From its very first sentence, Melville signals to the reader that Bartleby, the Scrivener is a story in which language isn’t always meant to be taken at face value. The Lawyer, who narrates the entire story, describes himself in the first line as “a rather elderly man.” Presumably, The Lawyer knows his own age, but instead of passing that information along to the reader he chooses to describe himself as elderly—but he doesn’t just leave it at that, he calls himself “rather elderly.” It’s the “rather” that makes this opening sentence as nonspecific as it is. It is entirely unclear without context what “rather elderly” means—is The Lawyer a middle-aged man who is being modest? A man near the very end of his life trying to be humble? Or is he simply a man in the midst of old age, not quite at the end, but further from his first breath than his last? The reader cannot know for certain the answer to any of these questions that the first sentence raises, because Bartleby, the Scrivener is told from the perspective of an unreliable—and often unspecific—narrator. For example, The Lawyer never tells the reader his own name, and only refers to his employees other than Bartleby by their nicknames: Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut. So, the point-of-view of the story is in itself an example of language failing to create a perfect two-way relationship between storyteller and listener, between reader and writer.
This point is exemplified by the story’s end. In the midst of the climactic sequence, The Lawyer abruptly stops telling the story of Bartleby’s passive resistance, which at this point is leading the scrivener to waste away in prison because he refuses to eat any food, and instead The Lawyer says that “imagination” on the part of the reader should be good enough to envision Bartleby’s end. The Lawyer then states that what is to be told next should be questioned by the reader, as The Lawyer has heard it through rumor only, and he goes on to say that those rumors indicate that before Bartleby began working at The Lawyer’s office, he had spent a number of years working at the Dead Letter Office. This means that Bartleby spent his life destroying lost letters, letters that were meant to connect two people through shared language but failed at that task. The story implies, then, that when he’d had too much of the dead letter office, Bartleby came to work at The Lawyer’s office to try the exact opposite—as a scrivener, Bartleby copied letters. But, as the story shows, that, too, didn’t fulfill the kind of communication Bartleby was seeking, perhaps because language is an inherently imperfect or incomplete communicative tool.
Bartleby’s interactions with The Lawyer are full of failed communication. The Lawyer speaks with Bartleby to try to find out about Bartleby’s family and history, but Bartleby brushes him off with his usual “I would prefer not to,” excuse. Later, when The Lawyer is adamant that he must fire Bartleby and find a family member to whom he can pawn off the responsibility of caring for Bartleby, The Lawyer finally pleads with Bartleby to be “a little reasonable.” Bartleby replies that he “…would prefer not to be a little reasonable.” Reason uses language as its mode of communication, and, like two negotiators who speak different languages, The Lawyer is entirely unable to understand anything about Bartleby by talking with him because Bartleby refuses to engage with him on common logical ground.
One might then argue that all that is necessary for true communication or connection is active engagement from both sides, but the story, at least as Bartleby sees things, seems to take a darker view. Bartleby seems to have come to the conclusion that even if people do engage they still won’t be able to communicate, and so he prefers not even to try, and then, ultimately, not even to live. In Bartleby’s view, then, every person is like a dead letter, with information to share, but no one with whom to share it. And, of course, the fact that The Lawyer isn’t even sure that Bartleby even ever worked in the Dead Letter Office only further supports this idea, as even the dark interpretation of Bartleby’s life is made hazy and uncertain—even Bartleby’s message of the meaninglessness of attempts at connection might itself be meaningless.
Isolation and the Unreliability of Language ThemeTracker
Isolation and the Unreliability of Language 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.
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.
… Ah, happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay, but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none.
“At present, I would prefer not to be a little reasonable,” was his mildly cadaverous reply.
“…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.
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.
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!