This story of the inscrutable Bartleby is appealing because of its ambiguity. For, it explores several concepts: the alienation of man, passivity, nonconformity, and psychological imprisonment. In many ways, it is most relevant today.
All that is known about Bartleby's history is that his work previous to being hired by the elderly lawyer was as a clerk in the U.S. post office in the dead letter section. When he is hired and placed behind a screen, perhaps the memories of his alienation and psychological imprisonment reemerge affecting Bartleby's behavior as a scrivener. In his former forlorness, Bartleby may have lost what it is to be human, for meaning in life depends upon sharing. After so long of not sharing, Bartleby has lost his will to live: "I prefer not to," he says until he prefers not to eat and, eventually dies in prison.
Taken in its historical context, Bartleby's character takes on symbolic meaning. In the 1850s, the relationship between capitalists and workers had developed to the point that there were highly charged conflicts. (The employer/narrator says, "Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.") And, the close bond between employer and employee became defunct when machine-orientated production eliminated the need for skilled workers who were closely aligned to their employers. Thus, Bartleby represents the estranged worker in an uncaring system.