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Reading and Discussion Questions on "Bartleby, the Scrivener"

Selected bibliography on the story at http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/bartle.htm
Annotated hypertext version at http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/webtexts/bartleby/

Annotated version of the story at Slate

1. The narrator is a character in his own right; in fact, this story tells as much about him as it does about Bartleby. What do we learn about him in the first few paragraphs? What does his language (including the use of terms like "imprimis" and constructions like "not insensible" and "hath") tell us about him? Are there any contradictions involved in being an "unambitious lawyer" who admires John Jacob Astor?

2. Before introducing Bartleby, the narrator introduces us to three other workers: Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut. What are they like? What is the purpose of introducing them first? How does the narrator's response to them (and his forbearance with their faults) shape the reader's reactions to what follows?

3. What part do the setting and the subtitle ("A Story of Wall Street") play in the story? Why does the narrator so frequently mention walls, screens, windows, and views? Why does Bartleby stare out the window or lurk behind a screen? In what ways does the narrator's characterization of him as a "fixture" or "the last column of a ruined temple" help the reader to see him as a structural object-a piece of furniture or of architecture-rather than as a human being? In what way does this transformation into objects cause the narrator to see himself as a "a "pillar of salt"?

4. What kind of person is Bartleby? Why might he say "I would prefer not to" instead of "I will not"? What kinds of appeals does the narrator make to Bartleby, and how does Bartleby deflect them?

5. As the story progresses, the narrator's views about Bartleby undergo several transformations, and Bartleby begins to have a kind of power over him. How does Bartleby's influence over the office manifest itself? Discuss why and how this occurs.

6. At one point, when the narrator asks Bartleby why he will not write, Bartleby responds, "Do you not see the reason for yourself." What is it that the narrator is supposed to see, and what does he fail to see? Why is Bartleby said to be the one with weak eyesight? In what ways do the ideas of seeing, vision, and understanding work in this story?

7. As a lawyer, the narrator might be expected to use logic to rid himself of Bartleby. Does he? How successful is his attempt? What other kinds of appeals does he use, and how successful are they?

8. The narrator attempts to grapple with the problem of Bartleby through the tenets of religion and philosophy, and the narrator feels he must choose between justice and mercy. Explain the allusions in this part of the story and the contradictory ideas that they represent. One idea that's implicit in the story is that of the social contract: what does Bartleby owe to society, and what does society owe to him in return? To what extent must this social contract be "amended" to allow for what the narrator sees as the Christian tenets of mercy and brotherhood?

9. In the last sections of the story, the "real law" enters the eccentric law office of the narrator-lawyers unmoved by Bartleby's strangeness move in, the police are summoned, and Bartleby is taken to the Tombs. Does the narrator prove himself a true lawyer at the end?

10. Why does Bartleby say, "I know you, and I want nothing to say to you" when the narrator visits him in prison? Shouldn't he be grateful that the narrator is taking an interest in what happens to him?

11. Does the Dead Letter office really explain Bartleby's actions? Or is it simply a device so that the narrator can close the incident in a sentimental, picturesque manner?

12. Critical opinion is divided about the narrator: one side sees him as an appealing eccentric who tries but fails to save a man who has doomed himself; another sees him as a man who, despite his genial manner, is so devoted to the values of Wall Street that he cannot rise to the injunction of loving his neighbor as himself. What's your opinion?

13. Eating and food imagery is prominent in this story; it might be more accurate to say dysfunctional eating (Nippers's dyspepsia, for example) and the absence of nourishment is prominent. In what ways does this set of images symbolically reinforce the story's themes?

14. Do you sympathize more with Bartleby or the narrator? What would you have done with Bartleby?


Comments to D. Campbell.