Bartleby The Scrivener Theme Essay Prompts

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Reading and Discussion Questions on "Bartleby, the Scrivener"

Selected bibliography on the story at
Annotated hypertext version at

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.

Below you will find three outstanding thesis statements / paper topics that can be used as essay starters for “Bartleby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in “Bartleby the Scrivener” and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements for “Bartleby the Scrivener” offer a summary of different elements that could be important in an essay but you are free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them. Using the essay topics for “Bartleby the Scrivener” below in conjunction with the list of important quotes at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent essay on “Bartleby the Scrivener” Before you begin, however, please get some useful tips and hints about how to use in the brief User's Guide…you'll be glad you did.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: “Bartleby the Scrivener" as a Human Tragedy

The last line of Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” is “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!" Analyze this exclamation: it maybe that Melville is making a strong claim about what it means to act according to a certain concept of humanness, that being the characters other than Bartleby (Turkey, Nippers, Ginger Nut, and the narrator himself). Bartleby is described as completely emotionless, at one point “… he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically". He is also described as a ghost. It should be pointed out that the narrator’s problems with his other employees have to do with their unreliability, sloppiness, drunkenness, and flaring tempers. So Turkey and Nippers are quite the opposite of Bartleby, yet the main conflict that “Bartleby the Scrivener” presents is an internal one: that is, how is the narrator to deal with someone who appears to be void of any human attributes? Note also in the descriptions of Turkey and Nippers, there is some sort of organic mechanization in the way they work, and how their temperaments change: “Their fits relieved each other, like guards. When Nipper’s was on, Turkey’s was off; and vice versa". By the closing sentence of “Bartleby the Scrivener”, the author may be saying that it is human nature to have faults; however losing the ability to emote and connect with one’s surrounding world is perhaps the greatest tragedy an individual could go through or witness.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: “Dead Letters" and Heavy Words in “Bartleby the Scrivener”

Look at the narrator’s vivid description of the name of his former employer John Jacob Astor at the beginning of “Bartleby the Scrivener”. He says that it is a name “… which, I admit, I love to repeat; for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion". Mere words for the narrator of “Bartleby the Scrivener” have weight, significance, and they evoke the idea of money. The lawyer and his clerks’ work thrives on words, although not in the literary fashion (the narrator makes a quip about how Byron would be bored with their words), but words nevertheless. Legal contracts are drawn up and copied, “mortgages, and title-deeds", these all having importance because they represent money being transferred based on laws of society. Now compare this job of Bartleby’s with his former one: a clerk in the “Dead Letter Office at Washington", and make a claim about what statement is being made having to do with the significance of words, and the humanity words and communication represent, or are supposed to represent.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: Is the Narrator Reliable in “Bartleby the Scrivener"?

Analyze the structure of the narration in “Bartleby the Scrivener”, and the narrator’s use of language in talking about himself. An argument might be made that this narrator in “Bartleby the Scrivener” is shading or padding some things, either about himself or other characters, or that he’s gotten some crucial things wrong. The first clue he gives us comes in the first sentence “I am a rather elderly man". Instead of taking him right away as a wise old man who is giving us the story straight, look for contradictions in his narration. His “prudence" and “method" might easily translate into words like greedy or miserly. He claims to be mild mannered but is furious about the abolition of his former job because he counted on doing little or no work, and making enormous profits. Even though he speaks of his compassion to his clerks Turkey and Nippers, there is a way in which he might be completely out of touch with their actual needs and real feelings. For instance, he does not seem to care about why his two employees become angry or belligerent while working, but rather content that they do not rebel at the same time. Read “Bartleby the Scrivener” again with more skepticism about the narrator, and more of his faults will be illuminated.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: A Critique of Capitalism in “Bartleby the Scrivener"

We learn in the first paragraphs of “Bartleby the Scrivener” that the characters we are dealing with are a lawyer and his law clerks. We also learn that the narrator is not a courtroom-style lawyer, but a business lawyer that deals with “rich men’s bonds". Think about the socio-economic array of—or gap between—characters in “Bartleby the Scrivener” and decide what sort of commentary Melville might be making about class distinctions and system of government in this time period in the United States. Note that “Bartleby the Scrivener” is written in the very middle of the 19th century during industrialization and capitalist business practices. The narrator even mentions John Jacob Astor, a historical figure who is famous for having amassed a private fortune. Examine businessmen like Astor and the relationship the narrator has had with him. This story intimates a dichotomy between the people who profit off of such business, and those more in the working class like Bartleby, Turkey, and Nippers, and the long arduous work they are subjected-to should be brought out as they are essentially human copy machines. Thus, a theme emerges about alienation of workers under such social conditions and dehumanizing consequences.

This list of important quotations from “Bartleby the Scrivener” will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from “Bartleby the Scrivener” listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned. All quotes from “Bartleby the Scrivener” contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of “Bartleby the Scrivener” they are referring to.

“Hence, though I belong to a profession proverbially energetic and nervous, even to turbulence, at times, yet nothing of that sort have I ever suffered to invade my peace" (986).

“…. John Jacob Astor; a name which, I admit, I love to repeat; for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion" (986-87).

“So that, Turkey’s paroxysms only coming on about twelve o’clock, I never had to do with their eccentricities at one time. Their fits relieved each other, like guards. When Nipper’s was on, Turkey’s was off; and vice versa. This was a good natural arrangement, under the circumstances.

“I can readily imagine that, to some sanguine temperaments, it would be altogether intolerable. For example, I cannot credit that the mettlesome poet, Byron, would have contentedly sat down with Bartleby to examine a law document of, say, five hundred pages, closely written in a crimpy hand" (991).

“He did not look at me while I spoke, but kept his glance fixed upon my bust of Cicero, which, as I then sat, was directly behind me, some six inches above my head" (999)

“I thought Turkey would appreciate the favour, and abate his rashness and obstreperousness of afternoons. But no; I verily believe that buttoning himself up in so downy and blanket-like a coat had a pernicious effect upon him—upon the same principle that too much oats are bad for horses" (989-990).

“Dead letters! Does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten It than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames?" (1011).

“Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!"(1011)

Quoted from “Bartleby the Scrivener" [] by Herman Melville, pp. 986-1011 in Fiction 100: an Anthology of Short Fiction. Eleventh Edition. Edited by James H. Pickering. Pearson Prentice Hall: 2007.

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