What do you understand by symbol? How far is Melville successful in his use of symbolism in the story Bartleby the Scrivener?


Discuss the symbolism in the story Bartleby the Scrivener.


How effective is the use of symbols by Melville in the story Bartleby the Scrivener?

bartleby (2)Answer: Symbol means anything that signifies or stands for something else. In literature, a symbol is usually something concrete, for example, a place, a character, an action, an object, that stands for or suggests something abstract. Symbol can be of two types— 1) Universal/conventional/public 2) Private/personal. A symbol is universal when it is generally accepted or understood and private when it is created by an individual author as something new, something which has not so far been used by any other author. A private symbol carries significance of the author’s own ideas in a special way. For example, darkness and light are universal symbols of evil and good. The use of symbols or symbolism enables a writer to suggest a vast concept within a short space. It lends depth and breadth to the topic that a writer deals with. The setting, the characters and the incidents are themselves symbolic.

Most of Melville’s use of symbolism was with concepts and objects that could be applied broadly, meaning they usually became motifs rather than explicit symbols. In Bartleby the Scrivener, Melville has used the symbols of dead-letter, Wall Street and food. The characters like Bartleby, Ginger Nut and many incidents of the story are also symbolic.

Dead-letter is the most important symbol of the story. The author shows the dead-letters as one of the clues for Bartleby’s strange behavior. Besides that, the dead-letters here suggest many things. A few months after the death of Bartleby, various rumors were heard. One of the rumors was about his life immediately before joining the author’s office. The rumor was this that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in a Dead-letter office in Washington. The author finds it difficult to express the emotions which seize him.


“Dead letters! Does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitting to highten in than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames?”

The dead-letters are annually burned by the cartload. Sometimes from out of the folded papers the pale clerk (Bartleby) took a ring, while the finger it was meant for moldered in the grave. The person to whom a banknote was sent for alleviating his suffering, did no more eat or drink. Hope was conveyed through a letter for someone who died unhoping; these letters were sent on errands of life but actually they did speed to death. Reading all those dead letters, intended for people who are dead or gone, must have been so depressing that it drove Bartleby slowly to his apathy and emotional attachment. The dead letters also suggest the drudgery of the emerging middle-class, blue-collar job. Sorting letters day in and day out could eventually be difficult for anyone to endure for a long time, and such repetitive tasks are a common source of depression for some employers. By making them dead-letters, Melville makes the depressing nature of such a task more explicit. When Bartleby changes his job, he is willing to write letters but when he is asked to read them he would “prefer not to.” For a short time he finds some satisfaction in the creation rather than the destruction of letters, but finally he is unable to do even that. The dead-letters here are also suggestive of Melville’s novel Moby Dick. Some critics who look at Bartleby the Scrivener as a comment on Melville’s life believe the “dead-letters” may represent his unpopular novel, such as Moby Dick. These novels, like the dead-letters, may be “errands of life”, offering the reader great insight into their life, but the novels, like the letters, have no one to read them.

 Food is another important symbols of the story Bartleby the Scrivener. Food is a symbol, suggestive of desire and avarice. Bartleby does not prefer to deal with desire and avarice and is ultimately killed by food or lack of food. One of the peculiarities in Bartleby that the author noticed is his aversion to eating. Bartleby lives on ginger nuts, and nothing else. The author described it as an amusing thing.

“My mind then ran on in reveries concerning the probable effects upon the human constitution of living entirely on ginger-nuts, what was ginger? A hot, spicy thing. Was Bartleby hot and spicy? Not at all. Ginger, then, had no effect upon Bartleby. Probably he preferred it should have none.”

Bartleby’s death is symbolically caused by his withdrawal into apathy. But physically his death is caused by his refusal to eat or his preference not to eat. By that he actually symbolizes that he does not prefer to engage in the avarice and greed of the authoritarian world. Nippers and Turkey have food-related names. Ginger Nut is nicknamed for the food cake he delivers to his co-workers.

Wall Street is here another important symbol. Wall Street is a place where murder takes place. The narrator remembered a murder that took place in a Wall Street office, when two colleagues lost control. To the narrator, his office seemed like the Wall Street office. He has cited the example of the Wall Street murder, and explained why an office could be conducive to otherwise unthinkable acts.


“Often it had occurred to me in my ponderings upon the subject that had that alteration taken place in the public street, or at a private residence, it would not have terminated as it did. It was the circumstance of being alone in an office, upstairs, of a building entirely unhallowed by humanizing domestic associations…” The office, a site of modern economic systems and progress, becomes a space like the jungle island in the Lord of the Flies. Something about the space is dehumanizing and makes murder possible. There are parallels between Bartleby’s experience of the work place at night and his experience of the work place in general share a similarity. He sees something that no one else sees. The desolation of Wall Street is part of Bartleby’s essential perception of it. The literal desolation at night is parallel by the spiritual desolation during the day. The,_ desolateness of the narrator’s office resembles the desolateness of the wall street—

“Of a Sunday, Wall Street is deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness.”

 The characters in this story are themselves symbolic. Bartleby is the symbol of all those isolated workers of the mechanized world who are totally devoid of any romantic value. Bartleby’s situation in life and his working environment cut him off from nature and afterwards from other men. His work environment is devoid of any human warmth—chilly, dark, sterile. He loses all enthusiasm for this bleak world of business and disengages himself from it, and ultimately dies. He also becomes a complementary character of the narrator; he is a kind of double to the author. At the end, he becomes a kind of double for all humanity.

So, we see that Melville has used many objects and characters as symbols to express some abstract ideas. The dead-letters symbolize death, food symbolizes avarice and desire and the Wall Street symbolizes desolateness. All these things seriously affected the protagonist Bartleby. Bartleby, Ginger Nut and other characters are themselves symbolic. Through the use of symbols, Melville has brought out many universal and significant ideas.