Study Guide

Bartleby the Scrivener Themes

  • Rules and Order

    Whether or not we realize it, our everyday lives are dictated by a complex network of rules and regulations. For the most part, even the extremely independent-minded among us still do the things we're supposed to – you know, we follow traffic signals, pay for things at stores, go to work or school, the usual stuff. What, though, would happen if one (or all!) of us just stopped following the rules and started simply doing what we "prefer" to do? Could civilization still function? You'll have to read "Bartleby the Scrivener" to try and find out.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. Do you perceive Bartleby's actions – or lack thereof – as actually breaking any rules?
    2. Who or what enforces the rules in this story?
    3. Do you think Bartleby operates under his own set of rules? If so, what might they be?

    Chew on This

    Though Bartleby is the most glaring example, all of the characters we encounter in this story transgress and break certain social rules.

    By ultimately killing Bartleby, Melville demonstrates his skepticism regarding the modern emphasis on individuality over conventional social organization.

  • Choices

    One of the things that make us human is our ability to make complex choices, even about the simplest of things. We don't always just do what we "should" do, and sometimes our most unconventional decisions lead to the greatest outcomes; after all, the choices we make in life create the unique individuals we all become. However, in "Bartleby the Scrivener," Herman Melville asks us to question what governs the choices we make – and how our capacity for decision making and independent thought, which is often so wonderful, can sometimes be a dangerous thing…with potentially fatal consequences.

    Questions About Choices

    1. What, in your opinion, motivates Bartleby's "preferences"?
    2. Whose choices are responsible for Bartleby's death?
    3. Does Bartleby's repetitive assertion that he "prefer[s]" not to do anything constitute a specific choice?
    4. Considering the events of the story, do you think "choice" can be a passive act?

    Chew on This

    The Narrator's decision to abandon Bartleby at the Wall Street office ultimately leads to the scrivener's death.

    Bartleby's insistence upon his lack of particularity ultimately demonstrates that he simply "prefer[s]" not to make choices at all.

  • Language and Communication

    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

    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.

  • Morality and Ethics

    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

    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.

  • Isolation

    We'll just put this out there: Bartleby is a guy that lives alone in his workplace. He sleeps, eats, shaves, and hangs out in his cubicle. He has no friends. He has no family. He doesn't even have a dog. The only people he ever sees are his coworkers, and he basically refuses all interaction with them. Do you think he's isolated? Heck, yeah! This short story explores the nature of Bartleby's extreme isolation, and of its impact on the world around him, and forces readers to ask themselves how much of humanity is contained in our communal nature.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Do you think Bartleby is troubled at all by his profound isolation?
    2. Do you think the Narrator is troubled by his isolation?
    3. As far as we can tell, is the world Melville presents one in which meaningful relationships are even possible?

    Chew on This

    Bartleby is simply an extreme example of a problem that is prevalent in all of Melville's characters in "Bartleby the Scrivener" – the widening space between individuals.

    In "Bartleby the Scrivener," Melville delivers a scathing diagnosis of the fervent belief in individualism that was popular in philosophy and literature of his time.