In the final lines of the story, the Lawyer explains what dead letters are (after it has been revealed that Bartley used to work for the Dead Letter office), using imagery in the process:
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.
Here, the Lawyer uses imagery in order to help readers viscerally understand the intensity of loss and suffering that these dead letters can cause. He describes how a ring inside of a lost letter can lead to a finger “mouldering” (or slowly decaying) in the grave, implies that a lost bank note can lead to its intended recipients inevitably starving and dying, and notes that letters with “good tidings” could have helped those “who died stifling by unrelieved calamities.” This imagery helps readers to both visualize and feel the consequences of these dead letters.
Beneath all these haunting descriptions is Melville’s point that language can fail at its primary job of connecting people. Everyone who sent these letters assumed that their loved ones would receive them, yet they did not. This is similar to how the Lawyer repeatedly attempts to connect with Bartleby through language but is increasingly unable to reach him. “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is a story of missed communications leading to death, just like the dead letters that the Lawyer describes.
Near the end of the story, when Bartleby is imprisoned at the Tombs, the Lawyer visits him. In his narration, the lawyer captures the experience of being in the prison yard with Bartleby using imagery:
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.
The imagery here is both haunting and hopeful. First, the Lawyer describes how the yard was “entirely quiet” because of “walls of amazing thickness” whose masonry “weighed upon [him] with its gloom.” Here, Melville is engaging readers’ senses of hearing, sight, and touch to help them understand the eerie and heavy nature of this moment. The walls are reminiscent of the walls in the Lawyer’s office on Wall Street—just as Bartleby was separated from the Lawyer and his colleagues by walls, he is now separated from his fellow inmates in a similar way.
The language in the passage then shifts and the Lawyer describes the “soft imprisoned turf” that “grew underfoot” and the “grass-seed dropped by birds” that “had sprung.” Again, readers can both see and feel the grass alongside the Lawyer in a rare moment of hopeful imagery. With this moment, Melville communicates to readers that even in the direst circumstances of isolation and disconnection, there is still hope and beauty. Though Bartleby will die in this prison, new life is also growing there.