Bartleby, the Scrivener


Herman Melville

Teachers and parents! Our Teacher Edition on Bartleby makes teaching easy.

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
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
Related Literary Devices:
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Bartleby LitChart as a printable PDF.
Bartleby, the Scrivener PDF

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)