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Bartleby the Scrivener

Bartleby the Scrivener

by Herman Melville

Morality and Ethics Theme

Once you read "Bartleby the Scrivener," you'll never really shake it off – trust us on this one. We here at Shmoop first read it back in high school, and it's still lingering uncomfortably in the backs of our minds. Why, you ask? Well…hmm, we respond. We're not sure. It's hard to say what it is that makes "Bartleby" so compelling, but whatever it is definitely relates to the problematic issue of morality and personal responsibility. In this story, Melville asks us to consider how far our moral duties extend – that is to say, how responsible are we for our fellow human beings? That's not a question easily answered.

Questions About Morality and Ethics

  1. Do you think the Narrator did the "right" thing when he left Bartleby in the old office?
  2. Does the Narrator bear any responsibility towards Bartleby? Why or why not?
  3. Can Bartleby's passive resistance be defined as ethical or unethical?
  4. Is Bartleby's imprisonment just or unjust?

Chew on This

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

The Narrator is driven to help (or attempt to help) by a basic sense of moral responsibility, rather than anything else.

The figure of Bartleby demonstrates that morality and ethics no longer play effective roles in the modern world.

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