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.
The Disconnected Workplace Theme Icon

Bartleby, the Scrivener is set during a time when Wall Street was becoming ever more important as a financial hub of American society, a society that was itself being transformed by the increasing importance of capital and finance in an industrializing world. This transformation had many impacts, but one of them was the increasing prevalence of the sort of office workplace in which the story is set. In fact, if you want to push things a bit, you could argue that Bartleby is one of the first office comedies, though Bartleby’s “comedy” and viewpoint is so dark that it actually ends up as an office tragedy. Regardless, the tropes about the office that have come to dominate office comedies such as The Office or Office Space – the dreary dullness, absurdity, and disconnection of the office workplace – are captured with unmatched power in Bartleby.

Disconnection, in fact, is the basic state of this Wall Street law office. Turkey and Nippers, the two scriveners who work for The Lawyer before he brings on Bartleby, initially seem like comic characters (because they are described in comic ways by The Lawyer/Narrator who employs them). But the story manages to communicate deep despair in their situations and character that the narrator himself fails to understand. The description of these two clerks working like “sentries” who trade guard, as one is productive only in the morning and the other only in the afternoon, establishes their separateness. They work in the same place, but are never in any way together. Further, some close reading reveals what the narrator himself seems not to see: that Turkey is only a good employee before noon because he gets drunk at lunch, while a number of critics suggest that Nippers’s “indigestion” that afflicts him in the morning is likely the result of a drug addiction that The Lawyer is oblivious to.

The sense of disconnection between the people in the office is heightened by The Lawyer’s many failed efforts to get to know Bartleby (his only employee that he refers to by name). In fact, the entire time The Lawyer knows Bartleby, from when he hires him until Bartleby’s imprisonment, The Lawyer learns nothing more from Bartleby about his history or personality than his name. Even when, at the story’s very end, The Lawyer finally includes details about Bartleby’s past (that he worked at the Dead Letter Office), he states that he has learned this through rumor only, so even this alleged information is disconnected from certainty.

Melville further builds the dreary disconnection of the office through its physical setting and space. One of the story’s recurring symbols is the suffocating presence of walls within the law office. The narrator notes early on that the few windows in the office produce little to no light, as they run up against the walls of adjacent buildings, though that doesn’t stop Bartleby from staring out them for hours at a time. Also, the office itself is divided by “ground-glass folding doors” into two separate rooms, one in which The Lawyer works, and one where the scriveners’ desks are located. So, the narrator can see his workers through the glass, but cannot hear them when the doors are closed. When The Lawyer hires Bartleby, he decides to station Bartleby’s desk in his own office, which would hint at the possibility for more connection. However, even then, The Lawyer places the desk in the corner of the room and provides a “high green folding screen” that keeps Bartleby within earshot but serves to “entirely isolate Bartleby” from his sight.

This feeling of disconnection and entrapment surfaces not only from the office’s cramped layout, but also from the very name of the street where it is located: Wall Street. In fact, late in the story, after The Lawyer has moved offices and Bartleby has been forcibly removed by its subsequent tenants and put in a prison called The Tombs, the Lawyer goes to visit Bartleby but ends up getting trapped in the central yard area of the prison, with its “surrounding walls of amazing thickness.” This description, mirroring the earlier description of the office and the very name of the street on which so many such offices are located, perhaps implies that in the Wall Street boom of the mid-1800’s, offices in general had become eerily similar to prison cells.

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The Disconnected Workplace ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Disconnected Workplace appears in each chapter of Bartleby, the Scrivener. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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The Disconnected Workplace Quotes in Bartleby, the Scrivener

Below you will find the important quotes in Bartleby, the Scrivener related to the theme of The Disconnected Workplace.
Bartleby, the Scrivener Quotes

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.

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… Ah, happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay, but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none.

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker), Bartleby
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after The Lawyer has stopped by his office on a Sunday, on his way to church. He has just discovered that Bartleby has been secretly living in the office, and so must be homeless and totally isolated, without family or friends. Thus, The Lawyer, and the other employees at his office, could perhaps be the people Bartleby is closest to in the world, and yet none of them know anything about him. Although Bartleby literally lives in the office, The Lawyer learns more about him from searching his desk than he’s learned from talking with Bartleby in the weeks and weeks he’s been working there.

This quote directly states that happiness is easy to see, as happy people are willing to share their sunny disposition readily, whereas miserable or depressed people often hide their suffering beneath the surface. So, language is as ineffective a tool for spotting misery as sight is, for it is easy for someone to lie and say they’re doing well even when they’re not, just as it is easy for Bartleby to say he would “prefer not to” discuss his feelings or his personal history. Even if a tragic story hides beneath Bartleby’s preferences not to share, The Lawyer would have no way of discovering it unless Bartleby is willing to tell him.

“At present, I would prefer not to be a little reasonable,” was his mildly cadaverous reply.

Related Characters: Bartleby (speaker), The Lawyer (speaker)
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is situated after The Lawyer has found out Bartleby is living in the office, and he has thus resolved to find one of Bartleby’s relatives, fire Bartleby (with a $20 severance bonus), and pawn the responsibility of Bartleby off on said relative. However, after asking Bartleby a barrage of questions about his past, none of which Bartleby answers, The Lawyer breaks down and asks if Bartleby will be “a little reasonable.”

This quote that Bartleby would “prefer not to be a little reasonable” is the epitome of Bartleby’s passive resistance—not only does Bartleby resist disclosing personal information to his boss or doing fundamental aspects of his job, he now resists participating in reason, so that even though The Lawyer’s requests are entirely logical and fair, Bartleby still resists them as he has no interest in participating in fairness. Language cannot connect two people if they don’t agree on a unifying system of logic; so, Bartleby is able to resist all of The Lawyer’s requests, as a soldier would resist a general’s orders if that soldier didn’t recognize the general’s authority, or, more reflective of this scenario, if that soldier felt entirely disconnected from the general. In Bartleby’s mind, he is to The Lawyer as a German soldier would be to an American general: entirely outside his purview.

Additionally, The Lawyer’s tag referring to Bartleby’s response as “mildly cadaverous” foreshadows Bartleby’s passively resistant demise.

“…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.