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Queens College

“Bartleby the Scrivener” Presentation

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kelly Santana at 2:15 am on Friday, February 24, 2017

Text: “Bartleby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville (1853)

  • Summary: Short story narrated by a Wall-Street Lawyer who hires a new scrivener who spends the first few days working hard in the office. But soon after, Bartleby suddenly stops doing any work at all, using the words, “I would prefer not to”. After he spends some time trying to understand why Bartleby won’t do anything and realizes he won’t leave, the narrator decides to move offices. Bartleby is later removed from the office and is sent to prison, where he ultimately dies.

Source: Unreadable Minds and the Captive Reader, by H. Porter Abbott (2008) – Theoretical Standpoint 

  • Summary: Humans have a desire to read the minds of others as well as a desire to read works that allow us to read the mind of characters. Abbott focuses on the “unreadable” minds of fictional characters and the responses they have on readers and other characters alike. Abbott discusses how characters like Bartleby are accepted and interpreted as unreadable characters in various ways.

Readable characters in “Bartleby”:

  • Narrator: From the start is self-described as a peaceful, quiet  man: “I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that easiest way of life is the best” (lines 3-4).
  • Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut are all given a backstory about who they are what kind of men they are in great detail, according to the narrator (Turkey- line 10; Nippers- line 11; Ginger Nut- line 14).
  • The narrator is “a comfortable sort…His veteran scriveners…are as [vivid] in their look and manner as their names suggest. At the same time, they effectively frame the mystery of Bartleby, a silent, pale, diligent copyist who could easily play the role of a readable character except that, when requested to do any other task than copying, he politely replies, ‘I would prefer not to.’ As such, the tale unfolds like a kind of experiment in which an inaccessible mind is dropped into a conventional nineteenth-century storyworld” (Abbott 450).

Three default responses to unreadable minds:

  • The Opaque Type: Readers/characters attempt to understand the unreadable character by relating them to common stereotypes that they may recognize. Because of this unreadability found in Bartleby, some characters try to place him and figure out why he is so difficult to understand:
    1. Narrator: “What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder” (line 90).

“‘I think he is a little deranged,’ said I, sadly” (line 237).

  1. Ginger Nut: “I think, sir, he’s a little luny” (line 47).
  2. Cutlets: “Well now, upon my word, I thought that friend of yourn was a gentleman forger; they are always pale and genteel-like, them forgers” (line 238).
  • “The crisis that Bartleby brings on in the heart and mind of his employer is caused by the way he undermines what Ernst Mayr has called the human tendency to engage in ‘typological’ thinking – our assumption of an inner classifiable essence that generates what we see on the outside” (450)
  • The Catalyst: “The unreadable is read primarily as a catalyst in a drama of non-reading, with the focus on the captive reader as she/he copes with the unreadable. In this instance, Bartleby’s employer is the captive reader, and the unreadable Bartleby the catalyst who brings out the lawyer’s character” (451)
  • The reason Bartleby is created to be unreadable is so that the narrator is able to make realizations about his own life through the events that occur because of Bartleby’s mysterious behavior.
  • Bartleby’s unreadability merely serves as a catalyst for the lawyer’s own development in the story. – But this does not directly address Bartleby as a character and why he is unreadable.
  • The Symbol: Not focusing on the character himself or his function, but instead, focusing on what he symbolizes/stands for.

“The unreadable character is read neither as a character nor a function, but as an idea. It is a shift that allows meaning to rush in, which is what has happened almost invariably in the critical response to Bartleby” (452).

  • The narrator mentions by the end of the story that he has heard that Bartleby had been a clerk in The Dead Letter Office:

“The report was this: that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington…When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! Does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames?” (250)

  • This moment can become symbolic:
  • Bartleby chooses to die instead of compromise with the agents of a society that has degraded his profession (452)
  • “Bartleby can be read as a protest against the absurdity of life itself – and that, “we are all writers of dead letters” (452).
  • Bartleby’s unreadability now symbolizes an idea that is greater than the character himself.


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