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Bartleby the Scrivener

Bartleby the Scrivener

by Herman Melville

Language and Communication Theme

Slogans are everywhere. They jump out at us from commercials, from billboards, from t-shirts – really, they're all over the place. And why are they effective? Well, simply because the more you get used to hearing something, the more you believe it, right? Slogans and catchphrases are a way of instantly communicating a message or belief (think Barack Obama and "Yes we can!"), and their powerful punch really demonstrates the power of language. In "Bartleby the Scrivener," the mysterious central figure, Bartleby, has his own catchphrase of sorts – "I would prefer not to." He uses this phrase in response to pretty much everything, and the more we hear it, the more we believe him; Bartleby's slogan fully communicates his philosophy and his whole outlook on life in five short words.

Questions About Language and Communication

  1. Does Bartleby's repetition of the phrase "I would prefer not to" make said phrase more or less meaningful?
  2. What is the significance of the infiltration of the word "prefer" into the language of everyone else at the office?
  3. Do you think that language, as presented by Melville, is able to sufficiently express ideas?
  4. Do these characters communicate at all with each other? Why or why not?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Bartleby's refusal to explain himself or his actions make his lone statement – "I prefer not to" – more powerful.

Melville's telling of Bartleby's story highlights the futility of language and the true impossibility of real human communication.

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