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Bartleby the Scrivener

Bartleby the Scrivener

by Herman Melville

Death and Its Trappings

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Death seems to surround Bartleby from the moment he walks in the door and into the Narrator's life. He's described incessantly as "cadaverous," and this corpse-like disposition is reflected not only in his pallid appearance, but in his eerily calm manner. The Narrator has a chilling vision of Bartleby as a corpse in his winding sheet, which evokes both sympathy and fear in himself and in his readers, and even when Bartleby is alive (technically), he has a certain undead quality about him. Also significant is what the Narrator calls Bartleby's "dead wall reveries," in which Bartleby stares at the "dead," blank brick wall outside his office window for hours on end. This presence of the living dead in the office is a really disturbing one – there's something incredibly creepy about Bartleby's perpetually incomprehensible inaction.

Finally, after Bartleby's actual death, one more reference to the Grim Reaper arises – the Narrator comments on Bartleby's previous employment in the Dead Letter Office. The idea of undeliverable letters that "speed to death," even when they go "on errands of life" (130) is incredibly tragic and horrifying; as the Narrator notes, getting rid of these dead objects is the most sadly fitting job imaginable for someone as sapped of life as Bartleby. We have to wonder if the dead letters are what made Bartleby what he is, or if he was drawn to them by his own inalienable nature.

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