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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
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. "Benito Cereno," being primarily a straightforward adventure novel in its form, does not contain many overt symbols. One exception is the skeleton of Alexandro Aranda, the owner of the slaves, hung from the ship's bow. Under the skeleton is written the words, "follow your leader," and Babo shows it to the white sailors, commenting on how white the bones are (suggesting they are bones from a white man). The added irony, of course, is that Black and white people have bones of the same color.
At the end of "Bartleby the Scrivener," the narrator (the Lawyer) reveals the one clue he has to Bartleby's history: a rumor that Bartleby once worked in the dead-letter office. The Lawyer believes this is the cause of Bartleby's strange behavior: "Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?" The Lawyer's theory is that 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 detachment.
The dead letters could symbolize many things. Some critics who look at "Bartleby the Scrivener" as a comment on Melville's life believe the "dead letters" may represent his unpopular novels, such as Moby-Dick. These novels, like the 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.
The letters could also make a good metaphor for 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, even today, a common source of depression for some employees. By making them dead letters, Melville makes the depressing nature of such a task more explicit. When he changes jobs, Bartleby is willing to write letters (or copies) for some time, 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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Melville Stories!