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Compassion: Toward Neighbors

Reading: “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” By Herman Melville

Introduction

How To Use This Discussion Guide

Materials Included | Begin by reading Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” on our site or in your copy of What So Proudly We Hail.

Materials for this guide include background information about the author and discussion questions to enhance your understanding and stimulate conversation about the story. In addition, the guide includes a series of short video discussions about the story, conducted by Wilfred McClay (University of Tennessee–Chattanooga) with the editors of the anthology. These seminars help capture the experience of high-level discourse as participants interact and elicit meaning from a classic American text. These videos are meant to raise additional questions and augment discussion, not replace it.

Learning Objectives | Students will be able to:

  • Reflect on the need for the virtue of compassion and their own personal and civic attitudes towards their neighbors through reading Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener;”
  • Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it;
  • Cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text;
  • Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development
  • Summarize the key supporting details and ideas;
  • Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text; and
  • Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

Common Core State Standards Addressed | Literacy in History/Social Studies:

  • RH.9-10.1, RH.9-10.2, RH.9-10.3, RH.11-12.1, RH.11-12.2, RH.11-12.4

English Language Arts:

  • RL.9-10.1, RL.9-10.2, RL.9-10.3, RL.9-10.4, RL.9-10.9, RL.11-12.1, RL.11-12.3, RL.11-12.4, RL.11-12.5

Writing Prompts | Based on Common Core Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies:

  • What do you think of the lawyer’s treatment of Bartleby? Is it commendable? Deplorable? Understandable? Or something else? Is there anything else the lawyer should have done? How would you act if you were in the lawyer’s place? After reading “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” write an essay that addresses the question and support your position with evidence from the text. Be sure to acknowledge competing views. (Argumentation/Analysis; Task 2)
  • Why does Bartleby “prefer not to” perform more and more actions throughout the story? Does this say more about the nature of the work or more about the state of his soul? After reading “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” write an essay that addresses the question and support your position with evidence from the text. Be sure to acknowledge competing views. (Argumentation/Analysis; Task 2)
  • Were you to meet a Bartleby, how would you behave? Would you try to “do something” for him? If so, what? Or would you try instead to “be there” with him? If so, how? Is there yet another way to deal with the sort of deep human difficulties that a man like Bartleby presents? After reading “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” write a narrative inserting yourself into the story, demonstrating how you would interact with Bartleby. (Narrative/Description; Task 27)

About the Author

Herman Melville (1819–91), today hailed as one of America’s greatest writers, had in his own time a very mixed career. Some of his early sea stories and sea adventures were esteemed by the public, but his epic (and to him, most significant) novel, Moby-Dick (1851), was very badly received. Indeed, after it appeared, Melville became something of a pariah in the literary world. Turning to poetry, he encountered similar neglect. In the last quarter-century of his life, he wrote little and published less. (Billy Budd, today regarded as one of his finest works, was published posthumously.) Friends feared for his sanity. His wife’s family tried not only to get her to leave him but also to have him committed as insane. He wound up working for nineteen years as a customs inspector in New York, and when he died, he seemed destined for obscurity. One might therefore wonder whether his tale about the mysterious Bartleby is, among other things, intended as a profoundly disheartening allegory about the artist’s—and his own—relation to our commercial, democratic society. But that, of course, depends on what you think the story says and means.

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.

Thinking about the Text

Summary

The basic plot is rather simple: a middling Wall Street lawyer—also the narrator of the story—needing more assistance, hires a new scrivener (copyist) to join his firm. Enter Bartleby. Although initially very productive in his copying, after three days he calmly refuses when asked to help with proofreading or any other office tasks: “I would prefer not to” is his reply, one repeated more than twenty times in the story. The lawyer and his other employees are shocked, but Bartleby holds fast: he prefers not to. Both touched and disconcerted yet choosing not to fire him, the lawyer is strangely drawn into coping with Bartleby and his growing refusals and eccentricities—the theme of the rest of the story.

Bartleby, we learn, is always in the office, either incessantly working or staring out the window at a facing wall. On a chance Sunday visit to the office, the lawyer discovers that Bartleby also lives there. Eventually Bartleby’s refusals extend also to his work as a copyist: he prefers not to do any work, yet he prefers not to quit the office. The lawyer, waffling between pity and indignation, finally asks him—bribes him—to leave, then later commands him to leave his office. But Bartleby prefers not to. Instead, the lawyer moves his office, leaving Bartleby behind.

