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Bartleby the Scrivener | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


What is the significance of the financial transaction between the narrator and the grub-man in Bartleby, the Scrivener?

The grub-man, who bears the humorous name of Cutlets, is the cook in the prison. Upon introducing himself he makes it clear he expects to be bribed. He says those who "have friends here, hire me to provide them with something good to eat." The narrator pays off the grub-man so Bartleby can eat well while in prison. The narrator does not argue and is not annoyed with the grub-man's expectation of being paid off. As an accomplished Wall Street lawyer, he understands that a bribe is simply part of doing business. The narrator is comfortable in a world where money can solve problems. He gives the grub-man the money and instructions, while making it clear there is more money to be had if he treats Bartleby well. The grub-man knows his role in the game and is very kind to Bartleby in turn. However, Bartleby, given the opportunity to eat well, denies it. His indifference to eating is a rejection of the narrator's gesture and its corrupt financial basis.

How is the grub-man's mistaken idea that Bartleby is a forger an example of dramatic irony in Bartleby, the Scrivener?

The grub-man mistakes Bartleby for a "gentleman forger" and asks the narrator if he ever knew a particular forger named Monroe Edwards, whom he remembers fondly as "pale and genteel-like," similar to Bartleby. A forger is someone who makes false signatures, documents, or both. In an example of dramatic irony, Bartleby did once copy the language of documents for a living, as a forger might do. But the narrator says he "was never socially acquainted with any forgers." His failure to recognize the mechanical nature of his employees' work is another example of why he is unable to understand or help Bartleby.

Why does the narrator of Bartleby, the Scrivener believe Bartleby's work in the Dead Letter Office explains his behavior?

When Bartleby dies, the narrator is distraught and racked with guilt. His discovery that Bartleby worked in the Dead Letter Office helps to relieve his feelings. A reasonable explanation from the narrator's point of view is that Bartleby had been tortured by the "dead" work in his prior job and undoubtedly also suffered from the way he was fired from it. This would mean he was already partially spiritually dead when he came to work for the narrator. This thought helps the narrator to feel a sense of closure, as it provides answers to a mystery he has not been able to solve. It also expands his understanding of humanity, which he laments in the last words of the story. Such a response is within the narrator's frame of reference, whereas his position makes it difficult for him to think that Bartleby's issues could also be related to the tedium of his work as a copyist.

How can Bartleby be seen as a double of the narrator in Bartleby, the Scrivener, and why is this significant?

Bartleby and the narrator have several common points. Both have experienced the loss of jobs: Bartleby at the Dead Letter Office and the narrator when the position of Master in Chancery was eliminated. In this way, both have suffered from a corporate mentality that values profit over the individual. Both also express themselves in terms of what they prefer not to do. Bartleby, of course, prefers not to do just about everything: take part in office work involving others; copy; move from the office; and finally, eat. The narrator also lives by what he does not want to do. In his desire to choose the easy way, he "never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause." He prefers not to turn Bartleby out of the office or to try to understand the "purpose of an all-wise Providence" that has sent Bartleby to him. It is only when his professional reputation is threatened that he takes action, reflecting, "No more then. Since he will not quit me, I must quit him." In the beginning of the story, the narrator states how unusual Bartleby was. At the end, he reflects on Bartleby's prior work and "cannot adequately express the emotions which seize [him]." In recognizing the humanity of a man who is like himself, he is able to see his own.

How does the limited amount of dialogue in Bartleby, the Scrivener support the theme of isolation?

Despite being in close quarters at the office, Turkey, Nipper, and Ginger Nut do not talk to each other. In addition, every conversation in the story is work-related, except for those that take place in the prison. There is no sense of friendship among the characters. While the narrator mentions his friends are talking about Bartleby, the reader never sees this exchange in a scene. Turkey and Nippers dine together one day, but there is no evidence they have experienced the effects of anything except beer. The lack of conversation serves to isolate characters from each other. Communication breaks down figurative walls; characters are isolated by both walls and the failure to communicate.

