Bartleby the Scrivener (Melville)

Bartleby and Benito Cereno 
Herman Melville, 1853 and 1856
Dover Publications
112 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780486264738

(This slender volume by Dover contains two of Melville's best-known stories. We have developed a set of discussion questions below for each story.)

When a New York lawyer needs to hire another copyist, it is Bartleby who responds to his advertisement, and arrives "pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn." At first a diligent employee, he soon begins to refuse work, saying only "I would prefer not to." So begins the story of Bartleby—passive to the point of absurdity yet extremely disturbing—which rapidly turns from farce to inexplicable tragedy.

Accompanying "Bartleby" is a second short story, "Benito Cereno," a harrowing tale of slavery and revolt aboard a Spanish ship—and regarded by many as Melville's finest short story. (Adapted from the Penguin edition.)

Author Bio
Birth—August 1, 1819
Where—New York, New York, USA
Death—September 28, 1891
Where—New York, New York
Education—Albany Academy until age 15

Herman Melville was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist and poet, whose work is often classified as part of the genre of dark romanticism. He is best known for his novel Moby-Dick and novella Billy Budd, the latter of which was published posthumously.

Melville was born in New York City in 1819, as the third child of Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill. (After her husband Allan died, Maria added an "e" to the family surname.) Allan Melvill sent his sons to the New York Male School (Columbia Preparatory School). Overextended financially and emotionally unstable, Allan eventually declared bankruptcy, dying soon afterward and leaving his family penniless when Herman was 12.

Melville attended the Albany Academy from October 1830 to October 1831, and again from October 1836 to March 1837, where he studied the classics. Melville's roving disposition and a desire to support himself led him to seek work as a surveyor on the Erie Canal. This effort failed, and his brother helped him get a job as a cabin boy on a New York ship bound for Liverpool. He made the voyage, and returned on the same ship. Redburn: His First Voyage (1849) is partly based on his experiences of this journey.

After teaching for a stint (1837-1840), Melville spent the next four years at sea, travelling in the South Pacific Ocean, stopping off for periods in Hawaii and the Marquesas Islands (where he lived mong the Typee natives). He returned to Boston in 1844. These experiences were described in Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), and White-Jacket (1850), which gave Melville overnight notoriety as a writer and adventurer.

In 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw (daughter of chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Lemuel Shaw); the couple had four children, two sons and two daughters. In 1850 they purchased Arrowhead, a farm house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, now a museum. Here Melville lived for thirteen years, occupied with his writing and managing his farm. While living at Arrowhead, he befriended the author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived in nearby Lenox. Melville, an intellectual loner for most of his life, was tremendously inspired and encouraged by his new relationship with Hawthorne during the period he was writing Moby-Dick (1851). Melville dedicated that work to Hawthorne, though their friendship was on the wane only a short time later, when Melville wrote Pierre (1852). Sadly, these works did not achieve the popular and critical success of his earlier books.

His The Confidence-Man (1857), winning general acclaim in modern times, received contemporary reviews ranging from the bewildered to the denunciatory.

By 1866 his professional writing career can be said to have come to an end. To repair his faltering finances, Melville's wife and her relatives used their influence to obtain a position for him as customs inspector for the City of New York (a humble but adequately paying appointment), and he held the post for 19 years. In a notoriously corrupt institution, Melville soon won the reputation of being the only honest employee of the customs house.

As his professional fortunes waned, Melville's marriage was unhappy, plagued by rumors of his alcoholism and insanity and allegations that he inflicted physical abuse on his wife. Her relatives repeatedly urged her to leave him, and offered to have him committed as insane, but she refused.

In 1867 his oldest son, Malcolm, shot himself, perhaps accidentally. While Melville worked, his wife managed to wean him off alcohol, and he no longer showed signs of agitation or insanity. But recurring depression was added-to by the death of his second son, Stanwix, in San Francisco early in 1886.

Melville retired in 1886, after several of his wife's relatives died and left the couple legacies that Mrs. Melville administered with skill and good fortune.

Upon his death in September 1891, he left an unfinished piece; not until the literary scholar Raymond Weaver published it in 1924 did the book—which we now know as Billy Budd, Sailor—come to light. Later it was turned into an opera by Benjamin Britten, a play, and a film by Peter Ustinov. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)

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Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for both "Bartleby the Scrivener" and "Benito Cereno":

Questions for "Bartleby the Scrivener"

1. How does the narrator describe himself at the onset of the story? It's important to establish his character early on so as to determine the accuracy of his self-portrayal and the degree to which it seems to change throughout the course of the story. He tells us, for instance, that "he does a snug business" in his "snug retreat"; he's safe and prudent. What else does he tell us?

2. How does the lawyer describe Bartleby as he first appears? What do you make of Bartleby...and how does your idea of him change during the story?

3. There are numerous mentions of the word "wall" in this story. What symbolic significance does it have to the story? Consider, for instance, that Bartleby is isolated from the other copyists, placed with his desk facing a wall. What effect might this have had on him?

4. What is the significance of the fact that the story occurs in the financial district of New York? How well does the narrator accommodate himself to his surroundings—and how well does Bartleby fit in?

5. Discuss the other workers in the office, Bartleby's colleagues. Can you sense Melville's humor as he writes about the office situation?

6. What is the significance of Bartleby's resistance? What does it mean? Don't feel the need to take Bartleby "literally"; consider what he might represent, metaphorically.

7. How does the narrator react when Bartleby makes his first utterance, "I would prefer not to"? How does he continue to react to Bartleby...and why?

8. When the narrator discovers that Bartleby is living in the office, he had been on his way to church. But he changes his mind and decides not to attend. Why? What does this say about his religious beliefs, particularly in light of the fact that he considers Bartleby " a lost soul"? Overall, how does the lawyer's discovery of Bartleby affect him? What does he come to feel? Do you think these are novel emotions for him?

9. Bartleby refuses to leave when dismissed. Discuss the irony of the lawyer and his decision to move his office. What happens during the confrontation with Bartelby...what does the lawyer offer him? Why does he still feel responsible for Bartleby?

10. When, at the end, the narrator says that Bartleby is sleeping "with kings and counselors." What does he mean? And why might Wall Street have had a role in Bartleby's demise? What is the significance of the story's final words, "Ah, humanity"?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)


Questions for "Benito Cereno"

1. Captain Delano is a curious figure. How would you describe him? Discuss his "blindness" to what's going on around him. What are the numerous—and obvious—signs that he continues to misinterpret? How does he explain away things that initially trouble him?

2. Why might Melville have chosen Delano to tell the story, in order that we see the story through his eyes? Do we fall prey to the same tunnel vision as he does?

3. How does Delano represent "benign racism"? What are his views of the slaves on the ship?

4. "Follow your leader" is an expression used throughout the story, and its meaning differs according to who utters it. Talk about the different meanings it has. What irony lies behind the phrase—does Delano, for instance, think that slaves are capable of leadership?

5. Melville wrote this story in 1856, five years before the Civil War broke out. It was a time frought with politics that pitted northern abolitionists against large land- and slave-owners in the South. What would Melville's position have been—can you guess from this story? Who was he warning...what morality is at stake? Consider the fact that both Cereno and Babo die by the end.

6. The story has been posited as cautionary tale of good vs. evil. But who in this story represents the good—and who repsents the evil? There is depravity on both one depravity worse or less than another?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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