In what ways might Bartleby’s behavior and fate be interpreted as a criticism of the larger social and economic system in which he, the lawyer, the other characters, and perhaps the reader are all embedded?

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One could say that Bartleby's passive-aggressive behavior represents a defiance of the existing social order and the capitalist system on which it is based. And working on Wall Street, the epicenter of international capitalism, places Bartleby in an ideal position to do precisely that. But this is no hot-shot financier or wealthy corporate raider we're dealing with here; this is just a humble clerk. His capacity for resistance is therefore somewhat limited. If he's going to take a stand, then he's going to have to take a seat. And so he does—all of a sudden, right out of the blue, he stops working altogether.

We can't know for certain what's going through the young man's troubled mind; the most likely explanation is that he has some kind of depressive illness. But perhaps the theme of anti-capitalism might provide an alternative explanation. Maybe he's so thoroughly disillusioned with all the poorly paid work he's had to do for his boss's well-heeled clients that he's developed a moral objection to being just another small cog in a giant, inhuman corporate machine.

In any case, Bartleby's unique mode of defiance has a disruptive effect on the daily routine of the lawyer's office. The wheels of commerce may not have ground to a halt, but they do at least slow down for a little while. Bartleby's lawyer boss has never seen anyone quite like this strange young man before. He's so flummoxed that he's at a loss to know how to handle this unprecedented act of sullen defiance in his midst.

Eventually, and inevitably, force prevails and settles the matter once and for all. One could interpret this as a subtle critique of how the capitalist system often silences those who engage in peaceful protest against it. But although Bartleby as some kind of proto-anarchist is ultimately unsuccessful in his defiance of the capitalist system and all its workings, he does at least point the way towards a potential strategy of peaceful mass resistance.

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