Bartleby The Scrivener Theme Essay Hook

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Below you will find three outstanding thesis statements / paper topics that can be used as essay starters for “Bartleby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in “Bartleby the Scrivener” and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements for “Bartleby the Scrivener” offer a summary of different elements that could be important in an essay but you are free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them. Using the essay topics for “Bartleby the Scrivener” below in conjunction with the list of important quotes at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent essay on “Bartleby the Scrivener” Before you begin, however, please get some useful tips and hints about how to use in the brief User's Guide…you'll be glad you did.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: “Bartleby the Scrivener" as a Human Tragedy

The last line of Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” is “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!" Analyze this exclamation: it maybe that Melville is making a strong claim about what it means to act according to a certain concept of humanness, that being the characters other than Bartleby (Turkey, Nippers, Ginger Nut, and the narrator himself). Bartleby is described as completely emotionless, at one point “… he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically". He is also described as a ghost. It should be pointed out that the narrator’s problems with his other employees have to do with their unreliability, sloppiness, drunkenness, and flaring tempers. So Turkey and Nippers are quite the opposite of Bartleby, yet the main conflict that “Bartleby the Scrivener” presents is an internal one: that is, how is the narrator to deal with someone who appears to be void of any human attributes? Note also in the descriptions of Turkey and Nippers, there is some sort of organic mechanization in the way they work, and how their temperaments change: “Their fits relieved each other, like guards. When Nipper’s was on, Turkey’s was off; and vice versa". By the closing sentence of “Bartleby the Scrivener”, the author may be saying that it is human nature to have faults; however losing the ability to emote and connect with one’s surrounding world is perhaps the greatest tragedy an individual could go through or witness.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: “Dead Letters" and Heavy Words in “Bartleby the Scrivener”

Look at the narrator’s vivid description of the name of his former employer John Jacob Astor at the beginning of “Bartleby the Scrivener”. He says that it is a name “… which, I admit, I love to repeat; for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion". Mere words for the narrator of “Bartleby the Scrivener” have weight, significance, and they evoke the idea of money. The lawyer and his clerks’ work thrives on words, although not in the literary fashion (the narrator makes a quip about how Byron would be bored with their words), but words nevertheless. Legal contracts are drawn up and copied, “mortgages, and title-deeds", these all having importance because they represent money being transferred based on laws of society. Now compare this job of Bartleby’s with his former one: a clerk in the “Dead Letter Office at Washington", and make a claim about what statement is being made having to do with the significance of words, and the humanity words and communication represent, or are supposed to represent.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: Is the Narrator Reliable in “Bartleby the Scrivener"?

Analyze the structure of the narration in “Bartleby the Scrivener”, and the narrator’s use of language in talking about himself. An argument might be made that this narrator in “Bartleby the Scrivener” is shading or padding some things, either about himself or other characters, or that he’s gotten some crucial things wrong. The first clue he gives us comes in the first sentence “I am a rather elderly man". Instead of taking him right away as a wise old man who is giving us the story straight, look for contradictions in his narration. His “prudence" and “method" might easily translate into words like greedy or miserly. He claims to be mild mannered but is furious about the abolition of his former job because he counted on doing little or no work, and making enormous profits. Even though he speaks of his compassion to his clerks Turkey and Nippers, there is a way in which he might be completely out of touch with their actual needs and real feelings. For instance, he does not seem to care about why his two employees become angry or belligerent while working, but rather content that they do not rebel at the same time. Read “Bartleby the Scrivener” again with more skepticism about the narrator, and more of his faults will be illuminated.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: A Critique of Capitalism in “Bartleby the Scrivener"

We learn in the first paragraphs of “Bartleby the Scrivener” that the characters we are dealing with are a lawyer and his law clerks. We also learn that the narrator is not a courtroom-style lawyer, but a business lawyer that deals with “rich men’s bonds". Think about the socio-economic array of—or gap between—characters in “Bartleby the Scrivener” and decide what sort of commentary Melville might be making about class distinctions and system of government in this time period in the United States. Note that “Bartleby the Scrivener” is written in the very middle of the 19th century during industrialization and capitalist business practices. The narrator even mentions John Jacob Astor, a historical figure who is famous for having amassed a private fortune. Examine businessmen like Astor and the relationship the narrator has had with him. This story intimates a dichotomy between the people who profit off of such business, and those more in the working class like Bartleby, Turkey, and Nippers, and the long arduous work they are subjected-to should be brought out as they are essentially human copy machines. Thus, a theme emerges about alienation of workers under such social conditions and dehumanizing consequences.

