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Bartleby the Scrivener | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


What prompts Bartleby's refusal to cooperate with the other office workers in Bartleby, the Scrivener?

From the narrator's perspective, Bartleby's refusal to cooperate with the other scriveners can be seen as a result of his work in the Dead Letter Office. He has dealt with letters that should have communicated hope, pardon, and "good tidings" but instead were never delivered. He has seen the failure of communication to help others. When he first starts at the narrator's office, he is extremely productive. "As if long famishing" for copy work, the narrator says, he "seemed to gorge himself" on the documents. However, he writes in isolation, and his first act of refusal is to engage in any work that would require cooperating with the other clerks. It's possible that he's given up on working collaboratively because he sees no point to it.

Does Bartleby purposely try to influence the other office workers to rebel in Bartleby, the Scrivener?

Some critics view the story as a condemnation of greed, capitalism, and Wall Street. Those disenfranchised by industrial society see Bartleby as a symbol of resistance given how his behavior changes when he starts to work within such a system. However, within the short story itself, Bartleby's fellow working-class employees do not appreciate his stance. Ginger Nut describes Bartleby as "luny." Turkey says of Bartleby, "I think I'll just step behind his screen, and black his eyes for him!" Nippers says, "I think I should kick him out of the office." Bartleby spends his time in the office in isolation, often staring out at the walls. He does not engage with anyone except for the narrator, and that is only when spoken to. However, the reader is not allowed access to Bartleby's thoughts, so it is impossible to determine if the intention of his actions are to inspire others within the story. After Bartleby's refusals begin to impact on the narrator's business, the other three clerks disappear from the story. It is left to the reader's imagination what lasting impact Bartleby might have made on them.

What is the narrator of Bartleby, the Scrivener supposed to see when the title character says, "Do you not see the reason for yourself," and what does he actually see?

The narrator is able to note that Bartleby's eyes look "dull and gazed." He believes Bartleby has strained his eyes due to his "unexampled diligence in copying by his dim window." However, when Bartleby later declares he has given up writing for good, it becomes clear the issue is not a visual one. As the narrator observes, there is something damaged within Bartleby's soul. The narrator struggles to put himself in Bartleby's shoes. He can realize his employee seems to need empathy, but Bartleby won't explain his spiritual state. Given the narrator's background as a successful lawyer and business owner, he cannot view the scrivener's work and office space as reasons contributing to Bartleby's hopeless demeanor.

In Bartleby, the Scrivener, what is the significance of Bartleby's "dead-wall reveries"?

Bartleby's view is a "dead brick wall" from which light comes down from above, "as from a very small opening in a dome." He often stands looking at it, and has a "dead-wall revery" after he decides to do no more writing. He continues to stare at a dead wall, even in prison, when he renounces eating and instead takes up a position "fronting the dead-wall." A possible interpretation is that Bartleby perceives a barrier beyond the literal that many do not. Whatever this barrier might represent—capitalism, for example—it depresses Bartleby, literally, to death. He's stuck in a dead-end job that leaves him with too much time to think about how unsatisfying his situation is. His walled-in environment feeds into his hopeless mindset and vice versa.

Why does the narrator feel an obligation to the title character in Bartleby the Scrivener?

On his third day of employment, Bartleby begins to decline work. Within weeks, Bartleby stops working altogether, yet the narrator keeps him on, makes his home available to Bartleby, and even offers him extra money. He goes far beyond his obligations as an employer. The narrator's reasoning is because Bartleby is alone in the world. He says of Bartleby, "But he seemed alone, absolutely alone in the universe." Moreover, the narrator wonders if it is his responsibility as a human being to care for the less fortunate. Quoting the words of Jesus in the New Testament, he reflects, "A new commandment give I unto you, that ye love one another." While the narrator is ultimately unable to help Bartleby, he tries to do his Christian duty, and feels guilty about his failure.

In Bartleby, the Scrivener, does Bartleby take a stand by refusing to leave the office?

The narrator certainly believes Bartleby will leave as instructed when the sixth day comes. After all, Bartleby seems to have given his word. When the narrator finds Bartleby still in the office, he grows very upset. The narrator says to Bartleby, "I am pained. ... I had thought better of you. I had imagined you of such a gentlemanly organization." The reader surmises that Bartleby was never going to leave, yet it's impossible to know if his nondeparture is meant to be an act of defiance toward the narrator. Rather, Bartleby seems to have nowhere to go and no one to see. He does not appear to be interested in engaging with the outside world.

What is meant when the narrator of Bartleby, the Scrivener discovers Bartleby's dead body in prison and says he is sleeping "with kings and counselors"?

The phrase "with kings and counselors" is a reference to the biblical figure Job from the Hebrew Bible's Book of Job. Like Job, Bartleby's suffering is likely not of his own making, and seems unjust. He seems unable to recover from his experiences, especially those in the workforce. That the narrator recognizes Bartleby as Job is profound because it signals that the narrator understands Bartleby is a victim of either the inhumanity of the universe or the cruelty of other people, or both. Thus, the narrator's pronouncement can be seen as a recognition that Bartleby's life and death had meaning.

Why isn't the word death used to describe Bartleby at the end of Bartleby, the Scrivener?

The word death is noticeably absent when discussing Bartleby's end. Upon discovering Bartleby's still body, the narrator bends down and notes, "His dim eyes were open; otherwise he seemed profoundly sleeping." The grub-man comes forward and asks, "He's asleep, ain't he?" Is Bartleby actually dead? Some critics view Bartleby as a Christ-like figure; for example, the narrator denied responsibility for Bartleby three times after moving his office to escape him, as Peter denied Jesus in the Gospels. A possible conclusion to draw is that Bartleby is no longer living but is not dead, either. His soul, which suffered in isolation and was pained for the troubles of humanity, has moved on to a greater place.

How do the narrator's final words in Bartleby, the Scrivener help show his growth as a character?

The narrator seems to recognize humanity's absurdity when he considers Bartleby's life and fate, and says, "Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!" His final words are a lament on the human condition. The narrator appears to have become more compassionate, though he still maintains a fairly narrow view of the world. At the beginning of the story he is obsessed with work and idolizes those who have achieved success, such as John Jacob Astor. His employees are simply "useful" to him. By the end of the story he has started to move beyond such assumptions. Dealing with Bartleby's suffering forces the narrator to recognize there is more to life than law, property, and profit.

In Bartleby, the Scrivener, what are the implications of the narrator's thought that he and Bartleby are "sons of Adam" in light of the biblical story of Cain and Abel?

With the phrase "sons of Adam" the narrator is acknowledging his human bond with Bartleby and also his responsibility for him. In the Bible after Cain slays Abel, God asks Cain where Abel is, and Cain replies he doesn't know, adding, "Am I my brother's keeper?" (A contemporary translation might be, "Am I responsible for my brother?") The narrator struggles throughout the story with his level of responsibility for Bartleby. His Christian obligation to help his fellow man is at odds with his need to run his business. He ultimately abandons Bartleby and is plagued by the recognition that he should have tried harder to help him.

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