Melville Stories

by: Herman Melville

Important Quotations Explained

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 heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames? Sometimes from out the folder paper the pale clerk takes a ring—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank- note sent in swiftest charity—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more…on errands of life, these letters speed to death. Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!

These are the last lines of "Bartleby the Scrivener." The narrator (the Lawyer) has heard a rumor that Bartleby once worked in the Dead Letter section of a post office. For the Lawyer, these dead letters become a way of explaining Bartleby's nature. The Lawyer believes that the endless pile-up of sad, forgotten letters, often intended for people now dead, must have caused Bartleby to slowly withdraw from human society, perhaps even from his own existence. But it shouldn't be assumed that these dead letters simply drove Bartleby insane. Bartleby may very well have continued working if he had not lost his job due to a change in administration. It is possible that Bartleby became his job, and when he couldn't do it any more he lost his sense of purpose. Whatever the reason, the Dead Letter office is only one small clue to the Bartleby's strange behavior.