Where It All Goes Down
A law office on Wall Street, New York City; mid 19th century
This story's setting is central to our understanding of what's going on here – the original subtitle, "A Story of Wall Street," makes it clear that we're supposed to take its location into account from the very beginning. Melville first published "Bartleby the Scrivener" in New York in 1853, when the young metropolis was already a booming center of commerce.
The story takes place in a law office populated by a set of odd men, whose relationships with each other seem to be purely professional in nature. This impersonality of the characters is hugely significant – the business-based world in which they operate has no room for personal interaction, and, as a result, neither does Melville's story. It's notable that we don't learn anything about any of the characters beyond what they're like in the office, not even our narrator.
We have to wonder if a story like this, in which human beings are profoundly alienated from each other, even though they interact all day, every day, would be possible in an alternate setting. Surely the crisis of this story, the question of what constitutes basic humanity, is highlighted and made all the more poignant by its urban setting – by using the city, and in particular, the office, Melville shows us just how alone we can be, even when we're surrounded by other people.