Barlteby the Scrivner: Theme Analysis

This “Story of Wall Street” demonstrates the loneliness and isolation of modern life. The characters are only connected through their work relationship at the office. No private life is displayed or discussed. Only Bartleby is named, and then, only a last name. The other characters have nicknames: “Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut.” The narrator never divulges his name. “John Jacob Astor” is thrown out as his client only to evoke a sense of status. Though the narrator appears to be friendly, tolerant, and familiar with his clerks, he sees them primarily in terms of “usefulness” to him. At first, he reconciles to Bartleby because “his great stillness” “made him a valuable acquisition” (p. 1960).
It takes a long time before the narrator is even curious about Bartleby’s origins. Only when Bartleby becomes a problem, only when the narrator wants to get rid of him, does he try to find out if he has relatives. If he can find a relative, then the narrator will be off the hook. Bartleby, however, appears to have no origins: “one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable” (p. 1951). The only piece of information the narrator ever unearths about him is that his previous job was at the Dead Letter Office in Washington. This image affirms the theme of isolation, death, non-communication.
When the narrator finds Bartleby at the office on a Sunday morning, not only is he annoyed, he is appalled. Though during the day he sees “bright silks and sparkling faces” (p. 1962) on Broadway, at night or Sunday, it is like a ghost town. He is seized for the first time with “over-powering stinging melancholy” (p. 1962) to think of a lonely life like Bartleby’s. Because the man is sleeping on the couch in his office, he feels “The bond of a common humanity” (p. 1962). The narrator has been working on Wall Street for thirty years and has never had these human feelings before. True, he does give an old coat of his to Turkey, but mostly because the man is shabby and not presentable at the office.
Bartleby does not talk to anyone, has no friends, never leaves the office, even for meals. Ginger Nut seems to supply him with his morsels of food. He is not even seen reading. When not copying, he looks out his window at a brick wall. The narrator takes special care to isolate Bartleby on arrival by putting him into his own section of the office, behind a screen. He cleverly deduces Bartleby “was the victim of innate and incurable disorder”(p. 1963), a good way to describe the terrible loneliness of his ghostly life. He is “thin and pale” (p. 1963), an “apparition” (p. 1961), he has “cadaverously gentlemanly nonchalance” (p. 1961). The lawyer feels he will be called a villain if he “dared to breathe one bitter word against this forlornest of mankind” (p. 1964). He imagines the scrivener already in his winding sheet; Bartleby “seemed alone, absolutely alone in the universe. A bit of wreck in the mid Atlantic” (p. 1965). Bartleby is compared to something broken and floating in an endless sea, belonging to no one.
These images describe the commercial society that stems from Wall Street, where the bottom line is money, and the relationship of person to person does not come into the picture at all. No one knows what to do with Bartleby. He is an embarrassment, just hanging out in the corridor, unwanted because of no further use to anyone. The narrator even contemplates pretending Bartleby isn’t there, just “walk straight against him as if he were air” (p. 1967). Bartleby is a reminder, however, that it is not just the drunken bum on the street who symbolizes the refuse of capitalism. The scrivener is a ghostly gentleman, sober, capable of working. His soul ailment, his extreme spiritual isolation from fellow humans, is an affront to others who do not want to be reminded of the sort of cruel and impersonal world they take for normal. The narrator remembers a murder that happened in a deserted office (Colt kills Adams) and believes it was due to “being alone in a solitary office, up stairs, of a building entirely unhallowed by humanizing domestic associations” (p. 1968). He has the same impulse to kill Bartleby in his own dehumanized office, and does, only in an indirect way. Bartleby is thrown out and further isolated by being taken to the Tombs to die.
Guilt and Responsibility
The narrator compares Bartleby to a sort of albatross around his neck that he cannot get rid of. He claims over and over that it is not his fault about Bartleby’s tragedy, but he is full of guilt, nevertheless. Legally, the lawyer is not responsible for his clerk’s problem. The employer holds all the cards in a commercial society, especially in Melville’s day before employees had many benefits or rights. From the first, Bartleby intimidates the lawyer, makes him feel defensive and guilty. Something about the man “disarmed me” “disconcerted me” (p. 1957). The lawyer suffers from “perplexity and distress of mind”(p. 1960) at the scrivener’s refusals. When he discovers Bartleby is alone and sleeping in the office, he begins to feel “fraternal melancholy” (p. 1962). Pity, however, soon turns to fear: “up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not” (p. 1963). He claims this fear of the misfortune of others proceeds from “ a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill” (p. 1963).
The narrator puts his finger on a psychological truth, that the sight of suffering one cannot relieve or understand, brings a sense of guilt. Sometimes it is called the survivor’s guilt. Why am I all right and the other person isn’t? This guilt in the narrator is another way in which he acknowledges that Bartleby indeed is his responsibility because as he admits, there is a “bond of common humanity” (p. 1962). As in John Donne’s sermon, the narrator has to feel that “any man’s death diminishes me.” The sight of hopeless suffering in another can send the message “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” The old lawyer has lived in a comfortable middle class world, a “safe” world, as he puts it. Bartleby disturbs all his assumptions. He is a ghost in the narrator’s life. He begins to see Bartleby as a corpse who cannot survive long on Wall Street. The narrator has a “superstititious knocking at his heart” if he does anything against the scrivener (p. 1964).