Another lawyer moves into the building and quickly learns that Bartleby comes with the territory. He complains to the narrator, who disclaims any responsibility for him. The new proprietor has Bartleby arrested for vagrancy, and he is imprisoned in “the Tombs,” officially known as the Halls of Justice (33). There, too, he prefers not to, including “not to eat.” The narrator visits Bartleby but can’t get through to him. On his next visit, the narrator finds Bartleby lying dead, huddled against a wall in the prison yard.

At the very end, in a brief coda, the narrator informs us of a late-arriving rumor to the effect that Bartleby had previously worked as a clerk in an obscure branch of the Post Office known as the Dead Letter Office, sorting through undeliverable mail—mail that would have brought hoped-for news and gifts to people who died with their hopes unfulfilled.


Section Overview

Unlike its basic plot, the story’s meaning and implications are far from simple. So we will proceed slowly, starting with what we learn of the characters and then moving to the heart of the story, the relationship between Bartleby and the lawyer. We conclude this section by attending to the story’s short coda.


A. The Characters

Early in the story, the narrator/lawyer says: “Ere introducing the scrivener [i.e., Bartleby], as he first appeared to me, it is fit I make some mention of myself, my employés, my business, my chambers, and general surroundings; because some such description is indispensable to an adequate understanding of the chief character [Bartleby] about to be presented” (2). Following this lead, and limiting ourselves to the first five pages of the story, look at each in turn:

  1. The lawyer—what is he like?
    1. What do you make of his “profound conviction” that the easiest life is the best? Do you share this conviction?
    2. What does it mean to be considered by others as “an eminently safe man"?
    3. What does John Jacob Astor (a German-American business and one of America’s first multimillionaires) mean to the lawyer? And what we do learn about him from his mention of Astor?
    4. Why does the narrator draw attention to the fact that he received but soon lost the office of “Master of Chancery”? (Note: A chancery court has jurisdiction over matters of equity, including trusts, land law, the administration of the estates of lunatics, and the guardianship of infants.)
    5. Why doesn’t the narrator tell us his name?
  2. The employés (i.e., the two scriveners, Turkey and Nippers and his office boy, Ginger Nut)—what are they like?
    1. From the story, what do you understand is the work of a scrivener? How does it differ from the work of ancient scribes, who copied holy books?
    2. What do the attitudes and ways of his scriveners tell us about the lawyer as an employer? As a human being?
  3.  The business—what sort of law does the lawyer practice?
    1. Why does he refer to it as a “snug business”?
  4. The chambers and general surroundings—what are they like?
  5. Focusing now on the “advent” of Bartleby (3) describe:
    1. Bartleby—what is he like?
    2. Describe the work quarters he has been given.
    3. What would it be like to work in such quarters?
Video Excerpt 1
WATCH: What is the lawyer like? What are his employees like?

B. Bartleby’s Conduct with the Lawyer

“It is, of course,” the lawyer/narrator explains, “an indispensable part of a scrivener’s business to verify the accuracy of his copy, word by word” (8). And, as we soon learn, “common usage and common sense” (10) require copyists to assist, as well, in the proofreading of others’ copy and to help out with other office tasks. But when Bartleby is asked, on the third day of his employment, to help proofread a document, he says, “I would prefer not to.” And, after twenty-plus other requests, Bartleby makes twenty-plus similar replies. We watch as Bartleby’s responses—almost all negative preferences, stated mildly but firmly and without anger or impatience—gradually extend from preferring not to proofread, then to copying anything, then to doing any tasks or activities whatsoever, even eating. He becomes more and more passive, gradually withdrawing more and more into his “hermitage,” his “dead-wall reveries,” and himself. To the lawyer, he gradually appears more and more like a “ghost,” an “apparition,” and a “cadaver.”

  1. What do you think of Bartleby’s responses to the lawyer?
  2. What do you make of his peculiarities?
  3. What does his appearance suggest about his attitude toward other people? Toward work or activity, in general? Toward the world?
  4. Why does Bartleby “prefer not to” perform more and more actions throughout the story? Does this say more about the nature of the work or more about the state of his soul?
  5. Is there a difference between stating one’s preferences (negatively or positively) and imposing one’s will? Does “I would prefer not to” differ from “I will not”?
  6. Is it possible to say what motivates Bartleby? Or is he a mystery beyond comprehension?
  7. Is Bartleby unique? Or are there other “Bartlebys” in the world? In history? In literature?, who—from whatever cause—become passive and passionless beings with largely negative preferences?
Video Excerpt 2
WATCH: How does the lawyer respond to Bartleby? Does he understand Bartleby?

