Study Guide

Bartleby the Scrivener Isolation

By Herman Melville


Meanwhile Bartleby sat in his hermitage, oblivious to everything but his own particular business there. (32)

Bartleby is only separated from the office by a screen, yet still he manages to completely shut himself in – this demonstrates his ability to create his own isolated world.

Immediately then the thought came sweeping across me, what miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed. His poverty is great, but his solitude, how horrible! Think of it. Of a Sunday, Wall Street is deserted as Petra, and every night of every day it is an emptiness. This building, too, which of weekdays hums with industry and life, at nightfall echoes with sheer vacancy, and all through Sunday is forlorn. And here Bartleby makes his home, sole spectator of a solitude which he has seen all populous – a sort of innocent and transformed Marius brooding among the ruins of Carthage! (51)

Despite the weirdness and wrongness of Bartleby's situation, the Narrator is profoundly moved by its piteousness – he assumes that Bartleby, like most other people, is affected somehow by his lack of human interaction.

The bond of common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam. I remembered the bright silks and sparkling faces I had seen that day, in gala trim, swanlike sailing down the Mississippi of Broadway; and I contrasted them with the pallid copyist, and thought to myself, Ah, happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay, but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none. (52)

The Narrator sadly ponders Bartleby's isolation, and keenly observes that since happy people want to be together and miserable ones keep themselves apart, we assume that everyone is happy, which is, as he observes, a pretty faulty logic.

If he would but have named a single relative or friend, I would instantly have written and urged their taking the poor fellow away to some convenient retreat. But he seemed alone, absolutely alone in the universe. A bit of wreck in the mid-Atlantic. (74)

Bartleby's state of total isolation inspires an odd combination of emotions in the Narrator; while he's understandably exasperated by the scrivener's behavior, this sense of loneliness plays upon his basic sense of human compassion – it seems unnatural for anyone to be that alone in the world.

It was the circumstance of being alone in a solitary office, upstairs, of a building entirely unhallowed by humanizing domestic associations – an uncarpeted office, doubtless, of a dusty, haggard sort of appearance – this it must have been which greatly helped to enhance the irritable desperation of the helpless Colt. (92)

The Narrator's description of the setting of the infamous Colt-Adams murder case puts a great deal of blame on the office itself – there's something completely isolated from regular human life about the office. We have to wonder what effect it has upon Bartleby and upon the Narrator himself.

Dead letters! Does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames? (130)

The profound alienation and hopelessness of Bartleby's previous occupation overwhelms the Narrator, leading us to wonder how much of Bartleby's condition relates to this idea of the Dead Letter Office.

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