English 220 – Survey of American Literature I
Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.
“Bartleby the Scrivener” – Discussion Questions
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
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?
- 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?
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?
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.
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
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?
- 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
adjectives area used to describe Bartleby? How do his actions and his words carry out the qualities
that the adjectives name?
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?
do you think is the theme of the story?
State the theme (or themes) in a sentence or two.
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?
- 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?
Lewis has called this story “something of a parable.” Do you agree?
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?
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?
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.