Bartleby, the Scrivener

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Themes and Colors
Passive Resistance Theme Icon
The Disconnected Workplace Theme Icon
Isolation and the Unreliability of Language Theme Icon
Charity and Its Limits Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Bartleby, the Scrivener, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Charity and Its Limits Theme Icon

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.

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Charity and Its Limits Quotes in Bartleby, the Scrivener

Below you will find the important quotes in Bartleby, the Scrivener related to the theme of Charity and Its Limits.
Bartleby, the Scrivener Quotes

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.

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker)
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs on the very first page of the story, and it is one of the few descriptors The Lawyer provides about himself, his personality, or his personal history. And, in fact, the story shows us that this quote is largely untrue, meaning that the way The Lawyer sees himself isn’t the way he actually is. In the beginning of the story, The Lawyer gives examples of both Turkey and Nippers being difficult, imperfect employees, yet he doesn’t fire them though it would likely make his life easier.

Similarly, later in the narrative The Lawyer has immense trouble in dealing with Bartleby, and while the easiest solution would be to have Bartleby forcibly removed from his office by the authorities, The Lawyer’s charitable Christian inclinations (and also, perhaps his dislike of change or causing trouble) lead him to keep Bartleby around. So, The Lawyer’s conviction that the easiest way of life is the best often comes into conflict with his vision of himself as being a charitable Christian man, though sometimes his penchant for what is easiest does get in the way of him being fully charitable, as when he abandons Bartleby at his old office. So, this quote showcases language’s power to be unreliable and inaccurate, and also sets up the biggest limit of charity in Bartleby, the Scrivener: personal convenience.

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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.

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker), Bartleby
Page Number: 28-29
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Bartleby has repeatedly stated that he “prefers not to” correct the copies he has worked on, and also “prefers not to” do any of a scrivener’s job requirements other than write. It is one of the only points in the narrative where The Lawyer overtly explains why he allows Bartleby’s behavior to spiral to the point that Bartleby is more in control of his working habits than his boss is: The Lawyer considers himself a man of “not inhumane temper,” and he also considers Bartleby’s statement of his preferences “perfectly harmless in his passivity.” So, The Lawyer “charitably” decides to consider Bartleby’s peculiar habits not as insolence, nor as disobedience, but simply an acceptable condition of his personality. The result of this is that Bartleby is allowed to work in the manner that he wants to, and The Lawyer, though it aggravates him, is able to feel he is being charitable.

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.

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker), Bartleby
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is situated in the narrative after Bartleby has passively resisted correcting his own copies, but is still a useful employee in the amount of writing he is able to get done. Here, The Lawyer internally reasons with himself that to keep Bartleby on and accept his flaws and peculiarities would be a charitable gesture, but not one that requires much sacrifice on The Lawyer’s part, as he thinks it will cost him “little or nothing.” This fulfills The Lawyer’s self-proclaimed idea that he believes the “easiest way of life” to be the best, and it also fulfills his self-image as a charitable Christian man.

However, despite The Lawyer’s alleged inclination to do both what is easiest and what is charitable, he still allows Bartleby’s passive habits to bother him, and thus he breaks his vow of leaving Bartleby alone and instead decides to try to get him to correct copies of papers once more. The Lawyer’s attempt to get Bartleby to do anything outside of his preferences fails, of course, and rather than getting Bartleby to change his habits or bringing The Lawyer closer to his employee, this attempt results in The Lawyer becoming less likely to ask Bartleby to do anything that he might resist in the future. Thus, Bartleby’s passive resistance trumps The Lawyer’s urge to break Bartleby’s habit, as he realizes that his attempts to reason with Bartleby through language haven’t brought them any closer together, nor have they changed Bartleby’s mind about what tasks he will or won’t do.

“…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.

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker), Bartleby
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after The Lawyer has decided that the only solution to ridding himself of Bartleby is to fire him. After giving Bartleby six days’ firing notice, on the eve of the sixth day The Lawyer wishes Bartleby well, and leaves him with money, which is certainly a nice gesture, but it somehow seems to fall short of the definition of true Christian charity. The Lawyer could simply keep Bartleby on as an employee, agree to house him at the office but not pay him, try to help Bartleby secure housing, or even bring Bartleby home with him, but The Lawyer attempts to do none of those things (yet).

Additionally, The Lawyer metaphorically compares Bartleby to the last column of a ruined temple—the ruined temple being his office. Despite their already clear physical separation—embodied by the secluded area Bartleby works in, behind a screen and next to a window with a view of another wall—The Lawyer and Bartleby are even more so ideologically and emotionally separated. To use The Lawyer’s example, they are as separate as an ancient temple and a modern Wall Street law office. Also, this metaphor can be extended further, as perhaps Bartleby’s needs represent the ancient, biblical definition of what charity can mean (full sacrificial charity, as Jesus suffered for man’s sins), and The Lawyer represents what charity means in a modern capitalistic American context, i.e. an extra twenty bucks on top of whatever you’re owed, and a courteous farewell.

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.

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker)
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is situated immediately after The Lawyer has come back to his office (after firing Bartleby) to find that Bartleby, as well as his severance pay, is still in the office, as Bartleby has once more resisted The Lawyer’s wishes. After arguing with Bartleby to no avail, The Lawyer decides to wait before pressing further, as he recalls the murder of the printer Samuel Adams by his client John C. Colt. The Lawyer notes that offices are devoid of “humanizing domestic associations,” and this atmosphere which feels nothing like home (although it is, almost certainly, Bartleby’s only home) may have been partially to blame for the escalation that led to Adams’ murder. Essentially, The Lawyer is implying that the disconnected office, and the lack of connection he and Bartleby feel for one another, is a prime place and atmosphere in which a murder might occur.

