English 220 – Survey of American Literature I

Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.

“Bartleby the Scrivener” – Discussion Questions


  1. Look up the word “scrivener” in the dictionary.  Is it a word still in common use?  How do you know?  What changes in American life account for the change in usage?  What does this tell you about the relationship of language to social need?  Do you think the word might have been commonly used in Melville’s day?  Why?
  2. Summarize the story in a short paragraph.  Which element of fiction—plot, setting, point of view, characterization—is of most interest to the reader?  Why?  How does Melville make his own interest apparent?  What is the relationship of the action to the characterization of Bartleby and his employer?  In other words, is the action consistent with the characterization?
  3. Who is the narrator?  How does Melville’s adoption of this particular point of view limit the reader’s knowledge of the main character?  Why do you suppose Melville chose this point of view rather than having Bartleby tell his own story or writing from an “omniscient” point of view?
  4. The narrator tells us that he is a man who finds the “easiest way of life best.”  How does his life compare for surface ease with Bartleby’s?  What is paradoxical and ironic in this contrast?
  5. What does the narrator tell us about Bartleby in the first paragraph?  How much more do we actually know about him in the end?  Some critics of short stories tell us that a character should change or develop as the story progresses.  Do you clearly see such changes in Bartleby?  If so, what is the direction of the change?  Are the changes occasioned by the situations in which Bartleby finds himself, or do they seem to result from his own nature?  Explain.
  6. Although the narrator is not the principal character, we learn more about him than we do about Bartleby.  How is he characterized?  Why is Bartleby’s tragedy heightened by the selection of a benevolent rather than a malevolent antagonist?
  7. The subtitle: “A Story of Wall Street” would lead us to assume that the setting is of some importance.  If we accept “Wall Street as a symbol, what might it represent in the story?
  8. Do the minor characters, Turkey, Nippers, and Gingernut, advance the plot in any way?  If not, what is their function?  Note the paragraphs in which each of these characters is described.  How does Melville’s ability to convey a quick dominant impression of these characters compare with Irving’s, Poe’s, or Hawthorne’s?
  9. What adjectives area used to describe Bartleby?  How do his actions and his words carry out the qualities that the adjectives name?
  10. What elements of the story seem to be autobiographical?  Do you see any justification for the opinion of some critics that Bartleby’s “failure of communication” is somewhat like Melville’s own failure to communicate to his own contemporaries?  If we consider Emerson’s optimism as the “everlasting Yea,” then what might Bartleby’s “Everlasting Nay” indicate about the difference between Melville’s and Emerson’s outlook on life?
  11. What do you think is the theme of the story?  State the theme (or themes) in a sentence or two.
  12. Several symbols Melville uses throughout the story help to unify the tone of the work and to convey his central themes.  These are “hermitage,” “tombs,” “dead letters.”  Locate the first mention of each of these words.  In what context do they appear?  Then follow their use (or the use of synonyms for each) through the story.  What additional connotations or “clusters” of meaning do they acquire?  Do you agree that these words are symbols?  Do you find other symbols in the story?
  13.  Richard Chase says that Melville was preoccupied with the “contradictoriness of life.”  What are the contradictions in Bartleby’s life?  How does Melville use the devices of ambiguity, paradox, and irony to emphasize this contradictoriness?  Recall the purposes for which Hawthorne used these devices.  What difference in purpose do you observe in Melville’s use?
  14. R.W.B. Lewis has called this story “something of a parable.”  Do you agree?
  15. We have observed that all good writing is capable of being interpreted in many different ways.  Discuss the possible meanings that may be attached to Bartleby’s situation from a social, psychological, and moral viewpoint.  Do you agree with Richard Chase that “The story is a subtle study of the mystery, perhaps the pathology of the fate of the dissenter or nay-sayer in a yea-saying culture.”  Does Bartleby’s nonconformity relate him more or less closely to Melville’s own era or to ours?  Explain.  Do you think Thoreau would have approved or disapproved of Bartleby? 
  16. Look up tragic comic in the dictionary.  What is both comic and tragic about the story?  How does this mixture intensify the reader’s empathy with Bartleby?  How does it reinforce Melville’s concern with the paradox of life?
  17. Does the theme of this story seem in any way related to the major theme of the “The Search for an American Identity”—or a second theme—“The Artist in American Society?  Explain.