The ending of the classic short story of Bartleby, the Scrivener may seem a little vague. However, I believe that this exclamation- filled with feeling- is a reference to the narrator’s pity for Bartleby and perhaps a little remorse that he could not save Bartleby. Throughout the entire story the narrator has treated Bartleby with pity, a sort of holier-than-thou attitude. It is as if he sees Bartleby as an opportunity to display his goodness and improve his reputation. In paragraph 53 the narrator states:
“Poor fellow! thought I, he means no mischief; it is plain he intends no insolence; his aspect sufficiently evinces that his eccentricities are involuntary. He is useful to me. I can get along with him. If I turn him away, chances are he will fall in with some less indulgent employer, and then he will be rudely treated, and perhaps driven forth miserably to starve. Yes. Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartleby; to humour him in his strange wilfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience.”
From this, it is evident that the narrator is a little selfish and less benevolent than what his actions make him out to be because he blatantly says that he is doing this to make himself feel good. In fact, he seems to regard Bartleby as something of a charity case. This is further underscored by the narrator’s hyperbolic reaction when he finds out that Bartleby is homeless, and has been living in his office.
“For the first time in my life a feeling of overpowering stinging melancholy seized me. Before, I had never experienced aught but a not-pleasing sadness. The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both Bartleby and I were sons of Adam. I remembered the bright silks and sparkling faces I had seen that day, in gala trim, swan-like sailing down the Mississippi of Broadway; and I contrasted them with the pallid copyist, and thought to myself, Ah happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none. These sad fancyings-chimeras, doubtless, of a sick and silly brain- led on to other and more special thoughts, concerning the eccentricities of Bartleby. Presentiments of strange discoveries hovered round me. The scrivener’s pale form appeared to me laid out, among uncaring strangers, in its shivering winding sheet.”
As the story progresses, the narrator continues to treat Bartleby in a patronising manner, which can be seen in the way he entreats Bartleby to tell him about his past, and to “comply as far as may be with the usages of this office.” When that proves unsuccessful, he dismisses Bartleby from his office but Bartleby refuses to comply. There is then a period of time in which he lets Bartleby continue to stay in his office, because “At last I see it, I feel it; to penetrate to the predestined purpose of my life. I am content. Others may have loftier parts to enact; but my mission in this world, Bartleby, is to furnish you with office-room for such period as you may see fit to remain.”
This story is kind of ridiculous.
The narrator stops putting up with Bartleby when his own reputation is at stake and only goes back to deal with him because he is afraid that his reputation will be sullied if he does not since he is the last person associated with Bartleby. This is implied from his reaction to the news that Bartleby refuses to leave the premises:
“Aghast at this torrent, I fell back before it, and would fain have locked myself in my new quarters. In vain I persisted that Bartleby was nothing to me—no more than to any one else. In vain:—I was the last person known to have any thing to do with him, and they held me to the terrible account. Fearful then of being exposed in the papers (as one person present obscurely threatened) I considered the matter, and at length said, that if the lawyer would give me a confidential interview with the scrivener, in his (the lawyer’s) own room, I would that afternoon strive my best to rid them of the nuisance they complained of.”
Finally, Bartleby is escorted to a prison and he still refuses to comply with anything anyone asks him to. In his own “mild, cadaverous” way, he is rebelling. Bartleby refuses to eat, and I believe that this is his way of silently telling the world to go fly a kite- that he will not acquiesce to humanity’s expectations. In a way, this is the ultimate rebellion: he refuses to live.
The narrator regrets being unable to keep Bartleby alive and he feels responsible for Bartleby. In accordance with his dramatic nature, he associates Bartleby’s fate with a philosophical statement about humanity and in a way, it is. It is a statement about humanity’s mortality, which is evident in this excerpt from the last paragraph:
“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 fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded 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; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.
Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”