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.
Bartleby is an incomprehensible character to the lawyer and to the reader. In fact, critics often pass Bartleby over as purely symbolic of the era Melville wrote in. In appearance, Bartleby is neat, presentable, tidy, everything that bodes well for his being a good scrivener. And he is...until one day on which he is asked to help with the tedious task of proofreading a manuscript, which takes three people and must be done out loud.
On this occasion, after spending his first days and weeks of employment with the lawyer in industrious silent productivity, Bartleby inexplicably says, "I would prefer not to." The only plausible reason is that speech breaks his wall of silence and forces him into interactions he would prefer not to have.
After this incident, which completely floors the lawyer who is utterly at a loss as to how to gain the advantage of being the employer requiring work from an employee, Bartleby even more inexplicably finds more and more things he would prefer not to do. Eventually, he does noting. He doesn't even go home anymore at night but stays in the office. One supposes he had ceased to prefer to pay his rent as well.
Matters deteriorate so much with Bartleby that he passes his days staring blankly at the blank wall outside his office window. It seems he is shattered by the loss of his wall of silence that separated him from others and is now at a loss himself as to how to proceed. Ultimately, he dies all alone from self-neglect while staring blankly at a blank wall in a corner of a prison yard to which he'd been brought. Perhaps everything about Bartleby can be summed up by a revision to his remark to Mr. Cutlets in the prison yard: “I prefer not to ___ to-day, ... [it] would disagree with me; I am unused to _____.”