Lesson Archive II: Melville, Bartleby

I taught “Bartleby the Scrivener” to a group of 11th graders at Longmeadow High School in Massachusetts. I knew that many of them had jobs, but I didn’t expect that they would describe them with such enthusiasm in the writing exercises I designed to introduce this text. I remember in particular a very shy and quiet young man who wrote at great length how much he enjoyed working at Six Flags, how his co-workers and bosses were “cool.”

This unit came after a longer one on Death of a Salesman.

Here are some of the questions and conclusions I posed throughout the brief unit on the story:


“Bartleby:” handout I

Ask students to share their own experiences with the workplace. What things do they like/dislike about their jobs?

(Possible modern-day work settings to be used for the Wrap-Up/Homework include: the New York Stock Exchange, a doctor’s office, a lawyer’s office, a classroom, a diner, a radio station, a movie studio, a movie theater, a grocery store, a factory, headquarters of a major corporation, a museum, the White House, a taxi garage, a newspaper office, a publishing house, the cockpit of a plane, a circus, a telephone switchboard, a fire station, a police department, a laundromat, a car wash, a printing press, a forest ranger’s office, a farm, a zoo, a scientific laboratory, a hospital, a plant nursery, and a daycare center.)

Explain that we will be reading a short story this week that is set in a different time period from Death of a Salesman, but addresses some of the same issues, if very differently. One of the essential questions we will think about this week is

What is resistance? What means of resistance are most effective? What is worth resisting? What is the nature of work today?

More specifically, how is Bartleby a role model for many today? How do his words spread?

Looking ahead – we will watch most or all of the film in class later this week.

Evaluation / Assessment:
Students will be evaluated based on written journal entries, participation in class discussions, their modernizations of Melville’s passage, and annotations.

Guiding Questions

Bartleby” Handout II

A. Who is the narrator, and how does he speak?

How does he seem to feel about insolence?

B. Choose one copyist to describe in detail, explaining key lines (citing/quoting the text) about him.

C. Describe Bartleby’s working conditions. Where does he sit? Why does the boss have Bartleby sit where he does?

(Narrator is a safe man) –

(Turkey works hard in the morning but gets hasty in the afternoon. If we were to say he had a signature phrase, it would be “With submission, sir.”

-What does the narrator describe as his “arrangement” around Turkey and Nippers? (8)

-What do you make of the workers’ names being food-related?

III. Read pages 9-11 as a class, and annotate.

IV. Literature circles: assign groups and roles

V. When there is about 10-15 minutes left, turn students to the closing questions. We will share these at the end of class. I will also take any questions and ask students to share key lines from their groups. By Thursday, students should have completed the whole story (an additional 14 pages or so). We will then watch the film in class.


What do you make of the boss’s questions on the top of page 15? Why does he ask Bartleby if he “prefers not to” or if he “will not”? What is the distinction between the two?

Concluding points


1) This is a lesson about reading itself. Melville’s language is hard, and the message is not straightforward. Literary critic Barbara Johnson writes that reading is a “vertiginous” act. If you are truly reading and learning, you are necessarily uncomfortable. Another writer who teaches at the Yale Comparative Literature department tells her students that she writes her reading notes in pencil first, because she rarely understands what she reads the first time.

It is important to allow oneself to “not know,” or to be, as the definition of “vertiginous” states, unsettled and unsure. This means you have an open mind, that you are thinking. Those who always have to know or to be right will necessarily limit their own thinking and knowledge, as well as others’.

2) The work world requires that we fit into a mold – when we do not do this, we become useless and disposable, like the orange peel in Death of a Salesman. 

3) There is no real way to be an individual today – Melville describes Bartleby as being ghost-like, ethereal…

4) Even the “Boss” is unhappy under capitalism – but he wants the workers to pretend they are satisfied…

5) Words matter – Bartleby’s passive resistance through the use of the word “prefer,” his subtle critic is what works. In a way, this could be read as a general argument that subtle, artistic critique is more effective than direct political protest.


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