The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Herman Melville (1819-1891),
"Bartleby the Scrivener" (1853)


What were some of Melville’s occupations in early life? (bank clerk, sailor on a whaling ship, writer).

What were some of his early books written before “Bartleby,” and which of these were popular? (Typee, Omoo, Redburn, White-Jacket, Mardi, Moby-Dick, Pierre, The Isle of the Cross; the travel books were liked and the brooding existential ones brought bad reviews.)

In 1853-56 during a period of depression and eye problems Melville published a series of stories in Harper’s and Putnam’s, and the latter, which included “Bartleby,” were collected as The Piazza Tales. Later works included a novel, The Confidence Man, and several volumes of poetry, including Battle-Pieces and Clarel. Melville continued writing despite inability to maintain his family by literary endeavors, and he, his wife and four children were supported for many years chiefly by loans and bequests from his wife’s father. Melville was abusive to his family, especially during the 1860s, and some, including his wife, feared he was deranged.

In 1866 he obtained a political job as inspector of customs, which he held until able to retire in 1886. One son committed suicide; a second died relatively young; a daughter developed severe arthritis; and a fourth daughter Frances, the only one who married and lived well into the twentieth century, in her later years refused to speak of her father.

Autobiographical elements of the story seem to include the hero’s resentment of office life and the conformities expected of employees; a contempt of writing for the demands of the markplace and by dictation, as it were; the sense of lost audience (cf. the Dead Letter Office); some mingled identification with and dislike of the roles and way of life of lawyers (one brother was a lawyer and his father-in-law a judge); the protagonist’s weak health and limited eyesight; others’ judgment that he may be mentally deranged; and his strong “preference” for abstaining from many of the usual roles and responsibilities of life (such as supporting his family).

Literary background: Like many “Gothic” stories, this one emphasizes the ambiguous and threatening relationship between the narrator and the protagonist (cmp. Godwin’s Caleb Williams). Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1852) would have predisposed his audience to think the worst of members of Chancery. Melville couldn’t have chosen a non-criminal narrator whose occupation would seem less benign to his audience. The intransigent loneliness of Bartleby also suggests the mental states of the speakers of Kirkegaard’s Of Fear and Trembling and Dostoyevsky’s The Underground Man. And of course Melville was heavily indebted in form and content to Hawthorne’s stories.

Psychological aspects: Aspects of Bartleby’s behavior closely match traits now commonly associated with autism (cf., e.g., “Rain Man”)--‘inappopriate’ affective responses, repetitive and/or formulaic behavior, efficient, and even gifted execution of more or less intricate tasks, undercut by inabilities to handle variations in routines associated with those tasks. Might Melville have known such a person? Might he have observed some of these attributes in himself? (Keep in mind that there is a continuum of susceptibility to almost every neurological disorder that has ever been studied.)

Some unusual features of the story include: the use of an unreliable narrator (and unreliably unreliable--some of his reactions are also those of the author, especially at the conclusion); the absence of a clear resolution; the mystery and strangeness of Bartleby’s character; the story’s near-existential preoccupation with alienation; and narrator’s/author’s final claim that even he cannot understand the tale he presents.


  1. Do features of this story resemble those we have read by Irving and Hawthorne? How does the narrator of this story differ from that of “Young Goodman Brown”? Do the stories have similar themes? What view do they present of society? Of religion? Of the possibility of community?
  2. Why do you think Melville chose the unnamed Wall Street lawyer as his narrator? How does the narrator describe himself? What is the reader expected to think of him? (1109, “I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best.”)
  3. Does the narrator seem to change, become increasingly hostile, or alternately, develop in empathy as the story progresses? What effect do the changes in his mood have on the reader’s attitude toward Bartleby?
  4. How is the physical environment of the “Wall Street” office described? (1110, “In that direction my windows commanded an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade. . . .”) Which aspects of Bartleby’s confinement seem to be metaphorical?
  5. Who are the other scriveners, and what are some features of their characters? Why do you think they are so fully described? Are their portrayals flattering?
  6. How is Bartleby described on his first entrace? (1113, “a motionless young man. . . . pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! . . . a man of so singularly sedate an aspect”). How does he seem to differ from the other inhabitants of the office, even at the first? (1124, “alone, absolutely alone in the universe,” “like the last column of some ruined temple”)
  7. What are the narrator’s expectations regarding Bartleby’s compliance? (“In my . . . natural expectancy of instant compliance, I sat with . . . my right hand . . . somewhat nervously extended with the copy, so that immediately upon emerging from his retreat, Bartleby might snatch it and proceed to business without the least delay,” 1114). How is he forced to alter these expectations?
  8. Why do you think Bartleby refuses to compare the manuscripts? What seems symbolic about his action? Is there a pattern to his refusals? What is his manner in so doing, and how does it affect others? What are the stages of his passive resistance to interacting with his world?
  9. What are some metaphors and adjectives used to describe Bartleby’s behavior? How does he impress the narrator? (“there was something about Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me, but in a wonderful manner touched and disconcerted me,” 1115).
  10. How do the other scriveners react to Bartleby’s behavior, and why is this important? What contrast does this provide with the narrator’s mingled interest and revulsion?
  11. What is added by the knowledge that Bartleby lives in the office? What details indicate the pathetically limited nature of his existence? Why hadn’t the lawyer realized before that Bartleby never left the office? Can you understand why Bartleby won’t open the door at once?
  12. What emotions does his former employer come to feel for Bartleby? (“considerably reconciled,” 1118; “could not. . . avoid falling into sudden spasmodic passions,” 1119) Why does he think of the murder case of Colt and Adams? (1126) Do you think the narrator’s attitude toward Bartleby is consistent?
  13. What reason does the narrator give for his growing revulsion? (1121) How does he diagnose Bartleby’s problem? (“his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach,” 1121)
  14. What are the first premonitions of the Bartleby’s death? (1120, “The scrivener’s pale form appeared to me laid out, among uncaring strangers, in its shivering winding sheet.”)
  15. What religious allusions or precepts help structure the tale? (1120, “For both Bartleby and I were sons of Adam”; 1126, “A new commandment give I unto you, that ye love one another.”)
  16. What motives prompt the lawyer to move offices? What events lead to Bartleby’s final eviction? What does Bartleby mean by the statement, “I am not particular”? (particular has a different meaning in English and French) Why do you think he refuses other offers of an occupation?
  17. When called in to resolve the new tenant’s difficulties, the narrator says, “the man you allude to is nothing to me.” What biblical statement does this echo, and why is the echo significant?
  18. What are the Tombs? What happens to Bartleby there? What is his response to the narrator, when the latter visits him? What choices lead directly to his death?
  19. What final tribute does the narrator pay to Bartleby?
  20. What is added to the story by its final frame? (1121) What explanation for Bartleby’s melancholia is given here? What is symbolized by the Dead Letter Office? (1134, “On errands of life, these letters speed to death.”)
  21. Why does the narrator/author end his tale, “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” What seems to be the final relationship between narrator and protagonist?
  22. What are some points made by this story? Does it leave the reader with any sense of hope?
  23. Is this story well-written? What are some of its features of language? Are any passages especially beautiful? Would you recommend this story to a friend?
  24. Can you think of any other possible solution(s) to Bartleby’s problem? Were the events of the story to occur at the present time, would the outcome likely be different?

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  Page updated: September 3, 2010 22:56