C. The Lawyer’s Conduct toward Bartleby

In responding to Bartleby, the lawyer “rall[ies his] stunned faculties” (8) but becomes annoyed; he is repeatedly “disarmed” and “unmanned” (16) by him but also “in a wonderful manner touched and disconcerted” (10); he is full of pity but also repulsion; he is “thunderstruck” (25) by Bartleby but recognizes his “wondrous ascendancy” (25) over him.

After discovering that Bartleby lives in his office, he feels “stinging” and “fraternal” melancholy—we are both “sons of Adam,” he realizes (17)—but he instantly rejects it as “sad fancyings.” Indeed, in several places, he describes his responses, using Biblical (e.g., “a pillar of salt,” 10), generally religious (e.g., 16), and specifically Christian references (e.g., 26).

But despite his mixed responses and his appeals to religion, he tries (several times) to dismiss Bartleby, assuming after each such decision that Bartleby will heed his word. When Bartleby continues to stand fast, the lawyer instead moves his own offices. When questioned about Bartleby by the lawyer who took up occupancy in his former office, the lawyer, like Peter with respect to Jesus, three times denies any relation to or knowledge of him. Yet he will voluntarily converse with Bartleby two more times, trying again on both occasions to help him by offering, among other things, to take him to his own home and later, after Bartleby is removed to the Tombs, by making sure that he is well fed.

  1. How does the lawyer see Bartleby? Does he see him as anything more than “Bartleby, the Scrivener”?
  2. What do you think of the lawyer’s treatment of Bartleby? Is it commendable? Deplorable? Understandable? Or something else? Is there anything else the lawyer should have done? How would you act if you were in the lawyer’s place?
  3. Does he, on balance, “do well by” Bartleby—or not?
  4. What is the source of Bartleby’s “wondrous ascendancy” over the lawyer (25)? Or, why does the lawyer put up with him? Should he have?
  5. Do you think the lawyer learns anything from Bartleby? If not, why not? If yes, when and what does he learn? (In this regard, think particularly about what he might mean when he says, “For a few moments I was turned into a pillar of salt” [cf. Genesis 19:26], as well as his many other religious references, including his pronouncement, when he finds Bartleby dead: He lies “with kings and counsellors” [cf. Job 3:11-15]). If you don’t think the lawyer learns anything from Bartleby, should he have learned something? If so, what? What have you learned?
Video Excerpt 3
WATCH: Does the lawyer, on balance, “do well by” Bartleby—or not?

D. Coda

Early in 1853, Melville was asked by Putnam’s Magazine, the nation’s then-leading literary monthly, to contribute a work of short fiction. Apparently, he began by writing a story about a young wife who waits seventeen years for news from her husband, who left home to find work. As Melville conceived the story, the mailbox was a reminder of the passage of time: unused, it rots and falls apart. Word never comes. For unknown reasons, this story was abandoned, but the forlorn mailbox and the absent mail seem to have found themselves into the Dead Letter Office, which is mentioned in the coda to “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” the story that was in fact published at the end of the same year. In the coda, the mention of the Dead Letter Office is intended to give us some idea about the life of Bartleby prior to the events narrated in the story. But the lawyer/narrator specifically warns us that the information he divulges is an “item of rumor”: “hence, how true it is I cannot now tell.” He includes it, he tells us, because of its “suggestive interest” to him and possibly to us, his readers, as well.

  1. Does the coda help you to better understand Bartleby? If so, in what way(s)?
  2. What would it have been like to work in the Dead Letter Office? What effect do you think it had on Bartleby, and why? How do you think his work in the Dead Letter Office may have changed the way he viewed his work as a scrivener?
  3. Does the coda help you to better understand the lawyer? If so, does it change your assessment of the lawyer? For better or for worse? What is the lawyer’s own relationship with letters? With human communication in general?
  4. What is the meaning of the lawyer’s final exclamation, “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” (37)
Video Excerpt 4
WATCH: What is the work of a scrivener? What is Bartleby and the lawyer's relationship with letters?

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.

Thinking With The Text

Section Overview

This story, like the others in What So Proudly We Hail, is, of course, interesting in itself. But, again like the others, it can also be read as a mirror in which we can see ourselves as human beings and as American citizens, and through which we can become more thoughtful about what our national and civic identity might mean and require. This story invites reflection, especially about our personal and civic attitudes toward our neighbors, about the need for the virtue of compassion and what it entails, and about the symbolic and literal meaning of “erecting walls” between ourselves and our neighbors. It also invites us to think about some of the implications of our American principles and ways.