This list of important quotations from “Bartleby the Scrivener” will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from “Bartleby the Scrivener” listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned. All quotes from “Bartleby the Scrivener” contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of “Bartleby the Scrivener” they are referring to.

“Hence, though I belong to a profession proverbially energetic and nervous, even to turbulence, at times, yet nothing of that sort have I ever suffered to invade my peace" (986).

“…. John Jacob Astor; a name which, I admit, I love to repeat; for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion" (986-87).

“So that, Turkey’s paroxysms only coming on about twelve o’clock, I never had to do with their eccentricities at one time. Their fits relieved each other, like guards. When Nipper’s was on, Turkey’s was off; and vice versa. This was a good natural arrangement, under the circumstances.

“I can readily imagine that, to some sanguine temperaments, it would be altogether intolerable. For example, I cannot credit that the mettlesome poet, Byron, would have contentedly sat down with Bartleby to examine a law document of, say, five hundred pages, closely written in a crimpy hand" (991).

“He did not look at me while I spoke, but kept his glance fixed upon my bust of Cicero, which, as I then sat, was directly behind me, some six inches above my head" (999)

“I thought Turkey would appreciate the favour, and abate his rashness and obstreperousness of afternoons. But no; I verily believe that buttoning himself up in so downy and blanket-like a coat had a pernicious effect upon him—upon the same principle that too much oats are bad for horses" (989-990).

“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?" (1011).

“Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!"(1011)

Quoted from “Bartleby the Scrivener" [] by Herman Melville, pp. 986-1011 in Fiction 100: an Anthology of Short Fiction. Eleventh Edition. Edited by James H. Pickering. Pearson Prentice Hall: 2007.

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Brief Biography of Herman Melville

Herman Melville was born to a well-off family in New York City in 1819, where he was schooled until his father’s early death in 1832. In 1839 he became a sailor on a merchant ship, and by 1840 Melville made his way onto a whaling vessel, giving him valuable experience that he’d later write about in his first two novels, Typee (1845) and Omoo (1847), adventure stories which were massive commercial successes. Melville returned from the sea to the United States in 1844, docking in Boston. Around this time Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, and the couple had their first child in 1849, the same year that his third and fourth novels, Mardi and Redburn, were both released to little financial success (although Redburn did receive some critical acclaim). In 1850, Melville moved his family to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he struck up a friendship with author Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom he eventually dedicated his massive novel Moby-Dick, released in 1851 to critically mixed reviews and financial failure. His next novel, Pierre, released in 1852, was another dud in terms of sales, and led to the end of Melville being considered a popular novelist during his lifetime. Melville then wrote short stories, which were published in magazines, including Bartleby, the Scrivener, The Encantadas, and Benito Cereno. Through the rest of his life, Melville wrote two more novels, and he also traveled to Europe and then East Asia before returning to the United States to take a post as a customs inspector in New York. Towards the end of his life Melville wrote poetry, including a collection focused on his concerns about the morality of the civil war called Battle-Pieces and Aspects of War, released in 1866. In 1867, Melville’s oldest son died from a self-inflicted gun shot to the head. Melville’s next published work was 1876’s Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, which dealt with metaphysical and epic themes. In 1886 Melville’s second son, Stanwix, died, causing Melville to retire from his post as a customs inspector. During his final years until his death of cardiovascular disease in 1891, Melville privately published two volumes of poetry and returned to writing prose (although he never published it). Melville’s novella Billy Budd, unfinished at his death, was published posthumously in 1924.

