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Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street

by Herman Melville

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

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Walls repeatedly symbolize Bartleby's walled-in existence, representing his lack of anything in life to look forward to. Not only do they reflect his despairing mental state, they reinforce it. In many ways, the worst place Bartleby could have ended up, in terms of space and architecture, was the lawyer's offices. We are told that these offices (significantly on Wall Street) have been surrounded over time by tall buildings which have, so to speak, "walled in" the second-floor space. The lawyer speaks ironically of his own view:

of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade; which wall required no spy-glass to bring out its lurking beauties, but for the benefit of all near-sighted spectators, was pushed up to within ten feet of my window panes.

Worse, the lawyer puts Bartleby into an even more claustrophobic space:

I placed his desk close up to a small side-window in that part of the room, a window which originally had afforded a lateral view of certain grimy back-yards and bricks, but which, owing to subsequent erections, commanded at present no view at all, though it gave some light. Within three feet of the panes was a wall, and the light came down from far above, between two lofty buildings, as from a very small opening in a dome.

Bartleby, in other words, is essentially entombed into his office, with no views at all and very little light.

The lawyer more than once mentions Bartleby's "dead wall reveries." During these, Bartleby does nothing but stare blankly at the wall only three feet away. It is as if he himself is dead.

At the end of the story, Bartleby ends up literally imprisoned, in a space more enclosed than that used by the common prisoners. As the lawyer describes it on a visit,

It was not accessible to the common prisoners. The surrounding walls, of amazing thickness, kept off all sounds behind them. The Egyptian character of the masonry weighed upon me with its gloom.

The walls that press so close to Bartleby represent his lack of a way out of his depression and despair. Every way he turns, he almost literally hits a wall.

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Walls are symbolic of division, so it is not surprising that the figure of the wall plays such an important role in Melville’s story. First, we learn that the lawyer’s offices (on Wall Street, of course) are bounded on one side by the “white wall of the interior of a spacious sky-light shaft, penetrating the building from top to bottom,"; on the other side, they are bounded by an “unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade.” The lawyer further subdivides his office by splitting it into two sections separated by “ground glass folding doors”: one side for his clerks, the other for him. Then, once Bartleby is hired, the lawyer places his desk next to a window that opens onto a blank brick wall, hiding Bartleby behind a “high green folding screen,” so that the lawyer can call to Bartleby without having to see him.

This maze-like configuration of walls and compartments suggests all sorts of separations: the lawyer is separated from his workers; his office is separated from other offices, or society at large; Bartleby, of course, is separated from everything.

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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. 

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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.

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