A. Doing for Others

As the story unfolds, the lawyer refers to Bartleby in multiple ways: as his employee, as a friend, and as an “incurably forlorn” fellow human being—one of the “sons of Adam” (17). But until the very end, despite the multiple possible relationships that these references imply, the lawyer constantly tries to do something for Bartleby. Indeed, one is tempted to see all of his exchanges with Bartleby, as well as all his efforts to “help him,” as an endless succession of dead letters, an endless and futile effort to find remedies.

  1. How are people like Bartleby best understood? As human beings with problems to be solved? As fellow sufferers in need of companionship? In some other way?
  2. Does the following generalization about how we human beings behave with respect to the suffering of others tell us more about the lawyer/narrator or more about all human beings, ourselves included?

    So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul rid of it. (18)

  3. Were you to meet a Bartleby, how would you behave? Would you try to “do something” for him? If so, what? Or would you try instead to “be there” with him? If so, how? Is there yet another way to deal with the sort of deep human difficulties that a man like Bartleby presents?
  4. What are the implications of your response to the previous question for our civic life? What do fellow citizens owe to one another? 

B. “A Story of Wall Street”: Communicating with Others

There are varying accounts of how Wall Street derived its name, but a generally accepted version traces it to an earthen wall on the northern boundary of the seventeenth-century New Amsterdam settlement, erected, it is thought, to protect against encroachment by New England colonists or incursions by Native Americans. Though the original wall has long since disappeared, the story’s subtitle, “A Story of Wall-Street,” points us to another general theme that Melville invites us to consider: the symbolic and general meaning and consequences of erecting walls.

  1. Do walls or “fences,” as Frost’s famous poem, “Mending Wall,” states, “make good neighbors”?
  2. Is the problem-solving mentality, in general, a way, whether intended or not, of placing walls between us and the realities of suffering and pain?
  3. Can walls enhance, as well as diminish, communication between people? Think of the walls within the office—both the one which Bartleby stares at and the “walls” that the lawyer has erected to separate himself from Bartleby: the “high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice. And thus, in a manner, privacy and society were conjoined” (7–8).
  4. Do walls—and the privacy they promote—encourage productivity?
  5. What kind of speech has the best chance of overcoming the barriers between people? Can speech be effective if people do not share the same assumptions about the world? (The lawyer, you may recall, says that he has “assumptions” [about the reasonableness of people and the world], but Bartleby has “preferences.”)
Video Excerpt 1
WATCH: What is the meaning of the walls in the story? The subtitle,

C. Questions about America

Wall Street is historically, economically, and symbolically a central American place and institution. Stones from the original wall of Wall Street were later used in building the first City Hall. After the American Revolution, the first Congress assembled there in 1789; there George Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States. Originally inhabited by private residences, Wall Street was by Melville’s time home to many law firms and well on its way to becoming the hub of financial markets that it is today. Thus, although the story of Bartleby may be read as a universal human tale, the setting itself, as well as the people who work there, invites us to think specifically about America and about the issues the story raises for us as American citizens.

  1. Individualism. Might either the lawyer or Bartleby—or both—represent a downside of the American individualism we so proudly hail? Does the depiction of either of these characters, both of whom live isolated lives detached from forebears and families, suggest something more general about the sufficiency of the American emphasis on freedom, individual rights, and independence? How would the story be different if Bartleby or the lawyer had families with whom they lived?
  2. Enterprise and Commerce. What does the story have to say about the human significance of the world of business? What happens to a people who focus mainly on economic matters? According to one interpretation of the story, “Wall Street is a place where the soul comes to die.” To what extent might that be true?
  3. Religion. Do the many religious references in the story, especially to Christianity, convey any suggestions about the importance of religion in America? What about his comparison of Wall Street on Sunday to “Petra” (16), the ancient biblical city known for its tombs made from pink rock? Is Melville suggesting—and if so, would you agree—that religion is needed to make America’s utilitarian and materialistic spirit more humane? Is it strong enough to do so?
  4. Law and Justice. Does Melville’s treatment of the lawyer(s) imply a criticism of law in America? Does Melville’s reference to the “Halls of Justice” as the “Tombs” and his brief treatment of the jail imply a criticism of justice in America?
  5. Reason and Practical Rationality. What can we learn from the story about the strengths and weaknesses of America’s love of rationality, practicality, and useful activities?
  6. Is Melville’s story a cautionary tale? If so, about what is he cautioning us? Commerce? Lawyerly prudence, accommodation, and balance? The utilitarian and problem-solving attitude many Americans adopt toward life and toward other human beings? Something else?
Video Excerpt 2
WATCH: Do the many religious references in the story, especially to Christianity, convey any suggestions about the importance of religion in America?

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.

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