Throughout the story, the Narrator alternates between two poles – profound confusion and profound sadness. In telling Bartleby's story, his tone reflects these feelings, and effectively communicates to us the Narrator's genuine emotional involvement in the events he describes. Through his telling of the story, we strongly identify with him and see Bartleby as both pathetic and a little frightening, just as the Narrator does.
This may seem like something of an odd choice of genre, but the more we think about it, the more clearly "Bartleby" can be defined as a parable of what Melville saw to be the dangers of the modern world. After all, we are left with a lesson of sorts regarding the threat of alienation and too much individualism; Bartleby reminds us of something that good ol' poet John Donne observed in the 17th century, the assertion that "No man is an island." Or rather, "no man can be an island." Or perhaps just "No man should be an island." Whatever. Even though the bustling business world in which Bartleby takes place, and the broader context of 19th-century America appears to value above all else the idea of the self-made man, Melville reminds us sharply that this might not be the best model to follow – he accomplishes this by showing us Bartleby, a self-unmade man of sorts.
One might say that the mysterious character of Bartleby is the true heart of this enigmatic short story – but he's not exactly a lively, vibrant, beating heart. It's significant that Melville chose simply to name the whole story after this odd man; like our nameless narrator, we are all increasingly fascinated and perhaps horrified by Bartleby's behavior.
If we are to take into account the full original title, "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street," the setting also comes into play. The fact that the story takes place in Wall Street, which was known as a bustling center of business and finance even back in Melville's day, makes it all the more fascinating – Melville's choice to place his inactive anti-hero smack-dab in the middle of the busy Financial District makes Bartleby himself even more of an anomaly. It also asks us to question the kinds of human interaction that occurs in the workplace; Bartleby, who exists only in this world of professional acquaintance, is apparently a man without a personal history, and without any meaningful human relationships.
"Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!" Ah, Melville! Seriously, guys – what an ending! With these parting words, this small story about one strange man becomes a statement about all of humanity.
Melville concludes this odd tale with the pathetic, mystifying death of its central enigma, the character of Bartleby. After Bartleby dies, alone and imprisoned, we finally learn one little tidbit about his past: apparently, he previously worked in the Dead Letter Office (a section of the Post Office that gets rid of undeliverable mail). The narrator wonders if this horrifyingly depressing job might have affected Bartleby's sanity – and we, in turn, must wonder what makes all of us who we are.
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.
Melville, master of prose that he was, manages here to tell a tragic tale that also has great moments of comedy. He slyly pokes fun at his characters, even when they don't realize it – most notably, he manages to gently mock his first-person narrator by exposing his flaws through his own words. For example, we see in the beginning of the story just how full of himself the Narrator is, when he gleefully name-drops John Jacob Astor, claiming that the great man once gave him a compliment. We also see here just how business-driven the Narrator is; he admits that he loves saying Astor's name, simply because it has the sound of money.
Melville's prose is also marvelously understated and elegant in the way in which it unravels this strange and confusing story. He uses description to draw us into the characters he presents, and rather than alienating us with its wordiness, his lengthy descriptive passages really contribute to our vivid imagining of the strange, lonely men he introduces us to in this law office.
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.
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."
Melville's choice of narrator is particularly important to this story. While he could have chosen any number of different angles from which to view the strange scrivener, his choice of the lawyer allows us to get close to Bartleby, but still feel profoundly mystified by him. We see everything through the eyes of Bartleby's employer, who is directly affected by the scrivener's inaction, and through this perspective, we quickly identify with the conflicted feelings of the Narrator. It is as though we, like the Narrator, are involved in trying to deal personally with Bartleby, a sensation that keeps us fully engaged with the story as it heads towards its tragic ending.
Honestly, "Bartleby" is just a little too odd to fit into any of Booker's categories. Yes, there is a plot here – but it's not clearly definable by any classic pattern. Really, "Bartleby" is a pure exploration of human nature rather than a conventional "story," which is what makes this tale both so fascinating and so frustrating at times.
Initially, everything seems normal; Bartleby, the new guy, shows up at an already-established office, and immediately gets to work. Nothing too weird exhibits itself, and though Bartleby is oddly quiet, the Narrator finds this a relief, compared to the eccentricities of Nippers and Turkey. We're not sure what can possibly occasion the Narrator's story, since business seems to go on as usual after Bartleby's arrival on the scene…for a little while, at least.
Huh. This is our first taste of the truly bizarre nature of this story – Bartleby, who has been a solid employee up to this point, refuses point-blank to obey a simple order. Everyone is mystified (except Bartleby, that is). He continues to "prefer not to" do anything but copy documents, even when the smallest favors are asked of him. We're not sure what to make of this refusal, and neither is the Narrator.
Eventually, Bartleby just stops working at all. This gives the Narrator reason to fire him, which he attempts to do. However, Bartleby prefers not to leave the building, and continues to live there, which understandably creeps out clients and visitors. Again, Bartleby's motives are totally obscure. Why does he prefer to stay in such an uncomfortable environment? We honestly have no idea.
Bartleby ultimately wins in the odd, rather one-sided struggle between him and the Narrator. When the scrivener just won't leave, the Narrator picks up and moves his whole practice to another building, just to get away from Bartleby. This is, admittedly, a pretty wussy and really impractical way to "resolve" the problem.
The suspense and confusion builds as we learn that Bartleby remains at the office, even when its occupants leave. Apparently, he continues his wall-staring, resistant behavior even when a new law practice moves in; we have to wonder, rather anxiously, how long he can keep this up, against the opposition of an increasingly large crowd of enemies.
The conventional problem in the text is resolved when Bartleby is simply removed from the building; he doesn't even put up a fight when the police take him to prison. While this looks kind of like the end of the story, it's really not. This "denouement" is a false one, and while things seem to have been cleared up, the central problem of Bartleby has simply been pushed aside, but not resolved.
In a final act of protest, Bartleby refuses to eat, and subsequently starves to death in prison. By just preferring not to live any longer, Bartleby announces his individuality in an ultimately fatal, dramatic fashion: if he cannot live as he "prefers" to, he apparently doesn't want to live at all. In the end, we don't know what it was that Bartleby "preferred," and we are left to ponder the mystery of his death.
Act I ends when Bartleby announces for the first time that he "prefers not to" participate in basic office tasks – the Narrator is committed to finding out what is up with this guy.
In desperation, the Narrator picks up and moves his whole practice to another building, minus one very odd scrivener.
The final act contains the fallout of the Narrator's decision to abandon Bartleby at the old office – he's carted off to prison and eventually dies.