Melville’s Bartleby: Reading the Character through other Characters

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[[This blog post originally appeared on February 6, 2013.]]

Herman Melville, a few years before the 1953 publication of “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.”

I’ve been thinking a great deal about how to approach the concept of character in my introduction to literature courses. I’ve traditionally begun each semester by talking about characters and introducing my students to some of the basic terms that are important in reading characters (i.e. protagonist, antagonist, flat, round, static, dynamic).  This semester, I’m not entirely satisfied with the approach, particularly because my intro to lit class is comprised entirely of non-majors. This has gotten me thinking about why and how we talk about characters. In my experience, students enjoy discussing characters —especially the ones they strongly identify with. But while my students may identify with a character, they don’t always know why they do. Even more importantly, they often don’t know what to do with characters they do not identify with:  Characters with backgrounds that are unfamiliar.  Characters who are different.  Characters who are, in all honesty, weird. I’ve also been thinking about how I introduce students to the careful analysis of literature.  So often, when talking about characters or plots, students want to speak in very broad and uncritical terms. To handle both of these tasks— dealing with strange characters and working on critical analysis—I decided that we would look at how characters in a text describe one another.

I recently tried this with my class in our discussion of “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” because who is more remote from students’ experience than the morose 19th-century copyist? First, we needed to establish what we knew about everyone else who appears in the story.  We began class as I always do with “Bartleby”: We made lists of the details that we knew about the narrator, Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut.  I made sure that the description the narrator gives of himself, that he was “an eminently safe man,” was part of our discussion.  From there, we moved to Bartleby.  After talking about Bartleby’s initial appearance at the lawyer’s door, “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn,” we spoke specifically about what each word means.Next, I put students in charge of careful analysis. To do this I had them form pairs, and I assigned each a different paragraph from the story where the characters (mostly the narrator) describe Bartleby or interact with him. I asked students to read their assigned passages carefully, alert to Melville’s choices, especially word choices, in his presentation of Bartleby. In their pairs, students then answered these questions:

  1. Where in the story does the passage appear? What is the context for it?
  2. What is said about Bartleby in this passage, and which character says it?
  3. At this point, how does this character perceive Bartleby?
  4. How do you know this? That is, what specific words in the passage suggest this to you?
  5. In the passage, how does the character’s description of Bartleby compare with descriptions of Bartleby elsewhere in the story?

After  I’d given students time to work on this— and they certainly worked on it— I went  through the story chronologically, having them report back to the class about the discussion they had in answering these questions.  This led us to talking about the language that the narrator uses in telling his story, the various descriptions of Bartleby, and, most importantly, the way that the narrator changes as he describes his perceptions of Bartleby.  Bartleby really does not change all that much, but the narrator does.  And the narrator’s response to him tells us everything. In truth, this approach is primarily a matter of reframing basic questions: Who is Bartleby and why does he matter? Rather than simply asking students to respond to Melville’s character and story, I’m offering them tools and a set of questions to apply.  By looking at Bartleby through the point of view of other characters and the story’s narrator, my students could step of their own responses and, potentially, see the humanity they share with Bartleby.

About the Author
Emily Isaacson received her BA from Augustana College (Illinois) and her MA and PhD from the University of Missouri. Previously at Chowan University, where she was the coordinator of the Chowan Critical Thinking Program, Emily is now working as an assistant professor of English at Heidelberg University. She has presented her work on early modern literature and on teaching literature at meetings of the Shakespeare Association of America, the Renaissance Society of America, South Atlantic Modern Language Association, and the College English Association. She also frequently reviews books about teaching literature in the classroom.