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Bartleby the Scrivener (Melville) - Discussion Questions

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.)

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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 sides...is 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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