Melville finished his masterpiece, Moby-Dick, when he was all of thirty-two years old. Still a young writer, he had crafted one of the most incredibly dense and imaginative works in all of literature, a book now praised by many as the greatest novel in English. But Moby-Dick failed in its own time, slammed by critics and spurned by readers; Melville's truths were too hard to hear. It would be decades after Melville's death before the power of his work was recognized.
Not surprisingly, Melville's writing after Moby-Dick is often preoccupied with the question of communication. In the novella Billy Budd, Melville's second most famous work, a young man's speech impediment makes it impossible for him to defend his innocence. Benito Cereno also ends with a classic moment of failed communication, as the tormented slave ship captain is utterly unable to convey to his rescuer the vital truth that has destroyed him. "Bartleby the Scrivener" is also the story of failed communication, and of the impossibility of connection between human beings.
"Bartleby the Scrivener" is now one of the most famous short stories of the nineteenth century. In 1852, Melville was asked by Putnam's magazine to contribute a work of short fiction. He began by writing a story about a young wife named Agatha who waits seventeen years for news from her husband, who left to seek work. As Melville conceived the story, the mailbox was an essential symbol: as time passes, the unused mailbox rots and falls apart. Word never comes.
This story, though appealing for its symbolism, proved unworkable as fiction. Melville abandoned it, although the forlorn mailbox and the absent mail reworked themselves into the Dead Letter Office at "Bartleby"'s haunting ending. "Bartleby the Scrivener" was published in 1853, to not much fanfare. As with all of Melville's good work, complexity alienated his readers.
In many ways, "Bartleby" is the one of the first stories of corporate discontent. Melville was a child of New York City, and the story unfolds on Wall Street. The scriveners are part of the machinery of modern industry and commerce; they are educated men who do tedious work. "Part of the machinery" seems an apt description of their work: later the services they performed were done by machines. In this world, where a man does his work, earns his pay, and goes on and on until he dies, Bartleby is a freak and an outcast. He is a profoundly depressed and lonely man, who seems completely unable to find work that will satisfy him. Life itself is weary to him. He cannot find a place in the world, and so he dies.
His employer, an elderly lawyer who goes unnamed, tries but fails to connect with Bartleby. Somehow, he is able to empathize with the strange scrivener, but help him he cannot (or will not). At the end of the tale, one of the questions of the story concerns their relationship: did the narrator fail Bartleby? If he did, was the failure avoidable? How responsible is one man for the salvation of another? Even more disturbing, one wonders if Bartleby is not the only one who is doomed. The world that plunged him into gloom is seen in a new light, and the narrator and his employees, who have adapted to this world, seem diminished by their numbness to it.