Wall Street in New York is the place where the story occurs; it is also the main symbol for the capitalistic values criticized by the story. The lawyer deals with property rights rather than human rights. He takes care of rich people’s stocks and bonds and titles. The narrator stands for that sort of life and is an elderly man to whom “the easiest life is the best,” (p. 1952) meaning, easy for him and people like him. He mentions the self-made millionaire, John Jacob Astor (p. 1952) as one of his clients. Bartleby stands in stark contrast to the financial values of Wall Street. He is poor but self-reliant, owns nothing, and is not ready to make any deals. Wall Street is the trading center of the country, but Bartleby has nothing to bargain with, nor does he want to bargain or trade his life for comfort. Wall Street is literally composed of walls that keep people separate, lonely, and unable to communicate as human beings. The lawyer’s chambers look upon a “white wall” and he admits it is “deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life’” (p. 1952). The other windows have “an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade” (p. 1952). The scrivener is further walled in by a screen “which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight” (p. 1956). Bartleby’s only occupation is to stare out the window at the neighboring brick wall, in his “dead-wall reveries” (p. 1963). Wall Street is, like the rest of the city, a tomb at night and on Sunday, when Bartleby is completely abandoned by the rest of humanity. The lawyer’s building “which of week-days hums with industry and life, at nightfall echoes with sheer vacancy” (p.1962). Wall Street is ultimately a symbol of American society, a society of isolation and materialistic values.
Capitalism seems to produce abundance, but underneath is based on symbolic ruins. It is Bartleby who brings out the ruined aspect of the city to the narrator. The narrator is amazed that Bartleby is living in the office on Wall Street, for “Of a Sunday, Wall Street is deserted as Petra, and every night of every day it is an emptiness” (p. 1962). Petra was an ancient ruined city in Jordan. In the next sentence he compares Bartleby in the office on Sunday to “Marius brooding among the ruins of Carthage” (p. 1962). Marius was a Roman general, who was part of the army that destroyed the commercial empire of Carthage. The bust of Cicero in the lawyer’s office, and the mention of Marius, bring up the point that empires do fall, especially greedy empires. The lawyer pictures the crowds in their busy and luxurious lives by day in silks “swan-like sailing down the Mississippi of Broadway” (p. 1962). Wall Street feels secure in its wealth, but the images of ruins make it as vulnerable to the ravages of time as Carthage. These images of ruins make the narrator feel “Presentiments of strange discoveries” about Bartleby’s dead body “laid out, among uncaring strangers” (p. 1962). He calls Bartleby “the last column of some ruined temple” “mute and solitary” in the middle of a deserted room as he dismisses him from his job, expecting never to see him again (p. 1966). He also thinks of Bartleby as “a wreck in the mid Atlantic” (p. 1965). The Wall Street environment is thus at its heart a ruin, and it produces ruins, like Bartleby, who ends up at the police station, appropriately called the Tombs.
The Dead Letter Office
The narrator discovers after Bartleby’s death that he had previously been employed at the Dead Letter Office in Washington. This is where letters that cannot be delivered are destroyed and any valuable contents removed. The narrator is filled with emotion at this discovery. “Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?” (p. 1975). He then imagines to himself the drama of some urgent message or money sent to someone who will never receive it, “who died despairing” (p. 1975). The melancholy of such a job explains Bartleby’s depressed state to the narrator, who always has described him as already dead. He is a “lean penniless wight” (p. 1960); “apparition” (p. 1961); “cadaverously” gentlemanly (p. 1961); “ghost” (p. 1970); “incubus” (p. 1969); with “pallid haughtiness” (p. 1963); he has presentiments of him in a “shivering winding sheet” (p. 1962). The Dead Letter Office with its mountain of letters thrown into the flames is an image of despair and futility, of human effort leading nowhere. Like the image of Sisyphus going up the hill over and over, nothing ever happens. Bartleby would have been burning, as the narrator imagines, the most intimate and urgent messages that tragically did not get there on time. This is also the feeling associated with Bartleby’s life. He was unable to connect or communicate with anyone. When he sees the narrator in prison, Bartleby replies, “I know you . . . and I want nothing to say to you” (p. 1973). In the Tombs, another related image of death, he turns his face to the wall and dies. The image of the Dead Letter Office reinforces the image of the country in ruins, with everyone isolated. Less than ten years after the story was written, the images of the Dead Letter Office and the ruins of America came true in the many broken lives and families of the Civil War. In 1992 the Dead Letter Office was renamed the Mail Recovery Center, a much more positive image and purpose. Detectives now attempt to return valuable mail.