Study Guide

Bartleby the Scrivener Quotes

  • Rules and Order

    All who know me consider me an eminently safe man. The late John Jacob Astor, a personage little given to poetic enthusiasm, had no hesitation in pronouncing my first grand point to be prudence, my next, method. (2)

    This diagnosis is pretty clear – the Narrator is no wild rule-breaker. In fact, he's known for his steadfast adherence to rules and order.

    After a few words touching [Bartleby's] qualifications, I engaged him, glad to have among my corps of copyists a man of so singularly sedate an aspect, which I thought might operate beneficially upon the flighty temper of Turkey and the fiery one of Nippers. (15)

    The Narrator, who places great value upon order and respectability in the office, is initially invested in Bartleby's potential to instill order, rather than contribute to its breakdown.

    Now, what was ginger? A hot, spicy thing. Was Bartleby hot and spicy? Not at all. Ginger, then had no effect upon Bartleby. Probably he preferred it should have none. (34)

    Wow – even natural rules have no effect upon Bartleby. Somehow, the strength of his "preferences" manage to prevent even a physical sensation – the spiciness of ginger – from affecting him at all.

    Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance. (35)

    Why? Simply put, passive resistance isn't in the rules. We're used to human conduct that is a little more black and white than that, and Bartleby's peaceful protest is infuriatingly difficult to comprehend.

    As I afterwards learned, the poor scrivener, when told that he must be conducted to the Tombs, offered not the slightest obstacle, but, in his pale, unmoving way, silently acquiesced. (118)

    Interestingly, Bartleby agrees to follow the rules set down by the government, and goes peacefully to jail – why might he suddenly allow this to happen to him?

  • Choices

    In short, the truth of the matter was Nippers knew not what he wanted. (9)

    Nippers's profound discontentment is a result of his uncertainty and undirected ambition – we must wonder if Bartleby is happier, in his way, than the unsure Nippers.

    "I would prefer not to," said he.

    I looked at him steadfastly. His face was leanly composed; his gray eyes dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Hat there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been anything ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises. But as it was I should have as soon thought of turning my pale plaster-of-Paris bust of Cicero out of doors. (22)

    Bartleby's decision is so decisive that it's inhuman – his choices are so definite that his mind is unchangeable, a quality that makes them impossible to question.

    "I prefer not to," [Bartleby] replied in a flutelike tone. It seemed to me that, while I had been addressing him, he carefully revolved every statement that I made; fully comprehended the meaning; could not gainsay the irresistible conclusion; but, at the same time, some paramount consideration prevailed with him to reply as he did. (27)

    Here, the Narrator tries to comprehend the incomprehensible: Bartleby's decision-making process.

    "Why, how now? What next?' exclaimed I, "do no more writing?"

    "No more."

    "And what is the reason?"

    "Do you not see the reason for yourself?" he indifferently replied. (70)

    Bartleby's justification for his decision to stop working is something that he finds apparent, even though his employer does not; honestly, we're with the Narrator here in not quite being sure about what the scrivener means.

    [Narrator:] "The time has come; you must quit this place; I am sorry for you; here is money; but you must go."

    "I would prefer not," [Bartleby] replied, with his back still towards me.

    "You must."

    He remained silent. (76-77)

    It's pretty clear from this interaction (and all those previous) that Bartleby's choices are not governed by anything but himself, even external force.

    [Bartleby:] "I would not like it at all; though, as I said before, I am not particular." (114)

    This new addition, "I am not particular," is one of Bartleby's strangest pronouncements yet. By claiming that he's not picky, does he mean to say that he hasn't been making negative decisions all along, and has simply been hanging out, waiting for the right thing to come along – the thing he would "prefer" to do? That's kind of what it looks like.

    Strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones, I saw the wasted Bartleby. But nothing stirred. I paused, then went close up to him, stooped over, and saw that his dim eyes were open; otherwise he seemed profoundly sleeping. Something prompted me to touch him. I felt his hand, when a tingling shiver ran up my arm and down my spine to my feet. (128)

    Is Bartleby's death suicide? Or did he simply die because he could not continue living in prison? We learn from the grubman that Bartleby continued to prefer not to eat anything…do you think he consciously chose to die?

  • Language and Communication

    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.

    "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.

    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.

    As he opened the folding door to retire, Nippers at his desk caught a glimpse of me, and asked whether I would prefer to have a certain paper copied on blue paper or white. He did not in the least roguishly accent the word prefer. It was plain that it involuntarily rolled from his tongue. I thought to myself, surely I must get rid of a demented man, who already has in some degree turned the tongues, if not the heads, of myself and clerks. (68)

    Again, we see language as an interesting symptom of whatever mental illness Bartleby is spreading through the office.

    "The time has come; you must quit this place; I am sorry for you; here is money; but you must go."

    "I would prefer not," he replied, with his back still towards me.

    "You must."

    He remained silent. (76-77)

    Bartleby proves here that sometimes the most effective mode of communication is simply silence.

    "I know you," he said, without looking round – "and I want nothing to say to you." (122)

    Huh – for the first time, Bartleby's language directly expresses something. He doesn't just say he prefers not to speak to the Narrator, but clearly says that he doesn't want to. This subtle change surely expresses a change in Bartleby himself…

  • Morality and Ethics

    I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best. (1)

    This rather surprising assertion leads us to immediately question the morality of the Narrator – after all, "easy" doesn't always mean "good," unfortunately.

