrator especially exasperated in Bartleby, the Scrivener when visiting Bartleby at his old office?

The narrator thinks he has escaped Bartleby when he switches offices. However, tenants and the landlord appeal to him to come back and speak to Bartleby. After refusing the first time, the narrator allows himself to be persuaded. This final meeting (before those that occur in the jail) is an emotional one for the lawyer. The narrator asks whether Bartleby would like to be employed in another business, but Bartleby's responses are paradoxical. Finally, the narrator describes himself as "losing all patience" and "for the first time in all my exasperating connection with him fairly flying into a passion." This is a turning point for the narrator, who has described himself as "eminently safe" and "who believes the easiest way of life is the best." He is so beside himself that he offers up his own home to Bartleby. When Bartleby declines, the narrator is distraught. He runs away without another word, and decides to go away for a few days to get away from the situation. The narrator opens himself up to Bartleby and is broken by the rejection, so much so that he breaks from Bartleby in turn.

Why is it verbally ironic when, upon being asked about a series of opportunities, the title character in Bartleby, the Scrivener says, "I am not particular"?

This scene occurs as the narrator is attempting to help Bartleby find a course of action that suits him. By now the reader has come to realize that no action suits Bartleby. It's not the type of work Bartleby has no interest in but work in general. He has, by choice, dropped out of participating in the capitalist system in particular and humanity in general. In addition, Bartleby is extremely particular about work, as he chooses to work or not, seemingly at his own whim. His phrase "I am not particular" is humorous to the reader but exasperating for the narrator. This shows verbal irony because Bartleby means the exact opposite of what he says.

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