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Discussion Questions for “Bartleby the Scrivener”

1. What does the subtitle of “Bartleby” suggest? What is the significance of Wall Street and the walls in the story?

2. What is the significance of the information that the narrator provides about himself and his employees at the beginning of the story? How does it prepare us to understand Bartleby and the narrator’s attitude toward him?

3. Why does Melville tell the story from the point of view of the employer rather than of the office staff or of Bartleby himself? What effect does this narrative strategy have on the reader?

4. How reliable is the narrator? Are there any indications that he might be obtuse or unreliable? Give examples.

5. What incident unleashes Bartleby’s passive resistance? What escalates it at each point?

6. What assumptions govern the question that the narrator asks Bartleby: “What earthly right have you to stay here? Do you pay rent? Do you pay my taxes? Or is this property yours?”

7. What ethic does Melville implicitly oppose to the ethic of Wall Street? (This question leads into a discussion of the New Testament echoes running through the story.)

8. Why does the narrator conclude that Bartleby “was the victim of an innate and incurable disorder”? How does it affect our responses to the story if we accept this conclusion?

9. What is the significance of the postscript the narrator appends to the story? What psychological (or ideological) purpose does it serve for the narrator? What symbolic purpose does it serve for Melville?

10. How much has the encounter with Bartleby changed the narrator by the end of the story? Is the narrator “saved”?

11. Choose any one of the following moments of dialogue in Melville and use it as a prism through which to “read” the work in which it appears: (a) “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” (b) “Follow your leader.” (c) “God bless Captain Vere!”

12. Part of what fascinates the reader (and possibly...
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