Summary of the Demise of Bartleby
In his new office, the narrator keeps the door locked and starts at every noise, worried Bartleby will come back, but he does not. Finally, another lawyer approaches the narrator and says there is a copyist lurking at his former office, who will not work and will not leave. He charges the narrator with responsibility for him.
The narrator denies responsibility for Bartleby, so the lawyer says he will take care of it himself. After another week, the new tenants and the landlord come and demand he do something about Bartleby. They have turned him out of the office, but he sleeps in the stairway. He is scaring away clients. Still, the narrator denies responsibility, but “they held me to the terrible account” (p. 1971), and fearful of publicity, the narrator goes to confront Bartleby, sitting on a banister in the old building.
The narrator tries to get Bartleby to explain what kind of work he would “prefer.” Bartleby says he would prefer to make no change. The narrator asks if he would like to be a clerk in a store. Bartleby says no, but adds a new phrase, “I am not particular” (p. 1971). The narrator goes through a number of possibilities, which are rejected. He even tries to get Bartleby to come home with him until they can arrange something, but he prefers not to.
Now realizing he has done everything he could, he washes his hands of the man, and in a cowardly move decides to leave town for a few days to avoid any further involvement. When he returns, there is a note on his desk informing him Bartleby has been arrested as a vagrant and taken to the Tombs, the popular name for the jail in Manhattan. The narrator must go to make a statement about him. Bartleby offered no resistance when arrested. The narrator assures “the Halls of Justice” that Bartleby is an honest man. He suggests the lightest possible incarceration for him, or else an alms-house. Then he asks for an interview.
Bartleby refuses to talk to him, and the narrator pleads with his former scrivener that he is innocent of having him arrested. The narrator gives money to the “grub man” to provide Bartleby with good dinners at the Tombs and introduces the grub man to Bartleby. Bartleby says he prefers not to dine today and looks at the wall. The narrator thinks he is deranged, and leaves.
A few days later, the narrator returns to the Tombs to find Bartleby dead, knees drawn up facing a wall. A few months later, he learns that Bartleby once worked in the Dead Letter Office at Washington. He concludes that this explains Bartleby’s depressed behavior, because he was constantly destroying letters that could never be delivered. He lived in a house of death.
The narrator’s last thoughts are, “Ah Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”
Commentary on Bartleby’s Demise
Like the disciple Peter who denies Christ three times, the narrator denies responsibility for Bartleby three times. True, he tries to think of a solution, such as another occupation for Bartleby, but the scrivener can only tell him what he does not prefer. When the narrator offers to take him home, Bartleby prefers the banister. The situation reflects modern life where no one is responsible for anyone else. People watch a crime on the street and say it is not their responsibility to do anything about it. The narrator’s attempts at “charity” do not make him connected to Bartleby but rather keep him at arm’s length.
Bartleby’s denials defy common sense, and so according to the scenario of society, Bartleby is either a bum or mad. He is arrested, but still will not give in. He turns his face to the wall and dies in a final denial, saying in effect, he would prefer not living in such a world. Bartleby, like the idealist in Emerson’s essay is an absolutist and will not compromise. Emerson says of such an idealist, that he denies so he won’t have to live an inauthentic life. Like Bartleby, the idealist says: “If I cannot work, at least I need not lie. All that is clearly due to-day is not to lie.” Such a person, according to Emerson, does noble work in society just in testifying to what is wrong. Even if he can’t fix things, he can “just say no.”
On the other hand, the narrator tries every manner of compromise. Even after getting rid of the troublesome scrivener, the lawyer is haunted by him and has to visit him in prison, still trying to get him to make a deal. His profession is to make deals, to compromise. This is how society works. Bartleby has the impossible goal of being a sovereign person, answerable only to his own preferences. As Thoreau says in Civil Disobedience: “A man more right than his neighbors is a majority of one.” One’s own conscience is the only dictator of actions for an idealist. He does not go by what is expedient or practical or what others think. Bartleby carries this to extreme lengths, and thus, must die, for everyone makes compromises to live in the world.
What is it that Bartleby wants? What does he prefer? He says he prefers to be left alone. Constantly compared to a ghost or a cadaver, he dies in the Tombs. There is no place for him in society. The loneliness of the rebellious idealist is because he finds little company of his own kind, and because his discontent alienates society as much as society alienates him. Emerson says, “. . . he declareth all to be unfit to be his companions; it is very uncivil, nay, insulting; Society will retaliate.” This seems to explain why Bartleby turns away the lawyer who tries to help him. He knows the lawyer is no true friend. Emerson comments: “They [idealists] wish a just and even fellowship, or none. They cannot gossip with you.”
The idealist such as Emerson describes in “The Transcendentalist” has a role to play, for he awakens the conscience of others. The narrator is changed by contact with Bartleby, not through argument or discussion, but by his example, for he demonstrates something about human nature that the narrator has forgotten. Is it the commandment to “love ye one another”? Or that all humans are connected? Or that humans should be living a fuller life than Wall Street permits? Emerson calls idealists a “spiritual compass,” and society needs them as well as the materialists.
The narrator gets his final illumination from the fact that Bartleby worked in the Dead Letter Office. This symbolizes the dead end, lack of connection and communication of his life. The final irony is that Bartleby’s own life is the dead letter, the message that couldn’t be delivered or received.
The last cry of the narrator suggests that he did receive something from Bartleby, however, that cannot be said except through exclamation (“Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”). Emerson says that idealists are not popular because they demonstrate that humanity is not living its potential: “So many promising youths, and never a finished man!” The lawyer is near the end of his career, a so-called success, but Bartleby silently accuses him of being a failure as a human being. The lawyer begins by focusing the story on Bartleby as a strange and unusual case, but ends in understanding that Bartleby’s life is a statement about “humanity” as a whole.