One of Melville's most puzzling short works, "Bartleby, the Scrivener," which critics have labeled one of America's greatest short stories, resembles his other masterpieces — Moby-Dick, Benito Cereno, and Billy Budd — in that it defies a quick, tidy assessment. Its dense symbolic structure has been called a "parable of walls," an illustrative story of Wall Street's self-imposed restrictions on the human spirit. The setting, a kind of emotional ghetto, is, appropriately, a bustling commercial center where people stride to and from work and discuss the coming election. In the office, the narrator erects a folding screen, appropriately tinted green, the color of money, to separate Bartleby, a mundane worker, from himself, a somewhat pompous, smug attorney. The other barriers, the black and white walls visible from the office windows and the dead-wall of the prison yard, Bartleby deliberately seeks out in a perpetual confrontation with immovable, insurmountable objects, suggestive of the unchanging task expected of a copyist. It is ironic that the walls of the prison are no more pleasant than the view from the office or the endless paper drudgery which immures Bartleby. The effect on Bartleby is a misspent life — a kind of self-abnegation and living interment. Rather like the human letters relegated to flames at the Dead Letter Office, Bartleby, who is incapable of changing, willingly embraces nothingness.
The story's existential overtones spotlight Bartleby like an uncurious rat in an unfathomable maze as he eventually dies in a cheerless cul-de-sac, a walled stopping place in his aspirations which leads to total emotional dysfunction and death. On another plane, the futility of Bartleby's existence suggests Melville's personal disillusionment with the publishing world, which spurned his efforts to raise his fiction from the level of breezy, titillating travelogue to philosophical treatise. In both cases, other copyists and other writers managed to function, even thrive, in stifling milieus. But Bartleby, and, by extension, Melville, both too sensitive to the oppressive forces that encircle them, face slow, inexorable suffocation.
Because the story hinges on the actions of a narrator of limited perception, the reader moves fumblingly along toward a resolution of the problem of an employee who refuses to work. A fiercely productive worker at the outset, Bartleby quickly becomes less efficient, then intractable, and finally burdensome to office routine. Because his defiance provokes consternation in his colleagues, he forces his own ouster, yet even then, he refuses to recognize his employer's authority over his will. Unmoved by food, drink, or money, Bartleby's motives elude his employer, whose immersion in the materialism of a commercialistic milieu is only dimly masked by his superficial understanding of Christian altruism. Turning to the law, Bartleby's accusers feel justified, almost jubilant, at his downfall and follow him to jail like merrymakers on holiday.
The lawyer, obsessed by his concern for the hapless, asocial Bartleby, makes repeated efforts to flee the man's peculiar behavior, even riding about the countryside in a buggy as though on vacation. The ploy does not end his internal absorption with Bartleby's fate. Drawn back to the prison after his initial visit, he arrives shortly after Bartleby's death and finds him already cold. The dismal scene actualizes his earlier vision of Bartleby in a winding sheet. The melancholy conclusion to the story retains a focus on the narrator, a contemplative man who possesses enough humanity to ponder the self-torment of another human soul.