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Bartleby the Scrivener

Bartleby the Scrivener


by Herman Melville

Bartleby the Scrivener Language and Communication Quotes

How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Paragraph)

Quote #1

I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume; but in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, "I would prefer not to." (20)

This strange interaction demonstrates the essential problem of language in this story – it's both immensely powerful and incredibly futile. Bartleby's statement has an almost physical impact on the Narrator, but it doesn't necessarily communicate anything clearly.

Quote #2

"Will you tell me anything about yourself?"

"I would prefer not to."

"But what reasonable objection can you have to speak to me? I feel friendly towards you."

He did not look at me while I spoke, but kept his gaze fixed upon my bust of Cicero, which, as I then sat, was directly behind me, some six inches above my head.

"What is your answer, Bartleby?" said I, after waiting a considerable time for a reply, during which his countenance remained immovable, only there was the faintest conceivable tremor of the white attenuated mouth.

"At present I prefer to give no answer," he said, and retired into his hermitage. (60-61)

This passage demonstrates the unsatisfactory nature of communication via language in this story – Bartleby's refusal to speak is tantamount to a refusal to be human at all.

Quote #3

Somehow, of late, I had got into the way of involuntarily using this word "prefer" upon all sorts of not exactly suitable occasions. And I trembled to think that my contact with the scrivener had already and seriously affected me in a mental way. And what further and deeper aberration might it not yet produce? (66)

The irresistible spread of Bartleby's distinctive style of speaking – especially his favorite word – shows us what a powerful marker of influence language can be at times, even when we don't realize it.

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