Study Guide

Bartleby the Scrivener Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Herman Melville

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Death and Its Trappings

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.

The Office

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."

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