    Nippers […] was a whiskered, sallow, and upon the whole rather piratical-looking young man of about five and twenty. I always deemed him the victim of two evil powers – ambition and indigestion. (9)

    We begin to form some idea of the Narrator's personal ethics here; his judgment of Nippers's discontented ambition makes it clear that he thinks people should simply go through life uneventfully, as he does.

    It is not seldom the case that, when a man is browbeaten in some unprecedented and violently unreasonable way, he begins to stagger in his own plainest faith. He begins, as it were, vaguely to surmise that, wonderful as it may be, all the justice and all the reason is on the other side. Accordingly, if any disinterested persons are present, he turns to them for some reinforcement for his own faltering mind. (29)

    Here, the Narrator offers a description, in a nutshell, of how ethics often work – simply by a process of general consensus. In seeking the advice of Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut, he hopes to determine what is "just" and "right."

    Poor fellow! thought I, he means no mischief; it is plain he intends no insolence; his aspect sufficiently evinces that his eccentricities are involuntary […] if I turn him away, the chances are he will fall in with some less indulgent employer, and then he will be rudely treated, and perhaps driven forth miserably to starve. Yes. Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartleby, to humor him in his strange willfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience. (35)

    Oh, interesting…the "moral" impulse we recognize here in the Narrator turns out to have a slightly sordid edge of self-serving satisfaction. We have to wonder how much of "morality" is actually motivated by this kind of desire.

    up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul be rid of it. (56)

    The Narrator, perhaps in some bid to excuse his own inability to help Bartleby, tries here to convince us that perhaps morality and moral responsibility only stretch so far – and when it's obvious that there's nothing to be done, we might as well give up trying to help. Hmm…

    Aside from higher considerations, charity often operates as a vastly wise and prudent principle – a great safeguard to its possessor. (93)

    Again we see the Narrator's interestingly pragmatic approach to morality rear its head; he seizes upon charity as a mode of self-preservation, rather than genuine goodwill.

    What shall I do? I now said to myself, buttoning up my coat to the last button. What shall I do? What ought I to do? what does conscience say I should do with this man, or, rather, ghost. Rid myself of him, I must; go, he shall. (99)

    Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a right or wrong answer to these questions. The Narrator, whose confusion is evident in his Yoda-like syntax, isn't alone in his uncertainty over what to do with Bartleby – honestly, what would you do?

    Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity! (131)

    This final cry of desperation expresses the almost inexpressibly complicated emotions that run through the end of the story – guilt, pity, sadness…and a certain anxiety for the rest of humanity.

  • Isolation

    Meanwhile Bartleby sat in his hermitage, oblivious to everything but his own particular business there. (32)

    Bartleby is only separated from the office by a screen, yet still he manages to completely shut himself in – this demonstrates his ability to create his own isolated world.

    Immediately then the thought came sweeping across me, what miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed. His poverty is great, but his solitude, how horrible! Think of it. Of a Sunday, Wall Street is deserted as Petra, and every night of every day it is an emptiness. This building, too, which of weekdays hums with industry and life, at nightfall echoes with sheer vacancy, and all through Sunday is forlorn. And here Bartleby makes his home, sole spectator of a solitude which he has seen all populous – a sort of innocent and transformed Marius brooding among the ruins of Carthage! (51)

    Despite the weirdness and wrongness of Bartleby's situation, the Narrator is profoundly moved by its piteousness – he assumes that Bartleby, like most other people, is affected somehow by his lack of human interaction.

    The bond of common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam. I remembered the bright silks and sparkling faces I had seen that day, in gala trim, swanlike sailing down the Mississippi of Broadway; and I contrasted them with the pallid copyist, and thought to myself, Ah, happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay, but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none. (52)

    The Narrator sadly ponders Bartleby's isolation, and keenly observes that since happy people want to be together and miserable ones keep themselves apart, we assume that everyone is happy, which is, as he observes, a pretty faulty logic.

    If he would but have named a single relative or friend, I would instantly have written and urged their taking the poor fellow away to some convenient retreat. But he seemed alone, absolutely alone in the universe. A bit of wreck in the mid-Atlantic. (74)

    Bartleby's state of total isolation inspires an odd combination of emotions in the Narrator; while he's understandably exasperated by the scrivener's behavior, this sense of loneliness plays upon his basic sense of human compassion – it seems unnatural for anyone to be that alone in the world.

    It was the circumstance of being alone in a solitary office, upstairs, of a building entirely unhallowed by humanizing domestic associations – an uncarpeted office, doubtless, of a dusty, haggard sort of appearance – this it must have been which greatly helped to enhance the irritable desperation of the helpless Colt. (92)

    The Narrator's description of the setting of the infamous Colt-Adams murder case puts a great deal of blame on the office itself – there's something completely isolated from regular human life about the office. We have to wonder what effect it has upon Bartleby and upon the Narrator himself.

    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? (130)

    The profound alienation and hopelessness of Bartleby's previous occupation overwhelms the Narrator, leading us to wonder how much of Bartleby's condition relates to this idea of the Dead Letter Office.