Summary and Analysis
Returning to work, the lawyer finds a note from the landlord explaining that he has had Bartleby arrested for vagrancy and that the lawyer should appear at the prison to state the facts in the case. That same day, the lawyer confers with a prison official and explains that, although Bartleby behaves perversely, he is an honest man and deserving of kindness, even if he must be sent to the poorhouse.
Since Bartleby is not considered a dangerous criminal, he has the run of the prison yard, where the lawyer finds him facing a high wall within sight of thieves and murderers. At the lawyer's approach, Bartleby does not turn around and refuses to converse. The lawyer disclaims any part in Bartleby's arrest and reminds him that the yard is pleasantly grassy and open to the sky; Bartleby retorts, "I know where I am."
On his departure, the lawyer encounters the grub-man, who offers to provide a better grade of food than Bartleby is likely to receive in prison. The lawyer, willing to underwrite Bartleby's meals, pays the man in advance to bring the prisoner "the best dinner you can get" and urges him to be as polite as possible. The grub-man, suggesting an introduction to his new client, makes a show of condescending to Bartleby and asks what he would like for his evening meal. Bartleby declines to eat dinner, since he is unaccustomed to full-scale dining. The grub-man, who earlier surmised that Bartleby was a "gentleman forger," deduces that he is "odd."
Returning to the prison within a few days, the lawyer learns that Bartleby was seen exiting his cell and heading for the yard. When the lawyer comes upon the prisoner, he finds him inert against a wall, open-eyed in a fetal position. A touch proves that he is lifeless. The lawyer replies to the grub-man that Bartleby will not dine and that he sleeps "with kings and counselors."
In a brief epilogue, the lawyer skips over commentary about the burial and reports a rumor which he hears several months later that describes Bartleby as having been an underling at Washington's Dead Letter Office; apparently, he lost his job in a political reshuffling. The lawyer perceives his former employee in a new light as victim of a depressing job which consigns undeliverable human messages to the furnace. He concludes enigmatically, "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!"
Melville's characterization of the narrator remains true to form. As has been the pattern in his dealings with Bartleby, the lawyer is ambivalent concerning the arrest. At first he is indignant, then approving of the measure as the only alternative. Revelation of the parade-like departure of Bartleby and constable, arm in arm before a retinue of gawkers, provokes no comment. Only at Bartleby's death does the narrator gain insight into the possible cause of his mental aberration. By associating the rumor of Bartleby's employment at the Dead Letter Office with his hopeless, horizonless outlook, the lawyer, who himself has suffered a professional setback from political maneuverings, perceives not only the extent of the man's disconnectedness but also an even greater enigma — the extent of all human alienation.
An important aspect of the resolution is the fact that Bartleby, although estranged from reality, is completely aware of his employer's identity. Not so removed from rationality as his behavior suggests, Bartleby, reduced to naked, directionless will, is capable of inflicting severe verbal recrimination. It is classic irony that, at his death, his eyes remain open in the steady gaze that locks him to the dead-wall, a symbol not only of his lack of communication with humanity, but also emblematic of death itself, which he encounters, friendless and alone, on the barren green of a prison yard.
alms-house a home and sheltered workshop for the destitute.
Monroe Edwards a noted forger of the first half of the nineteenth century.
Sing-Sing a state prison on the Hudson River in Ossining, New York.