What is the significance of the nickname of the jail, the Tombs, in Bartleby, the Scrivener?

A tomb is a vault used for burying the dead. Bartleby, who is first described as "a motionless young man," has been bound for death since his first introduction in the story. When he is brought to the Tombs, he is clearly destined for death. Prison will not serve to rehabilitate and ultimately bring Bartleby back into society; instead, it is the last step in his removal from society and completes his isolation. The nickname is also an allusion to the tomb in which Jesus lay for three days after his death in the Christian gospels. The comparison is heightened by the narrator's thought that "murderers and thieves" peer out at Bartleby from the jail windows, because Jesus was crucified between two thieves. If Bartleby is viewed as a Christ-like figure, the Tombs can be seen as his resting place before his resurrection.

Why is the narrator in Bartleby, the Scrivener defensive when he meets Bartleby in prison?

Bartleby greets the narrator with the words, "I know you ... and I want nothing to say to you." In response, the narrator defends himself by explaining to Bartleby it was not him who brought him to the prison. Recognizing Bartleby's "implied suspicion," the narrator responds, "Nothing reproachful attaches to you by being here." He extols the view as he notes the sky and the grass. However, it is not the view that upsets Bartleby, as the narrator is well aware. Given Bartleby's passivity, he will never escape the jail. The narrator fails to understand Bartleby to the point of his death. As he bribes the grub-man and calls Bartleby "a little deranged," he doesn't seem to understand that the prison is a death sentence for Bartleby. In a sense, Bartleby's refusal to eat in prison is his last triumph over the narrator, proving that trying to keep him alive was futile.

What can the reader learn about Bartleby in Bartleby, the Scrivener during his discussion with the narrator about potential businesses he would like to engage in?

Bartleby speaks more during this conversation than at any other time in the story. He strengthens the impression that he is not refusing to work, but rather waiting to be offered a task he wishes to do. In addition to his repetition of "I am not particular," which the reader recognizes is not the case, Bartleby offers up contradictory responses. He turns down one job because it is "too much confinement." This is an example of verbal irony, as Bartleby is a hermit who only leaves the office when forced to. He later notes, "I like to be stationary," which reinforces his inclinations. While the narrator interprets Bartleby's conversation as further evidence of his "passive resistance," there is no indication that this is Bartleby's intention. Instead, he seems to have no great goal or purpose. This emphasizes that the story is really about the narrator's transformation, which Bartleby sets in motion.

In Bartleby, the Scrivener, why does the narrator evoke images of Egypt in describing Bartleby's death?

The narrator describes the "Egyptian character of the masonry" of the prison, but then seems almost poetic when he describes a "soft imprisoned turf" in the yard. He compares the "magic" existence of the grass to "the heart of the eternal pyramids." Describing the stonework of the prison as Egyptian, together with the prison's nickname, the Tombs, evokes an image of an Egyptian burial tomb. Pyramids were built to house these tombs, so the "heart" of a pyramid would be the royal mummy inside. Equating death to grass, a symbol of renewed life, is a reminder that death is an inevitable part of the life cycle. This metaphor connects to the narrator's statement that Bartleby now sleeps "with kings and counselors"; that is, death makes equals of all of humanity.

In the last prison scene of Bartleby, the Scrivener, what is the significance of the narrator's description of Bartleby's body?

The narrator discovers Bartleby "huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up ... his head touching the cold stones." His "dim eyes" are open. Bartleby remains conscious of the walls that isolate him up to the moment of his death. In his death, he has allied himself with one of these walls, his head touching the stone. As he did when Bartleby stared at a wall and asked, "Do you not see the reason for yourself," the narrator has no such awareness of the profound impact of the walls surrounding him. His response is to close Bartleby's eyes. This is a common act when one discovers a dead body, but it also shows how little the narrator was able to understand Bartleby.

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