Additionally, the subtext of this murder is related to the later reveal that Bartleby may have worked in the Dead Letter Office. Even worse than the missed connections that dead letters represent, Colt’s murder of Adams was entirely related to payment in regard to a textbook that Adams printed for Colt. So, the printing of language, meant to share ideas and information and potentially bring people closer together, in this case because of capitalist intervention, led instead to the most extreme kind of disconnection: one of the men ended up murdered, and the other imprisoned. The Lawyer worries that his disconnection from Bartleby might lead to his own death and Bartleby’s imprisonment, despite the fact that earlier in the narrative The Lawyer claims he trusts Bartleby completely.

…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.

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker)
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after The Lawyer has discovered that Bartleby has yet to vacate the office, so The Lawyer tries to argue with Bartleby until he leaves, but that attempt fails, and so The Lawyer has left Bartleby alone for fear of getting murdered (as happened in the Adams/Colt case.) Thus, as is often the case with The Lawyer, he once more changes his mind, and decides that keeping Bartleby in his office is a charitable gesture worth taking on. The Lawyer even implies that his charitable inclinations may, in fact, be a “safeguard” to his well being, as no one commits a murder for the sake of charity, although they might do it for anger, jealousy, or hatred.

So, The Lawyer implies, perhaps Adams could have saved himself from Colt’s wrath had he just been more charitable. Then, partially out of pity and partially out of an urge for self-preservation, The Lawyer decides to grant Bartleby charity by allowing him to remain in the office while doing absolutely no work. The limits of The Lawyer’s charity, it seems, can shrink or grow according to how much effort he needs to put in.

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.

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker), Bartleby
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after The Lawyer has tried to fire Bartleby, has found him still in his office, and, after fearing Bartleby might murder him, The Lawyer has decided that he will be charitable to Bartleby and let him stay. Here, The Lawyer develops this idea further, proclaiming that Bartleby has entered his life because of the forces of divine predestination, and so it is his holy duty as a charitable Christian to provide Bartleby with a place to live. The Lawyer is brought to this feeling of holy duty not by speaking with Bartleby, nor by having any sort if interpersonal contact with his scrivener, but instead by reading two religious texts, Edwards on The Will and Priestly on Necessity. This quote in itself epitomizes the unreliability of language, and how it often has the most power when one is isolated, reading by one’s self. That is one of the inherent ironies of language and literature—though it is meant to connect people, we often feel the most connected to others when we are by ourselves.

Also, despite The Lawyer’s Christian inclination toward charity and his feeling that Bartleby was brought into his life via divine intervention, he still abandons Bartleby later in the narrative and leaves him on his own. So, though The Lawyer at this moment undoubtedly truly feels that it is his divine purpose to care for Bartleby, in the end he still allows worldly concerns to limit his ability to give Bartleby the charity he believes Bartleby deserves.

…it often is, that the constant friction of illiberal minds wears out at last the best resolves of the more generous.

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker), Bartleby
Page Number: 44-45
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs soon after The Lawyer’s internal monologue about Bartleby having entered his life via predestination (thus making it The Lawyer’s Christian duty to charitably house Bartleby for as long as he wants). Obviously, The Lawyer is justifying why he has decided to go back on his vow to be wholly charitable to Bartleby, and this is the moment where The Lawyer is the most self-aware about his shortcomings as a charitable Christian.

Although he believes keeping Bartleby in his office is the right—and even the divine—thing to do, The Lawyer admits that he allows other people—who he refers to as “illiberal minds”—to influence him to rid himself of Bartleby. Immediately after this quote, Bartleby embarrasses The Lawyer by refusing a request of one of The Lawyer’s colleagues, so, when Bartleby’s behavior begins to threaten his business interests, The Lawyer decides once and for all that Bartleby has to go. If it weren’t for The Lawyer’s own capitalist interests, he might go on housing Bartleby until the day Bartleby or The Lawyer himself died, but in mid-1800s Wall Street, charity seems to reach its limit when business dictates it should, not when God does.

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.

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker), Bartleby
Related Symbols: Walls
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is situated near the end of the narrative, after The Lawyer has abandoned Bartleby by moving offices, so the landlord has had Bartleby put in a prison called The Tombs. The Lawyer has visited once before and, out of a charitable urge (perhaps brought on by guilt), he has paid someone to provide Bartleby with good food (which he “prefers not to” eat). Here he visits Bartleby again, and finds that Bartleby is not in a cell, but is instead still alone in a yard in the middle of the prison.

The Tombs is an extremely appropriate name for this prison, not only because it is literally the place where Bartleby’s passive resistance will cause him to die, but also because, just as in the office, Bartleby is as secluded from the other prisoners as he was from his colleagues at the office, effectively meaning he is just as isolated as if he were literally in a tomb or a grave.

The walls “of amazing thickness” that even keep external sounds away from Bartleby are another example of his disconnection from everyone around him, especially when considering that he’s in an area of the prison where other prisoners are not allowed. The Lawyer tries to see some good in this extremely dark situation: he notes that, somehow, as if by “strange magic” grass is blooming in the center of this “pyramid” (another allusion to tombs, as pyramids were the tombs of pharaohs), and perhaps, implicitly, The Lawyer is hoping that Bartleby’s story will, in a way, grant a rebirth to this now-lifeless man. The entire narrative of Bartleby, the Scrivener, then, can perhaps be seen as granting a glimmer of hope to the connective and communicative possibilities of language: though Bartleby and The Lawyer will never understand each other, perhaps readers of this story might understand themselves and those around them better for having listened to Bartleby’s and The Lawyer’s respective journeys.

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.