"Bartleby the Scrivener" is one of the first great stories of corporate discontent. The description of the office is incredibly bleak, and the landscape of Wall Street is completely unnatural. The work environment is sterile and cheerless. Yet most adapt to it, with varying degrees of success. Though the narrator is a successful man, he is a victim, in some ways, of progress. He has lost the post he occupied during the central events of the story, as the position was deemed redundant and eliminated. We learn later that Bartleby may have lost a job due to similar bureaucratic change. The modern economy includes constant and unfeeling change, which comes at a cost.
Melville often describes the world through concise and telling descriptions of the environment. The character of the world of work and business is most often evoked through physical description of the landscape. In the final prison scene Melville's description of environment extends the scope of the story from the business world to the general human condition. Bartleby cannot pretend to have enthusiasm for this bleak world, and so he disengages from it, in stages, until he dies.
Doubles make for an important thematic device. Through doubles, Melville suggests our connection to other human beings. Nippers and Turkey are like two faces of a coin, as are, finally, Bartleby and the narrator. With Bartleby, Melville is constantly evoking him as a kind of phantom double. The descriptions of him frequently cast him as either a ghost or a corpse. At the end of the story, Bartleby's significance expands, and he becomes not only a double for the narrator but also a kind of double for all of humanity.
Responsibility and Compassion
How responsible is the narrator for Bartleby's salvation? Our narrator fails the scrivener, who clearly needs help, but Melville in no way demonizes his narrator. In fact, the narrator seems to go to greater lengths than most people would in his efforts to help Bartleby. But it seems far short of what is necessary, and indisputably the narrator stops short of his limits. Should there be limits to our will to help a man, if his life is at stake? Is writing off a suffering man by saying he's responsible for himself only a way to excuse our own lack of compassion?
Isolation and the failure to connect
Bartleby is one of the most isolated characters in all of literature. Bartleby's environment cuts him off from nature and often, from other men. By day, Bartleby's window stares at a wall. Wall Street is a bleak and unnatural landscape, and Bartleby also stays there at night, when the bustling human population vanishes and the streets become desolately empty. The narrator makes attempts to learn about Bartleby and help him, but all attempts meet with failure, and the narrator gives up.
Mortality plays a role in "Bartleby," but not in the usual sense. Death pervades the story, not as the event in time that finishes a life, but as a kind of poison permeating every aspect of the world we live in. The act of living is the real death. Living is a tiring and arduous process, full of numbing compromises and submission to meaningless tasks. Our mortality is unavoidable, and our best intentions are often futile. The final image of the story is the Dead Letter Office, where the last undelivered communications to the dead are burned without ever having been read.
Bartleby the Scrivener Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Bartleby the Scrivener is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
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