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.