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In Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” the setting contributes to the tone, the style, the theme and particularly the characterization of Bartleby, a scrivener working for the narrator. The parallelism between the setting and the attributes of Bartleby is suggested in the description of the prison yard, where Bartleby is confined. When Bartleby is imprisoned for vagrancy, the narrator visits him and is directed towards the yard. The description of the yard reflects both Bartleby’s desolate mental and social states as well as his passive resistance against the narrator and what he signifies.
The story is about Bartleby’s encounter with the narrator, his employee. The narrator chooses to tolerate Bartleby’s preferences until they interfere with the narrator’s work; the narrator is then forced to dismiss Bartleby and relocate his office. This dismissal later results in Bartleby being arrested as a vagrant and initiates the scene in the prison yard, where the narrator goes to visit him.
Bartleby’s isolation and desolate mental state is illustrated by the author’s depiction of the prison. The yard of the prison is surrounded by walls of “amazing thickness, keeping off all sounds behind them,” and the “masonry weighted upon me” (556). This description provides a powerful image of being isolated. The author also uses the image of a pyramid, known as an enclosed and isolated space for burials, to describe the prison and further enhance the effect. The images of enclosure and isolation in the prison yard echo earlier images in the story. When Bartleby first arrives at the office, the narrator erects a working space for him that had him facing a view of the wall from the building next door and uses a “high green folding screen…[to] isolate Bartleby…”(536). The setting in the office, which has Bartleby incrementally isolating himself from others by erecting a sense of walls, is taken to an extreme in the yard, where he reaches a form of complete isolation. It is a form of confinement that the narrator interprets as an indication of madness, “I [narrator] think he is a little deranged” (556). Thus there is a connection between setting and state of mind. The physical setting, which is characterized by isolating walls and gloom, echoes Bartleby’s mental state as the narrator perceives it, namely, as deranged.
The setting not only reveals Bartleby’s mental state but also his social state. Bartleby’s position in the prison yard, isolated from other prisoners, as stated in the passage “the yard…was not accessible to the common prisoners,” suggests that he has reached the peak of social isolation (556). This is also reinforced by his refusal to converse with the narrator (544). Indeed, throughout the story, Bartleby has been systematically removing himself from society, an estrangement that is enacted in his treatment of space and setting. His cubicle becomes more isolated and he prefers to work alone. However, this movement away from society is not just a general estrangement from the people who surrounds him; Bartleby is also isolating himself from the values of that society, which are inherently capitalist and are upheld by the narrator. The narrator is a lawyer and wealthy man who believes in the US capitalist system. Jacob Astor, America’s first millionaire, is the narrator’s hero. When Bartleby isolates himself through strategic spatial development, he is in fact refusing to follow the norms of Wall Street in the same way he refuses to “copy” the documents (546).
In effect, Bartleby’s spatial isolation in the prison yard begins to suggest differing implications, namely, that he is engaging in a form of resistance against these social norms and succeeded to some degree. The implications of his success are also encoded in the setting. Initially, the yard seems dank and dark and Bartleby encased in brick. However, a closer examination reveals that something productive can grow in that environment: “…imprisoned turf grew under foot” and “…by some strange magic…grass-seed, dropped by birds, had sprung” (556). Like the turf, Bartleby refuses to give in to the norms of the environment that he is in, which privileges wealth. The green of the turf and grass here echoes the “high green folding screen” of his cubicle walls (556). But, unlike the cubicle walls, where green is associated with money, here the green suggest the possibility of rebirth and change. Bartleby then, can be seen to engage in a form of passive resistance, encapsulated by the phrase “I would prefer….” (544); this resistance is encoded in the setting, particularly this green turf.
Ultimately, the price of this resistance is too high, as it leads to Bartleby’s death. His death suggests that figures like Bartleby, who refuse to subscribe to capitalism, have no place in this society. Indeed, like the dead letters that he once monitored, Bartleby’s message falls on deaf ears, particularly those of the lawyer, who cannot see beyond his own self-interest. However, even though the narrator cannot see it, it is a message that underlies the entire text, even the setting.
With a short story, the characteristics pertaining to a character can resonate with the setting of the story. In this case, Bartleby’s social and mental state is mirrored by the isolation of the prison yard, with its thick walls that resemble a pyramid. Bartleby’s passive resistance is also demonstrated through the depiction of the growth of the “imprisoned turf” and grass seeds (556). The characterization of Bartleby seems to seep into the entire text, even the setting.
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