Historical Context of Bartleby, the Scrivener

The New York Stock Exchange was founded in March of 1817, and its popularity and importance quickly grew. A seat on the exchange cost 25 dollars in 1817, by 1827 it cost 100 dollars, and by 1848 the price grew to 400 dollars (which, in today’s money, would be more than 11,000 dollars.) During this time, New York surpassed Philadelphia as the financial center of the United States. Whereas in 1827 the New York Stock Exchange traded about 100 shares per day, by 1834 the exchange traded as many as 5,000 shares per day. Also, as technology advanced with the advent of the telegraph in 1844, the scope of the New York Stock Exchange grew and became more powerful. This shift in the importance of Wall Street and the stock market led many people to switch careers, from more rural pursuits like farming and agriculture to desk jobs like clerking or, to use Melville’s character of Bartleby as an example, becoming scriveners. This trend of work shifting from open spaces to enclosed domestic offices likely influenced Melville in the writing of Bartleby, the Scrivener, and it is the backdrop in which the story is set.

Other Books Related to Bartleby, the Scrivener

On the surface, Bartleby, The Scrivener isn’t similar in setting to most of Melville’s other works, as the vast majority of his novels and stories are set in open spaces (typically on the sea), not in enclosed domestic offices. However, thematic echoes of Moby-Dick surface in Bartleby, as Bartleby’s affliction of passive resistance could perhaps be called a kind of madness similar to Ahab’s condition of obsession, and The Lawyer’s waffling about whether Bartleby remains in his life thanks to predestination or because of his own free will is a theme that recurs continually in Ishmael’s mind.An external influence on Bartleby might have been The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton, as some critics have argued that this book may have introduced Melville to the concept of the Humors, which was the idea that there are four basic elements at play in humans derived from the four elements of air, fire, earth and water. Correspondingly, it has been agued that in Bartleby the four main characters (the three scriveners plus The Lawyer) each correspond to a different humor: Turkey represents the sanguine, Nippers the choleric, The Lawyer the phlegmatic, and Bartleby the melancholic. The New Testament, which is often heavily alluded to in Melville’s work, is also an undercurrent that flows through Bartleby, and there have been scholarly papers written arguing that Bartleby is positioned as a Christ-like figure in this story—his conflict begins after three days at the office, mirroring Christ’s three days on the cross. However, unlike Jesus, no one puts an end to Bartleby’s suffering, and, at least from The Lawyer’s perspective, Bartleby is granted no salvation. Additionally, the ancient myth of Pygmalion, most famously written about in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is considered by some critics to be a precursor to Bartleby, because there are many references in Melville’s story to the bust of Cicero stationed behind The Lawyer’s desk in his office. Just as Pygmalion can find no love in the real world and only falls in love with the statue he creates, The Lawyer can find no connection with Bartleby until after he has died, the story itself serving as The Lawyer’s (failed) attempt to connect.There are also many works written after 1851 related to Bartleby. Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial deals with similar themes of disconnection in modern society, focusing on governmental bureaucracy rather than the office space. Kafka’s short story A Hunger Artist is probably the author’s most comparable story to Bartleby, as it follows the same arc of a worker flourishing, then slowly declining until a death caused by self-starvation. Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger also deals with themes of alienation in modern society, including alienation from one’s own self. Further, any comedy or tragedy set in a modern workplace, such as the TV comedy series The Office or the films Office Space or Glengarry Glen Ross, can be seen as variations on the themes presented in Bartleby.

Key Facts about Bartleby, the Scrivener

  • Full Title: Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street
  • When Written: 1853
  • Where Written: Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
  • When Published: November and December of 1853, in Putnam’s Magazine
  • Literary Period: American Romanticism
  • Genre: Short Story, work-place drama/comedy/tragedy.
  • Setting: 1850’s, New York, in a Wall Street law office.
  • Climax: After refusing to vacate the office, Bartleby is imprisoned, where he then “prefers not to” eat.
  • Antagonist: Bartleby
  • Point of View: The story is told from the first-person voice of an unnamed narrator we know little about aside from the fact that he is an elderly lawyer, (and therefore he can be referred to as The Lawyer.)

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