Through most of Bartleby, the Scrivener, The Lawyer treats Bartleby with what most reasonable people would describe as great charity. When he catches Bartleby in the office on the weekend and deduces that Bartleby must be secretly living there, The Lawyer is initially annoyed, but then realizes how lonely it must feel to live in a usually-busy office building while it’s completely empty during the weekend. Rather than fire or reprimand Bartleby, The Lawyer decides to keep Bartleby on as an employee and not mention his living situation whatsoever. Then, even after Bartleby ceases doing any work at all and just spends his days staring out the window with no view, The Lawyer still keeps Bartleby employed in the spirit of charity. Later, when The Lawyer learns that his reputation and business are threatened by Bartleby’s behavior, he finally does fire Bartleby, but The Lawyer still gives him a generous severance.
And though The Lawyer does abandon Bartleby by moving his office (after Bartleby “prefers not” to leave despite being fired), The Lawyer returns to try to help Bartleby when it becomes clear that the next tenant plans to call the police on the scrivener. There, the Lawyer offers Bartleby anything he can think of—a clerkship in a dry-goods store, a bartending job, and even offers to let Bartleby come live with him until they can work out an arrangement. And, finally, when Bartleby is wasting away in prison, The Lawyer’s guilt pushes him to be charitable once more—not to the point of claiming Bartleby and having him removed from prison, but enough to pay someone at the prison to cook for his former employee. The Lawyer’s charitable behavior in nearly every instance is highlighted by how uncharitably the rest of society treats Bartleby: without empathy and with complete indifference, locking him away in prison until a family member claims him or he dies.
And yet, the story is not one of The Lawyer’s heroic charity, because Bartleby refuses every single one of The Lawyer’s charitable efforts. Because of this, the story then forces its focus back onto The Lawyer’s charitable acts and raised two related though different questions. First, the story makes the reader question whether The Lawyer’s charitable acts were actually charitable enough. The Lawyer’s motives, after all, were not always entirely pure. From his initial charity of allowing Bartleby to continue to work for him, The Lawyer derives a self-satisfied and soul-soothing pleasure, congratulating himself that another less charitable boss would fire Bartleby and throw him out onto the street. And his later charitable offers, as with the offer of food at the prison, were motivated at least in part by a sense of guilt. In addition, The Lawyer’s charitable offers were always reasonable. They were generous, to be sure, but they weren’t, say, the kind of completely self-sacrificing charity that a figure like Jesus Christ might have offered. The Lawyer tried to “do what he could.” He never tried to do more.
The story therefore leaves open the question of whether things might have turned out differently if The Lawyer had practiced a more radical and total kind of charity. And in asking this question the story asks whether it is acceptable to ever limit one’s charity, as doing so is essentially a writing off of other people under the guise of being “reasonable” about every person’s responsibility to be responsible for him or herself. And yet in Bartleby’s constant refusals of all attempts to help, the story also raises the possibility that Bartleby would have refused all charity, no matter how complete. And by extension, the story suggests that total, radical charity, free of any sort of personal baggage or hesitancy, might be either beyond the grasp of any human to achieve or, even if achievable, not enough to bridge the gap between people.
Charity and Its Limits ThemeTracker
Charity and Its Limits Quotes in Bartleby, the Scrivener
I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best.
Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as passive resistance. If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity; then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment.
To befriend Bartleby; to humor him in his strange willfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience. But this mood was not invariable with me. The passiveness of Bartleby sometimes irritated me. I felt strangely goaded on to encounter him in new opposition… I might as well have essayed to strike fire with my knuckles against a bit of Windsor soap.
“…Good-bye, Bartleby, and fare you well.” But he answered not a word; like the last column of some ruined temple, he remained standing mute and solitary in the middle of the otherwise deserted room.
It was the circumstance of being alone in a solitary office, up stairs, of a building entirely unhallowed by humanizing domestic associations…which greatly helped to enhance the irritable desperation of the hapless Colt.
…charity often operates as a vastly wise and prudent principle—a great safeguard to its possessor. Men have committed murder for jealousy’s sake, and anger’s sake, and hatred’s sake, and selfishness’ sake, and spiritual pride’s sake; but no man that ever I heard of, ever committed a diabolical murder for sweet charity’s sake.
Yes, Bartleby, stay there behind your screen, thought I; I shall persecute you no more; you are harmless and noiseless as any of these old chairs… At last I see it, I feel it; I penetrate to the predestinated purpose of life… Others may have loftier parts to enact; but my mission in this world, Bartleby, is to furnish you with office-room for such period as you may see fit to remain.
…it often is, that the constant friction of illiberal minds wears out at last the best resolves of the more generous.
The yard was entirely quiet. 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. But a soft imprisoned turf grew underfoot. The heart of the eternal pyramids, it seemed, wherein, by some strange magic, through the lefts, grass-seed, dropped by birds, had sprung.
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!