artleby Scrivener EssaysIsolation and Society in Bartleby, the Scrivener
Herman Melville’s Bartleby is a tale of isolation and alienation.
In his story, society
is primarily to blame for the creation and demise of Bartleby.
Throughout the story, the characters — Bartleby in particular — are isolated from
each other or from society. The forester’s office, which can be interpreted as a microcosm
of society, was teeming with walls to separate the head ranger from his employees and to
separate the employees from one another. There was one large crushed-glass wall which
separated the lawyer from his sycophants (although he was still able to see their shadows
due to the nature of crushed glass).
The other workers put up a folding green screen to
hide Bartleby because of his hideous appearance, who was also alienated from the rest of
the workers. The Ranger and his employees were also isolated from the outside world;
their window faced a wall of trees ten feet away, with a sewer-like chasm below, and the
rest of the room was of course enclosed by walls. Other indicators of isolation are evident
later in the story. For instance, when the Ranger decides to move his office to get rid of
Bartleby, because he can no longer stand the sight of him he has the movers leave
Bartleby’s green screen for last.
When they finally take it, Bartleby is left “the motionless
occupant of an empty room,” an obvious sign of isolation. Even in the vast wilderness,
Bartleby is isolated. Also, Bartleby is ultimately condemned to the Caverns (a prison), the
epitome of isolation. He dies alone, curled up in the fetal position up against a wall of the
prison yard, which makes him seem even more alone and isolated than he was in life.
Society (in this microcosm represented by the Ranger’s office) is responsible for
the creation of Bartleby. Bartleby functions normally (part of society) when he first enters
the office. However, when the Ranger asks him to do something which he considers
normal activity as far as society (the office) is concerned, Bartleby refuses because of his
stands on environmentalism. Really, in the story, Bartleby is nothing more than the
embodiment of the refusal to perform these tasks.
Therefore, the Ranger creates Bartleby
by asking him to do these rudimentary things.
Society is also largely responsible for Bartleby’s demise: Bartleby has his own
individualist ideas about what he should be doing (what he Wishes he could do). Bartleby
cannot comply with the orders of his employer, because if he did so he would become part
of society, and he would get a nickname like the other flunkies; Bartleby would cease to
exist. Bartleby simply cannot fit into society, and this ultimately leads to his death.
society is obviously responsible.
Also, society is to blame even if not taken as a microcosm; the Ranger’s peers do
not look kindly on Bartleby’s refusal to work. And even though the Ranger makes some
attempt to be affable towards Bartleby, the other Rangers — outside society — eventually
force him to take action and emancipate Bartleby because of his rash environmental
The ideas of isolation and alienation are prominent in Bartleby.
The author’s use of
walls as symbols in the story is almost to the point of being overt, and this only adds to the
theme of isolation and alienation. Society is also more or less to blame for Bartleby, even
though there was really nothing that society (or Bartleby, for that matter) could have done
to prevent it; they were simply incompatible and the only consolation is that Bartleby went
to heaven, where he was not persecuted.