Bartleby, the Scrivener

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Dead Letters Symbol Analysis

Dead Letters Symbol Icon

At the story’s end, The Lawyer informs the reader that he has heard rumors that Bartleby worked for many years at the Dead Letter Office. Dead Letters – letters which for some reason or other can not be delivered to their intended destination– are a form of failed communication, of someone trying to reach out and connect to another person through language and failing to find that connection. In that way, Dead Letters serve as a symbol for disconnection, and for the failure of language to properly communicate.

Although Dead Letters never appear as a part of Bartleby’s arc in the story, their inclusion at the end of the story serves to possibly illuminate Bartleby’s initial motivation to passively resist any part of his job other than writing—after years of destroying communication and language, perhaps he craved to partake in the creation of language. Why he shuts down further and eventually refuses to write is open to interpretation, but it is possible it has something to do with his former job at the Dead Letter Office—perhaps Bartleby felt no more satisfaction (and no more connection) at the creation of language than he did in its destruction.

Dead Letters Quotes in Bartleby, the Scrivener

The Bartleby, the Scrivener quotes below all refer to the symbol of Dead Letters. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Passive Resistance Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of Bartleby, the Scrivener published in 2016.
Bartleby, the Scrivener Quotes

Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? … Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifling by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death. Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker), Bartleby
Related Symbols: Dead Letters
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs at the very end of the short story. Bartleby has presumably died, and The Lawyer cuts off Bartleby’s narrative to impart one final piece of rumor to the reader: that Bartleby, allegedly, used to work at the Dead Letter Office.

In some ways, it could be argued that The Lawyer feels as if he has treated Bartleby like a dead letter—The Lawyer tried to connect with Bartleby, failed, and thus he discarded Bartleby, who would go on to die without ever communicating. After all, The Lawyer has just been reflecting on Bartleby’s death when he comments “Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?” Additionally, dead letters themselves are a literal example of language failing at its job of connecting people through imparting meaning, and The Lawyer gives numerous examples of tragic missed communications (and failed charitable offers) caused by these dead letters.

Also, The Lawyer (and Melville through him) makes an extremely significant grammatical choice in this final sentence—for the first time in the narrative, The Lawyer narrates in the present tense rather than the past tense. He does not say that these dead letters sped to death, but rather that “On errands of life, these letters speed to death.” This shift implies that this phenomenon of dead letters—of language failing to connect us—is ongoing, and therefore The Lawyer’s final cry of “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” applies not only to the characters in the story, but to the reader as well. In the end, the narrative of Bartleby attempts to compel the reader to seek out connection, not in two-dimensional text, but in the three-dimensional world outside of words we all exist in.

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Dead Letters Symbol Timeline in Bartleby, the Scrivener

The timeline below shows where the symbol Dead Letters appears in Bartleby, the Scrivener. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Bartleby, the Scrivener
Isolation and the Unreliability of Language Theme Icon
Charity and Its Limits Theme Icon
...heard that, before working for The Lawyer, Bartleby worked as a clerk in the “ Dead Letter Office” in Washington, and had been abruptly fired in a change of administration. When The... (full context)