Bartleby the Scrivener
by Herman Melville
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
No, we're not referring to the popular NBC sitcom here, even though, now that we think of it, The Office does have a more than a few things in common with "Bartleby the Scrivener" (Dwight Schrute certainly rivals Bartleby in weirdness). The office as a space for human relationships is a central symbol in Melville's story – and, again, in Steve Carell's show – and Melville uses the space as a kind of odd experimental ground, upon which he tests the limits of personal interaction. This is highlighted by the fact that we really don't see any of the characters outside the office. Sure, the Narrator, Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut must all go somewhere after work, but we don't know anything about their home lives. Instead, we just witness the trivial, often impersonal ways in which they communicate with each other in the workplace.
Melville also touches upon an important cultural reference that his contemporary readers would have picked up on immediately, the 1841 murder of Samuel Adams by John Colt. This scandalous event, which took place in a deserted office, lurks in the background of Melville's tale; as the Narrator comments, there's something about the strangely impersonal, limbo space of the office that may have allowed that tragic event to take place. With this in mind, we have to keep thinking about the significance of setting and the role of the office itself in "Bartleby."