"Bartleby" by Herman Melville is one of the most complex stories ever written, and perhaps by any American writer of the period. There is little agreement among critics as to how it should be interpreted. It was extraordinarily ahead of its time, dealing with issues such as the rise of middle-class job’s depression, as well as realizing the future significance of Wall Street to American life. Yet it is also a deeply symbolic work; there are few, real-life Bartleby’s, telling their employers they would "prefer not" to do something, yet remaining at that place of business.
When he published "Bartleby" in 1853, Melville had just come off the dismal failure of Moby Dick in the marketplace (According to Bio True Story the book wouldn't become a "classic" until it was rediscovered by critics nearly half a century after its publication, and years after Melville's death). Melville had enormous success with his earliest books, such as Typee and Omoo; books that dealt with his experiences on the high seas and on various islands. These books were not nearly as thoughtful as Moby Dick. Melville knew such stories would sell, but he preferred to write stories more similar to Moby Dick. Under this interpretation, the Lawyer represents the ordinary reader, who desires that Melville continue "copying" his earlier works, while Melville, pained by the failure of Moby Dick, replies that he would "prefer not to," and finally stops writing entirely. The "dead letters," therefore, are Melville's shunned novels.
The narrator in Melville's story is a highly respected and successful Wall Street lawyer. The lawyer can be portrayed as Melville’s fans. In the beginning of the story the narrator employs two 1scriveners, each of whom has certain individuality, the two scriveners being different writers of the time. Turkey, the oldest scrivener, is calm and thorough before noon, but after 'twelve o'clock, he becomes increasingly inconstant, clumsy, and impulsive. Nippers, the other scrivener, is the opposite; he comes in to work surly and nervous, but becomes increasingly pleasant and efficient as the day wears on. Because during their good periods both Turkey and Nippers are good scriveners, the narrator is willing to work around their imperfections in the name of office harmony. This unfortunately may set an example for his lack of ability to handle Bartleby; meaning that the readers of Melville’s stories are losing their power over his writing.
Of course, Bartleby at first seems like he should need very little handling. He is an excellent scrivener; “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, [and] incurably forlorn,” (411). Soon, however, he begins to exhibit flaws that are even more disturbing than those of Turkey and Nipper. When asked to compare his copy with the original, he replies that he would “prefer not to” (412). After a while he would “prefer not to” copy, either, and he eventually would…