Study Guide

Bartleby the Scrivener Rules and Order

By Herman Melville

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?

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