Bartleby the Scrivener

Bartleby the Scrivener Summary and Analysis of Pages 38-46

Fourth Section (pp. 38-46)


Some time after the move, the narrator receives a visit from the new tenants of his old offices. They ask him to do something about Bartleby. The narrator protests that he has nothing to do with Bartleby. But a few days later, a large group of people is waiting for the narrator at the door. Among them is the landlord of the old office building. They all insist that the narrator must do something, since he was the last person to have anything to do with Bartleby. The new tenants turned Bartleby out of the office, but now he haunts the building, sleeping in the entry at night. One of them even threatens to complain of this incident to the papers. The narrator agrees to meet with Bartleby.

Bartleby is nonchalant and listless as ever. The narrator tries to propose different occupations for Bartleby, but Bartleby says each time that the suggested job would not please him. Finally, in desperation, the narrator offers Bartleby a place to stay in his own home. Bartleby refuses, and the narrator leaves him.

Hoping to avoid the anti-Bartleby corps, the narrator stays out of work for a few days. When he returns, he finds a note telling him that Bartleby has been arrested and moved to the Tombs as a vagrant. Bartleby offered no resistance. A whole procession of people went with him through the busy streets of noontime Manhattan.

The narrator goes to the Tombs (the name for the Halls of Justice), and asks to see Bartleby. He finds Bartleby in one of the yards, facing a wall. The narrator fears that from the windows murderers and thieves are watching. Bartleby acknowledges him, but the narrator's attempts to cheer him up are fruitless. Bartleby replies calmly, "I know where I am" (43). The narrator bribes a turnkey who dubs himself the grub-man to make sure Bartleby is well fed. When the grub-man offers Bartleby dinner, Bartleby says he would prefer not to eat just then.

When the narrator returns several days later, he searches for Bartleby all around the complex. Finally he finds Bartleby dead, huddled at the base of a wall. He learns that Bartleby had stopped eating: he preferred not to.

The narrator has a final bit of information to share with us. Some time after Bartleby's death, he heard a strange rumor. Before working as a scrivener, Bartleby had been a clerk at the Dead Letter Office at Washington. He lost the job due to a change in the administration. The narrator is horrified by the idea: for one who was already prone to melancholy, work at the Dead Letter Office would have been a dark and terrible thing. The undelivered letters are burned by the cartload. The narrator imagines letters bringing hopeful news, or forgiveness, or needed money; but all the intended recipients are now gone, the letters thwarted from their purposes. He finishes with the famous ending: "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!" (46).


The ghostly descriptions of Bartleby are now extended to the narrator. He describes going up the stairs to his old office as "going upstairs to my old haunt" (42). The language is part of the expansion of Bartleby's ghostly characteristics to the narrator and later, to all of humanity.

We see that Bartleby does not want to do anything; living itself tires him. In this way, "Bartleby the Scrivener" is more than just a didactic tract on the economic world of Melville's day. The conditions of life are not easily changed, and the depictions of office sterility and isolation in a large, unnatural world seem equally applicable today. Bartleby is a creature unable to adapt to this world, because he is too honest about what appeals to him. Nothing in life excites him. When the narrator tries to suggest different occupations to Bartleby, the scrivener's response is always the same: "I would prefer not to."

The narrator's offer to have Bartleby stay at his own home seems initially generous, but this belated offer of hospitality comes from a fear of scandal: a lawyer has threatened to publish the case in the papers. Yet one of the accomplishments of the story is that our narrator is basically a decent man. His abandonment of Bartleby is in no way exceptional, nor are we meant to see the narrator as more cruel or uncaring than the rest of humanity. If he fails Bartleby, we also must concede that most of us would fail him as well.

Several times in the story, we are made to question Bartleby's sanity. Ginger Nut gleefully suggests that Bartleby is insane: "I think, sir, he's a little luny" (16). The narrator also apparently shares the opinion, as he confides to the grub-man that Bartleby is "a little deranged" (44). But Bartleby, whatever his problems may be, is fully aware of the world around him. When the narrator greets Bartleby in prison, he's condescending to him, speaking to him in the way that one condescends to the mad: "And see, it is not so sad a place as one might think. Look, there is the sky, and here is the grass." Bartleby's reply is concise and curt: "I know where I am" (43). He is aware of the world. Notice also that there is a double meaning in the exchange. Both Bartleby and the narrator could be referring to the world itself. Bartleby is asserting that he can see the world around him clearly, and he apparently finds nothing to excite him.

Environment has been important so far to the story, and Melville's concise and powerful description of the prison yard continues the trend. Death imagery is abundant. The description comes not during the first visit, but right before the narrator finds Bartleby's death. He describes the character of the masonry as "Egyptian," and mentions the "soft imprisoned turf" growing underfoot. "The heart of the eternal pyramids, it seemed, wherein, by some strange magic, through the clefts, grass-seed, dropped by birds, had sprung" (45). For people of Melville's day, even more so than now, "Egyptian" character would recall death, as the Egyptian civilization was known mostly through its funerary objects and elaborate burial practices. Incidentally, the Halls of Justice are called "The Tombs." The image of the turf is ambiguous. Is it an image of hope, or of imprisonment? "The heart of the eternal pyramids" is a pretty phrase, but the pyramids, it must be remembered, were tombs. Death itself is the only constant. The image of birds dropping seeds, which grow in spite of the hostile environment, is lyrical and powerful. But is the grass a metaphor for hope, and life's persistence, the possibility of survival and beauty in a harsh environment? Or does the phrase "imprisoned turf" dominate the image? The grass then becomes battered, trapped life, with no hope of escaping the "Egyptian character" of the Tombs. Mortality is not a theme here in the usual sense. Bartleby chooses his death, detaching from life in stages and sliding towards an inevitable end. The real death is more than an event in time: death is diffuse, a spiritual gloom pervading the empty Wall Street landscape, the imposing stonework of the prison, and the Dead Letter Office where Bartleby supposedly worked. Living is not the opposite of death, but a condition continually assaulted and permeated by it.

The final rumor is haunting and dark. We learn also that Bartleby lost the Dead Letter Office job due to an administration change. The doubling continues: remember that the narrator lost his position due to bureaucratic change as well. Here, the doubling is expanded. Bartleby is a phantom double not only for the narrator, but for all of humanity. The Dead Letter Office is a place of supreme gloom, where evidence of human mortality and the futility of our best intentions would have been unavoidable. The narrator, a man who adapts to this life, who thrives in the world that exhausted Bartleby, cannot help but be moved by Bartleby's vision. The tone of his final statement ("Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!") is of a sadness mixed with resignation, a pained sigh rather than a shriek of anger. He has failed to help even one man. He can do nothing to alter the human condition.