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Symbolism in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”

Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” is the story about a person, who made himself imprisoned in his office. The main theme of the essay is to show the life of most people in New York from the point of view of capitalism which took its development during the time when the story was written. The story is rather symbolic as the very street (Wall Street), Bartleby’s cabinet and his previous job are the symbols that show the life of New York in the 1850s. Walls and dead letters are the main symbols in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”, which symbolize Bartleby’s imprisonment and isolation from the whole society, from people in physical and, what the most important is, mental meaning.

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Considering the wall as the symbol in the story, it should be stressed that the other title of the story is “A Story of Wall-street” (Booth 164). The core fact is that the word “wall” is of two meanings, direct and indirect. The street, where Bartleby works are situated on Wall Street, which was the center of the business and financial life of New York when the story was written. Wall Street also symbolizes the development of capitalism in that society. Wall Street is the symbol of the whole of New York’s life, when the atmosphere in offices is friendly, while the whole environment is isolative, if not hostile. Capitalism, and its effect on society, are shown through Wall Street and the citizens of this street. The buildings on the streets were situated in such a way that most of the windows looked on the walls of the near building (Booth 164). The symbol of walls in the story is that all Bartlebys’ life was concentrated inside that room and that division from the whole society was present. Bartleby separated himself from people, he did not communicate with anybody.

The other symbol in the story, the dead letters, is as if explaining the scrivener’s strange behavior at the very end of the story. The layer’s previous work in the Office of Dead Letters is aimed to hint at why his behavior is so strange, why there is a desire to separate from the surrounding world. Reading and sorting the letters of dead people is rather a depressive job to do, and the author may try to show that work at that office was the breaking moment in the layer’s life (Booth 188). The author tries to explain the meaning of the whole story at the end by the information about these dead letters. “Pardon for those who died depressing; hope for those who died unhoping” (Booth 189) are the words that may symbolize Bartleby’s attitude to life. The work in the department of dead letters had killed all emotions in him, and this was the reason for the separation from the inner world.

Having read the story, it becomes understandable that not much is known about the main character. He is isolated from society, his previous work, which becomes understood at the very end of the story, is just ajar but not gives the whole explanation of how Bartleby lives. The feeling is that the scrivener had imprisoned himself by walls of the cabinet and the opposite wall of the other building with the aim to distant more from the society (Booth 188).

In conclusion, the story is not just about the person who has imprisoned himself in the working office, but about the whole society of the 1850s, where people were isolated from others in their offices and were working. Wall Street is the symbol of capitalism, and the walls in Bartleby’s cabinet are the symbols of his isolation and imprisonment, because of the dead papers, his previous work, which had killed all feelings and emotions in his life, his desire for life.

Works Cited

Booth, Alison, Hunter, J. Paul, and Kelly J. Mays. The Norton Introduction to Literature (Shorter Edition). London: W.W. Norton & Co. Shorter Ninth Edition, 2005. Print.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, October 29). Symbolism in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”.

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"Symbolism in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”." StudyCorgi, 29 Oct. 2021,

1. StudyCorgi. "Symbolism in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”." October 29, 2021.


StudyCorgi. "Symbolism in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”." October 29, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Symbolism in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”." October 29, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Symbolism in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”'. 29 October.

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