It is dangerous to isolate oneself; dangerous for an individual and for a nation.”- Jawaharlal Nehru. The quotation says that isolating oneself can be dangerous, as in the case of Bartleby, a character in Herman Melville’s novella Bartleby. Bartleby’s isolation was dangerous; it led to his depression and his death.
The motif of the story is the isolation of Bartleby from society. Three literary devices support the motif: symbolism, descriptive passages, and irony. The walls symbolize Bartleby’s isolation from society; descriptive passages convey his loneliness; irony further expounds upon the motif. Symbolism supports the motif of Bartleby being isolated from society. The symbolism is in this quotation, “Still further to a satisfactory arrangement, I procured a high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though note remove him from my voice.” In this quotation, the narrator put up a screen to separate his office from Bartleby’s, isolating him from the other members of his staff and thus from humanity. The phrase, “I prefer not to,” also tells the reader about Bartleby isolating himself.
The phrase shows his lack of involvement, another form of isolation. The narrator tells the reader exactly what he did to Bartleby, very vividly, as shown below. In the novella, the author tells the reader, down to the smallest detail, what he did to Bartleby to isolate him from the world. He tells us in this passage, “I placed his desk close up to a small side window in that part of the room, a window which originally had afforded a lateral view of certain grimy backyards, and bricks, but which, owning to insubsequent erections, commanded at present, no view at all, though it gave some light.
Within three feet of the panes was a wall, and the light came down from far above between two lofty buildings, as from a very small opening in a dome. Still further to satisfactory arrangement, I procured a green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though, not remove him from my voice.” The quotation describes how the narrator secludes Bartleby from society. Even his window, usually a form of escape, results in Bartleby being trapped behind another wall, thus reinforcing his total isolation. The irony lies in the fact that the narrator, while trying to isolate Bartleby, becomes affected by it, so much so that he appears almost human. Instead of dismissing him on the spot for refusing to copy, proofread or leave the premises, he tries to find other employment for him, and even considers inviting him to live in his residence as his guest.
The narrator develops before our eyes into a caring person, very different from the cold, unsympathetic person at the beginning of the story. “To befriend Bartleby, to humor him in his strange willfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience.” The narrator would normally befriend Bartleby or any other “sucker,” but Bartleby has given him a conscience. The narrator has realized that a common blemish in a person does not determine the person. In the beginning of the novella, the narrator only cared about his work, but now he realizes that people have a life outside of work, except Bartleby. The narrator then changes into a caring person, and tries to know Bartleby, and his odd ways, even going the extra yard to help him.
In the end, the narrator tries to save Bartleby from his doing, Bartleby’s undoing, Bartleby’s isolation. In conclusion, in real life, the strange are always isolated from the normal. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, blacks were isolated, or segregated, from society. Now, many people are isolated: retarded, ugly, “uncool,” the deformed, and people with contagious, deadly diseases. In Bartleby’s time, the strange were looked down upon or ridiculed at (as in Freak Shows), so Bartleby isolated himself and permitted others to isolate him from society.
Eventhough the narrator isolated Bartleby, Bartleby brought the isolation upon himself by living an abnormal life. By not fitting into mainstream society, Bartleby left himself open to isolation. The three literary elements, symbolism, descriptive passages, and irony, described how Bartleby’s isolation from society fit in the novella. Jawahrlal Nehru said that isolation is dangerous, as in Bartleby’s case. Isolation can drive a person insane, make him mute, or even kill him. The theme is not to let yourself succumb to the prejudice of others, and let yourself be isolated.