Bartleby the Scrivener
A short story / novella by Herman Melville

I've liked this story for a long time, ever since I read it in college. And to think, you can get a copy for only $1.00.

I got my hands on a film adaptation made of Bartleby (not the modernized full length British film which happens to be awful) and I showed it to my students and I found with a little guidance, they are able to understand quite a bit of it.

After the first showing, with no introduction, the students feel it's a pointless film about a crazy man who just stops working but after we take a look at the setting and analyze the exact words the characters use, we see that it is not as simple as that. In fact, many assumptions are reversed. The boss appears crazy, Bartleby appears sane and copying seems unreasonable. The only thing that distinguishes the grubman from the boss is the kind of refinement that only money can buy.

Because the exact language is important, e.g., Bartleby doesn't actually turn down the job alternatives, the film needed to be replayed a number of times. This year I decided to try to transcribe the film. Unfortunately, I failed to include a few of the important nonverbal scenes. (One in which a policeman notices the boss talking to himself is key to understanding that madness can be a question of context.)

I emphasize with my students that there is a surface story (Bartleby is crazy and the boss is a nice, caring individual) which doesn't have much value and an under-the-surface story (Bartleby is struggling to maintain his humanity against the forces of his economic situation so that he will not become a character who earns a nickname like Turkey, Gingernut or Nippers) which can be appreciated only by careful reading.

My students are used to stories that are broadcast over the medium of TV. The plots are simple, the characters are exaggerated; you still know what the story is about if you leave to fix a snack, tease your little sister, answer a phone call, or do a couple of your math homework problems. If I show a film or video to my students, they watch it as casually as if they were at home watching TV. Before showing a film or video, I need talk to them about how different an art film is from a TV program.

I tell them that the value of some literature is like buried treasure. You have to keep you eyes wide open and your mind alert for subtle clues that help you understand the map that will lead you to the buried treasure. Or, using another metaphor, the clues are like keys that will unlock the chest the holds the buried treasure. TV will plop what it has to offer right in your lap whether you're paying attention or not. All it asks of you is to be there. But literature is different. It has more to offer. Sometimes what it says is so important, it can only tell you in a whisper, so you need to pay attention.

I tell me students that I can make them all laugh. All I have to do is come into class, pretend like I'm lecturing, and then have my pants fall down to my ankles to reveal baggy boxer shorts with big red polka dots. Just telling them this makes them laugh.

I tell them it's OK to laugh. It's indeed funny. But if I did the same thing in front of a pre school class, I'd get the same result.

Literature, unlike the burlesque level of TV, respects your maturity. Literature doesn't treat you like a child. (Students like the idea of not being treated like a child.)

To understand what Melville is trying to tell us, we need to notice how he uses the setting. There is the green screen that separates Bartleby from the boss, the walls that Bartleby stares at, the wall in the Wall Street address. This is a story about the walls between people, especially the green wall, the wall of money.

To understand what Melville is trying to tell us, we need to remember the names of the other Scriveners. You get a name like Turkey or Gingernut when you lose your sense of self worth. Bartleby is fighting to maintain his name, his humanity. Even the boss and the grubman have lost their names to their jobs.

To understand what Melville is trying to tell us, it's important not to...

Other questions:

How does the grubman introduce himself to Bartleby? What motivates him so say, "Your servant, Sir?"Is it a kindly desire to serve or is it purely based on money? What evidence is there that the boss has the same motive? Isn't it true that the boss was primarily concerned about not upsetting his business associates?

What evidence do we have of Bartleby's eyes going bad? Isn't the boss really the blind one because he doesn't see that Bartleby's problem has nothing to do with poor lighting?

How is Bartleby's job like his previous one? Why would both be dehumanizing? How important is it to be the author of your own words?

Was the boss kind and generous or was he just looking for a way to rid himself of a problem?

What evidence is there the boss likes to play with language and hear the sound of his own voice?

Did Bartleby flat out refuse to go home and live with the boss or did he just say he didn't want to do it right at the moment? What did the boss do or say to Bartleby right before the invitation? In light of that, was it reasonable or unreasonable for Bartleby to decline immediate acceptance of the offer?

List the hasty conclusions that the boss makes about Bartleby.

The boss tells Bartleby he is a friend. Isn't a friend a good listener? Did the boss listen to Bartleby or did he put words in his mouth? When does the boss talk to Bartleby as a child and when does he talk to him as an adult? When did he raise his voice? When was he sarcastic? Does a friend talk to another friend this way?

What is the first thing that Bartleby says to the boss when he visits him in prison? How is the boss continuing to misunderstand what's going on with Bartleby?

When Bartleby first comes to apply for a job with the boss, what does the boss talk mostly about? Himself? the job? Bartleby's background?

What makes a job a good job? A bad job?

How important is it for us to have choice, to make our own decisions, to have our preferences matter?

This is an excellent story for students to learn