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Bartleby the Scrivener | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


As Bartleby, the Scrivener progresses, how does the title character's influence over the other scriveners become more apparent?

Bartleby's refusal to participate in the shared activity of comparing documents causes Nippers, in his angry morning mood, to suggest kicking him out, while Ginger Nut ventures that Bartleby is "a little luny" (loony; crazy). Another refusal in the afternoon, when Turkey is intoxicated, nearly leads to violence. But as the narrator begins to tolerate Bartleby's passive resistance, Bartleby's use of the word prefer seeps into the vocabulary of the others. Just as the narrator says, "I had got into the way of involuntarily using this word," both Turkey and Nippers drop the word into regular conversation as well, in a way that is comical. The narrator notes that Bartleby "has in some degree turned the tongues, if not the heads of myself and clerks."

The story's final lines suggest the title character in Bartleby, the Scrivener has had a profound impact on the narrator. Is it a true spiritual change?

As the story progresses, the narrator is clearly affected by his contact with Bartleby. He becomes more genuinely empathetic and is willing to help Bartleby in any way he can. He even offers up his home. The story's final lines, "Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!" suggest Bartleby has had a profound emotional or spiritual impact on the narrator. However, when readers consider that the story is told as a flashback, the narrator seems more curious than concerned. In the introductory paragraph, he notes what a strange scrivener Bartleby was. In the final paragraph of the story, as the narrator refers to the Dead Letter Office, he goes back and forth between sounding more like a lawyer and a concerned individual. In particular, the words "Ah humanity!" can be read both as confirming Bartleby's humanity and dismissing humanity as absurd. It's also possible that the narrator makes this sweeping exclamation about humanity to free himself of his own guilt over the situation. The narrator seems to have made some emotional growth, but not enough to escape his professional detachment.

What impact has language played on Bartleby in Bartleby, the Scrivener over the course of his two jobs?

Bartleby's work has taken him from the Dead Letter Office, where he reads and burns undeliverable letters, to a job as a scrivener, where he copies legal documents all day. In the first job he read about people suffering and needing help or trying to reach out to one other, but the communication between the letter writer and recipient somehow failed. These were examples of human language "dying." In his new job he "seemed to gorge himself" on language when he first arrives, but the words themselves are relatively inhumane, simply relating to property and wealth. There is no creativity or "life" in his work or his world, and he shuts down, unable (or unwilling) to communicate anymore.

Why does the narrator of Bartleby, the Scrivener say he looked into "Edwards on the Will" and "Priestly on Necessity" before deciding what to do about Bartleby?

Like the mentions of John Jacob Astor and the position of Master in Chancery, these references tell readers more about the narrator's contemporary influences and his state of mind. Jonathan Edwards's The Freedom of the Will and Joseph Priestley's The Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity are works about free will. The Edwards's text argues that people were predestined by God to act a certain way, so that one's choices are only made within God's direction. Priestley said that humans had no free will, but he believed that because all of nature followed God's laws, the tendency of humanity was to improve itself. Following these arguments, the narrator could consider what to do about Bartleby, and then decide that his strange employee was sent to him by God and he must act accordingly. He concludes that his troubles with Bartleby were "predestinated from eternity" and that Bartleby was sent by "an all-wise Providence" so he should no longer persecute the man.

What aspects of the title character's emotional state in Bartleby, the Scrivener make it impossible for the narrator to save him?

Bartleby is already spiritually dead when he first arrives at the narrator's office, and the narrator later theorizes that this is a result of his employee's experience in the Dead Letter Office. He is described as pale, motionless, and sedate. Initially, he perks up while working for the narrator. He gorges on the documents and seemingly is strengthened from the nourishment the work provides. However, Bartleby's enthusiasm for the copying work soon fades. He refuses to work, to move, and finally, to eat. Despite the narrator's charitable attempts to save Bartleby, the character's death seems to be preordained given his slide into being nonreactive.

How is death by starvation an appropriate end for the title character in Bartleby, the Scrivener?

Because the narrator paid off the grub-man and instructed him to "let him have the best dinner you can get," Bartleby clearly has every opportunity to eat. His choice to stop eating is related to his decision not to work. He tells the grub-man, "I prefer not to dine today ... It would disagree with me; I am unused to dinners" and turns to face yet another wall, a "dead-wall." Bartleby's refusal to eat is not a surprise. Unlike Nippers and Turkey, whose personalities and nicknames derive from their appetites and digestion, Bartleby is not affected by the food he eats. Observing that Bartleby seems to live on ginger nuts, the narrator reflects that ginger is "a hot, spicy thing," something Bartleby certainly is not. Because he has no interest in food, it is logical for Bartleby to renounce eating as he has renounced everything else that might let him cling to life.

How does Bartleby living in the office impact the narrator in Bartleby, the Scrivener?

While on his way to Trinity Church on Sunday morning, the narrator decides to stop by his office. When he discovers Bartleby living there, the narrator is moved. He says, "For the first time in my life a feeling of overpowering stinging melancholy seized me." At this moment, Bartleby becomes more than simply his eccentric worker and a member of the working class. He is a lonely, solitary human being and is therefore deserving of sympathy. Significantly, he has had such a profound experience that he is "disqualified ... for the time from church-going."

What specifically about the narrator's background in Bartleby, the Scrivener makes him ill-equipped to help his employee?

The narrator is an experienced and successful Wall Street lawyer. With his thriving business, money and material comfort are not an issue. On multiple occasions, the narrator tries to pay off Bartleby or help him find alternate employment. This is how he is accustomed to solving problems. However, Bartleby's problems are not financial but spiritual. As the narrator sees it, Bartleby's soul was defeated. He observes, "It was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach." While the narrator can seemingly diagnose the problem, he is unable to help Bartleby. He has never dealt with such issues, as he is a product of his Wall Street environment. Once money and practical solutions prove ineffective, the narrator is at a loss.

After declaring his sympathy for Bartleby in Bartleby, the Scrivener, why does the narrator still occasionally grow angry with him?

The narrator is periodically aggravated with Bartleby's "passive resistance." He goads Bartleby on "to encounter him in new opposition, to elicit some angry spark from him answerable to my own." However, Bartleby doesn't react to such tactics as most people would. Communication is largely an act of negotiation between parties involved to establish meaning, but Bartleby's ways make true communication impossible. At this point in the story, the narrator is unclear of Bartleby's motivation. Bartleby is so different from people he has previously dealt with. He attempts to provoke Bartleby to display any anger or aggression because this would signal active resistance. The narrator would then more clearly understand how to deal with his employee; for instance, by firing him. However, anger never rouses Bartleby, whose passive resistance completely disarms the narrator.

At one point, the narrator of Bartleby, the Scrivener recollects a real office murder prompted by a fit of anger. Is the comparison to his own situation apt?

The narrator remembers an 1841 Wall Street crime of passion that took place in an office. The narrator considers that had Colt and Adams's argument taken place in public, rather than "a solitary office ... of a building entirely unhallowed by humanizing domestic associations," it would not have ended in murder. Being alone with Bartleby, as Colt was alone with Adams, brings on this recollection. The effect of isolation does cause people to act in an unstable manner; Bartleby's behavior shows this clearly. In addition, the narrator can be said to have contributed to Bartleby's death by abandoning him to be sent to prison, where he dies. Yet, however guilty the narrator feels over Bartleby's death, he has not "murdered" him. Rather, he has no capacity to reach or help Bartleby.

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