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Discuss the isolation of Bartleby in Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, in terms...

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simoneodom | Student, College Freshman | eNoter

Posted September 28, 2011 at 2:01 AM via web

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Discuss the isolation of Bartleby in Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, in terms of his motivation.

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted September 28, 2011 at 3:22 AM (Answer #1)

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In Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street, some experts look at our title character "in symbolic terms." I do not agree.

One theme in the story is individualism. He is unable to develop a sense of individuality:

...scriveners create nothing of their own...

In his new job, he works behind a wall—isolated—staring out a window with only the view of a brick wall and "grimy back-yards" to "inspire" him. Freedom and imprisonment are also themes. His imprisonment is seen in his environment, while his freedom (or lack of it) is seen in his need to take a job doesn't fulfill him, but pays the bills.

The lawyer (unnamed) who has hired Bartleby is the story's narrator. Our perceptions are influenced by how he sees Bartleby. Some critics feel the lawyer is unsympathetic—one who cares nothing for his unusual employee; I believe the lawyer empathizes with Bartleby and genuinely wants to help.

The lawyer is not high-power and driven by greed or ego. He is happy to provide his services in a less stressful environment than some law offices adopt. The lawyer is happy with his situation, and we can infer that he is not the kind to "push" his employees.

In need of additional help, the lawyer looks for another scrivener.

In answer to my advertisement, a motionless young man one morning, stood upon my office threshold, the door being open...I can see that figure now—pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby.

This forshadows, perhaps, who Bartleby is—"pitiably" and "forlorn." Without being sure why, we can infer that Bartleby arrives somehow already "damaged." The established rapport among the other office workers could have made Bartleby feel more isolated.

When Bartleby begins, he is at first all the lawyer could wish for— a hard worker described as someone who has been starving for an outlet—using the following extended metaphor:

At first Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing. As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion.

Perhaps this was the last part of Bartleby that had survived his previous "ordeals," an element of the man that was originally so focused and hard-working. Soon, he refuses to do thing, simply saying, "I would prefer not to."

Regardless of what is said to him...

...Bartleby sat in his hermitage, oblivious to every thing but his own peculiar business there.

"Hermitage" reflects Bartleby's isolation as well. Overtime, he simply seems to "disappear:"

Like a very ghost, agreeably to the laws of magical invocation, at the third summons, he appeared at the entrance of his hermitage.

The lawyer learns that Bartleby was once employed in the Dead Letter Office in Washington and comments:

Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?

If this job pushed Bartleby toward his gradual diminishment, losing the old job only slowed his progression toward "extinction."

Ultimately, the lawyer is forced to move the office and Bartleby, refusing to leave the premises, goes to jail. Here he is now completely isolated from society. He is able to devote all of his time to simply ceasing to be: he starves himself to death and dies in jail, afflicted by some form of mental illness, it would seem—characteristic, perhaps, of his sense of isolation from mankind.

The lawyer is there when Bartleby dies, perhaps believing he is not in heaven and at peace, saying he is...

With kings and counselors...

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