All Common Core: 11th Grade English Language Arts Resources
Example Question #3 : Reading: Literature
Passage adapted from "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" by Herman Melville (1853)
I am a rather elderly man. The nature of my avocations for the last thirty years has brought me into more than ordinary contact with what would seem an interesting and somewhat singular set of men, of whom as yet nothing that I know of has ever been written—I mean the law-copyists or scriveners. I have known very many of them, professionally and privately, and if I pleased, could relate divers histories, at which good-natured gentlemen might smile, and sentimental souls might weep. But I waive the biographies of all other scriveners for a few passages in the life of Bartleby, who was a scrivener of the strangest I ever saw or heard of. While of other law-copyists I might write the complete life, of Bartleby nothing of that sort can be done. I believe that no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography of this man. It is an irreparable loss to literature. Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources, and in his case those are very small. What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him, except, indeed, one vague report which will appear in the sequel.
Ere introducing the scrivener, as he first appeared to me, it is fit I make some mention of myself, my employees, my business, my chambers, and general surroundings; because some such description is indispensable to an adequate understanding of the chief character about to be presented.
Imprimis: I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best. 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. I am one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause; but in the cool tranquility of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men's bonds and mortgages and title-deeds. All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man. The late John Jacob Astor, a personage little given to poetic enthusiasm, had no hesitation in pronouncing my first grand point to be prudence; my next, method. I do not speak it in vanity, but simply record the fact, that I was not unemployed in my profession by the late 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. I will freely add, that I was not insensible to the late John Jacob Astor's good opinion.
What theme is established in the third paragraph?
Passion and its direct relationship to professional failure
Social class and its tense relationship with the professional world of lawyers
Caution and its relationship to ambition
Justice and its complex relationship to social class
Caution and its relationship to ambition
The third paragraph sees a turn, from a discussion of storytelling in general and Bartleby the scrivener in particular, to a broader, more personal (for the narrator) discussion of the narrator's "profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best," and the ways in which this conviction has put him into direct contrast with most of his "energetic and nervous" profession. The narrator directly frames himself as an "eminently safe man," asserting that safety, or caution, is his first priority. The narrator goes to great lengths to frame himself as a cautious person, in contrast to other more passionate and possibly ambitious lawyers. But, the introduction of the figure of John Jacob Astor, reveals that the narrator is, in fact, quite ambitious and vain, not only about his cautious nature but his professional accomplishments as well. "Social class and its tense relationship with the professional world of lawyers" is a tempting option, except that there is no "tension" obvious in the narrator's description of this relationship, he unambiguously seems to feel proud of it. Since he has bragged about both is lack of passion and his professional success, we can eliminate the option that frames a lack of passion as leading to failure. In spite of the narrator's profession there is literally no mention of justice anywhere in the passage.
The only answer that accurately reflects the theme introduced in the paragraph is "caution and its relationship to ambition." Important to note here is that this is an answer that, in addition to mentioning the two main ideas introduced here, makes no ambitious claims about the relationship between these ideas, merely that such a relationship exists.