What is the significance of walls in "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street?"

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accessteacher's profile pic

accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Well, to answer this question you would need to consider the ubiquitous references to walls in this text, that starts, of course, with the fact that this story is denoted as a tale of "Wall Street." The importance of walls is further established by the description of the walls that surround the narrator's office:

In that direction my windows commanded an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade; which wall required no spyglass to bring out its lurking beauties...

Walls surround Bartleby and, as his deterioration continues, also are what he focuses on as he engages in what the narrator describes as being "a dead-wall reverie." Walls are therefore an important motif that allows Melville to explore the ways in which individuals are trapped and imprisoned inside a capitalist economy where we are forced to become prisoners and exchange our labour for little perceivable benefit. We are all imprisoned and walled in by a financial and economic system that forces us to act in a certain way in order to continue survival. Bartleby's refusal to play this game could therefore be seen as a symbol of resistance to materialistic and capitalistic dominance. If this is so, it is a weak and fultile resistance, as his death shows.


jameadows's profile pic

jameadows | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

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Walls symbolize the ways in which Bartleby has closed himself off from the rest of the world. His desk faces a window pane that "commanded at present no view at all, though it gave some light." Instead of facing an open vista, Bartleby faces a wall that lies three feet from his window, and the narrator also places Bartleby behind a "high green folding screen" so that Bartleby is completely walled off from the rest of the office. Bartleby also works on Wall Street, which once was the site of a wall, or fortification, further suggesting his separateness from the rest of the world. These walls represent his isolation from the rest of the office, and, to a greater extent, from the rest of society. Bartleby shares nothing about himself with his colleagues or the narrator, save for stating his preference not to do his work, and he does not read or in any way divert himself. Instead, he stares at the wall, which the narrator calls "the dead brick wall" in what the narrator refers to "dead-wall reveries." These reveries begin to occupy most of Bartleby's time.

At the end of the story, the walls symbolize Bartleby's death, after he has closed himself off from all avenues of human interaction. When the narrator goes to visit Bartleby in the Tombs (a nickname for a Manhattan jail), he finds Bartleby "strangely huddled at the base of the wall." In the end, Bartleby dies surrounded by walls in prison, as he has no outlet and nothing left for him in life. 

cettina's profile pic

cettina | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

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Thank you very much!!!!!

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