Although not legally responsible for Bartleby, the narrator hints at metaphysical responsibility. Perhaps it “had been all predestinated from eternity, and Bartleby was billeted upon me for some mysterious purpose of an allwise Providence, which it was not for a mere mortal like me to fathom” (p. 1969). Perhaps it is “his mission in this world” to furnish Bartleby office space for as long as he wants it! This is a momentary thought, but it does touch on a wider concept of responsibility. How far does moral responsibility go? The narrator tries to salve his conscience by “helping” Bartleby, which is another way to get rid of him. He keeps bribing him with money, giving ultimatums, trying to make deals.
Giving in to common sense, the narrator accepts only the smallest definition of responsibility, even when the other tenants tell him Bartleby is his problem. Everyone denies the problem is theirs, and “they held me [the narrator] to the terrible account” (p. 1971). He however, “persisted that Bartleby was nothing to me—no more than to any one else” (p. 1971). The lawyer finally washes his hands of it when Bartleby will not be persuaded to take another job, his “conscience justified” (p. 1971).
His guilt is not over, however, for he is called to testify against Bartleby at the Tombs. When Bartleby refuses to talk to him, he claims, “It was not I that brought you here.” (p. 1973). He absurdly tries to tell Bartleby that jail “is not so sad a place as one might think” (p. 1973). He tries to buy him good dinners in jail to ease his own conscience. In a way, this is continuing to play his same role as an employer, for he was furnishing his clerks their dinners in his office jail. The narrator’s last cry, “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” shows that his sense of guilt and responsibility have not lessened.
Why is the narrator so disturbed by Bartleby? For all Bartleby’s mildness of manner, he is a rebel. He refuses to play the games of society, and for that he arrested as a threat. His attempt to be a sovereign self with preferences in a world of necessity does not last long.
Bartleby is not the heroic type in terms of appearance or character. He is “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn!” (p. 1956). He is a copyist, and at first he copies “mechanically” (p. 1956), and the lawyer is happy with him. However, he expects “instant compliance” of his employees, and when Bartleby says “I would prefer not to” he is “stunned” (p. 1957). The lawyer is not used to being refused, and so he tries to pretend it didn’t happen.
The next time it happens, the lawyer “is turned into a pillar of salt” (p. 1957). This is an interesting metaphor for surprise, for in the Bible, it was Lot’s wife who was turned into salt for her disobedience. Bartleby has a strange effect on the lawyer, who is by profession, a law-abiding citizen. Yet, Bartleby provokes him to thoughts of murder, to his own anger and rebellion, while Bartleby remains cool and uninvolved. The narrator says that he would have fired him, “had there been any thing ordinarily human about him” (p. 1957). He would as soon have turned out his bust of Cicero as Bartleby, he says. This comparison of Bartleby to Cicero is significant. It is as if the eloquent Roman critic of justice has come to life to accuse the lawyer of Wall Street. This puts Bartleby in the ranks of the noble rebels, who come to point out the faults of society.
The lawyer notes that Bartleby does not waver in his denials: “his decision was irreversible” (p. 1958). Bartleby’s rebellion against the way things are is absolute. He does not ask for any change; he asks for nothing and will not be bought off. The lawyer is nervous because the clerk is unyielding, giving out the assurance that he acts from a sense of innate justice. His denial is thus abstract and non-specific, to the lawyer’s confusion. He feels that Bartleby is trustworthy and pure; he describes his area of the office as his “hermitage” where “he is oblivious to everything” (p. 1958). This passive resistance of someone who seems to be superior and above corruption actually “goads” the narrator into anger. He “burns” to be “rebelled against again” (p. 1960), so he can push the issue to a climax. Every rebuff of the clerk tends to cause extreme reactions in the lawyer: he “staggers” (p. 1960); he is “thunderstruck,” like a man killed by lightning (p. 1967); he falls into “sudden spasmodic passions” (p.1961).
A turning point comes when Bartleby refuses to let the lawyer into the office on Sunday morning, asking him to come back later. The narrator feels “impotent rebellion against the mild effrontery” of his clerk. He feels he must be unmanned to let “his hired clerk . . . dictate to him” (p. 1961). He feels better when he sees that he can pity the man, and yet he can never gain ascendancy over him. The lawyer frequently describes his conflict with Bartleby as a battle for power. Bartleby’s “calm disdain” and “perverseness” “mortified” the lawyer (p. 1964). He notes that Bartleby’s “preferences” take precedent over his own “assumptions” of the way things should be (p. 1966). Though he could call in the police, he feels Bartleby would win by becoming a martyr, and he will appear the villain. Yet Bartleby refuses to leave the premises until removed. In effect, he is challenging the assumptions of society that he has less right than the others to be there. Absurd though his rebellion is, he holds out until the end, never allowing the narrator to feel justified in his own “right” over him.
Bartleby in a larger sense then becomes a symbol of rebellion against the life dictated by Wall Street, a mechanical life where people are counters in a system. Bartleby’s rebellion, through his quiet passive resistance, says NO! to the narrator’s values, which are the values of capitalism. Like the bust of Cicero, he remains pallid and ghostly and silent, but his rebellion is eloquent and cannot be denied.