In Bartleby, the Scrivener, business sections of a city are unoccupied on the weekends, where ghosts seem to linger in the absence of thriving people, and stone prison walls surround the grounds of lush green grass. Crowds jeer and bosses become perplexed. Trips are taken and periods of time are spent sleeping nearly homeless, and cakes made of ginger spice are delivered during office hours. Most of the time jobs are getting done, and days are filled with the minutiae of men living out their lives according to the era by which they are governed.
But who is Herman Melville’s Bartleby? By the people who are near him on a daily basis, he is known as a strange man. By his boss, he was once profitable to have around, but eventually becomes useless. He has nowhere to live, nowhere to go, and retains the capability of standing in one place for hours. His behavior is ghostly, frightening even, resembling the symptoms of catatonic schizophrenia, yet when Bartleby is addressed, he’s able to provide coherent responses as necessary. Bartleby seems thunderstruck, but he is worse; he is uninterested. His coworker wants to punch him and his boss wants to get rid of him, but neither can fulfill their wishes.
The mundane scene of Bartleby’s new job reflects all too much the end of a destined path. Skylights in the ceiling illuminate blank walls and windows that once looked upon the backyards of the city are walled off by the red bricks of newly constructed buildings. Work desks piled with documents appropriately occupy the spaces of Bartleby’s job, the only real decoration being a “pale plaster-of-paris bust of Cicero,” but this commercial zone, inhospitable and unhomely as it is, is also where Bartleby takes up his residence. He might not understand the institution of family because he does not seem to care, and should someone ask him if he would like to have a family someday, he would probably say that he “would prefer not to.”
Bartleby is a frail man without any sense of purpose. Whatever purpose that may have driven him in the past has faded from him. His only thoughts rest with his inclination to have his new boss tolerate him for the duration of his life. His boss is disturbed by the matter, reflecting on the relationship he has with Bartleby with a vast perplexity that eventually dissipates to a state of melancholy despair. Bartlbeby is not a hostile man, but his increasing lack of drive represents a sort of passive hostility. His boss cannot deal with the mental strain that Bartleby’s presence evokes, and he tries with great effort to separate himself from him. Yet Bartleby is a man, thus his inability to create a life for himself, and his need to rely on his boss for a place to inhabit, represents a symbol of humanity’s need. When these opposing forces clash, the secure boss with the insecure human, aspects of gentle humanity are beneath the surface, passively hostile.
The process of this maudlin activity leads to the inevitable. Sequence after sequence, Bartleby’s boss, with as much benignity of craft he can muster, terminates the relationship with his derelict employee. However, the guilt that haunts the realm of human consciousness, that which scours the essence of the soul for ways to eat at the heart, breaks the disconcerted boss down. It seems, after society has been forced to deal with Bartleby, his brute passivity failing to win favor with anyone, his boss is compelled to visit the man who has found his way into a prison. At first he feels inclined to help Bartleby through bribes to a prison cook, but the effort fails. Bartleby, coherent as he’s ever been, understands precisely where he is and proceeds to abstain from eating. A return visit presents the wide-eyed Bartleby lying motionless at the base of a prison yard wall.
Bartleby’s boss has not procured a victory for anyone, yet “the silent man” Bartleby has seemingly lost the game. His death is his only statement, the only thing that appears he would prefer to do, but this does not make anyone feel good, nor does it shed light on morality. The vapid soul that was Bartleby is now a specter of questions rising into the atmosphere of which no one among those who claim to be humane can answer.