For decades, literary critics have argued over how to interpret the character of Bartleby from "Bartleby the Scrivener" (1853). At first glance, he seems to have little or no character to speak of: he arrives at the offices of the Lawyer, is hired to do some copying, then begins to respond to any request made of him with "I would prefer not to." This reply becomes a mantra, and the politely cold, yet firm way Bartleby says it prevents the Lawyer from taking any real action against him. Time and again, the Lawyer is stymied by Bartleby's simple phrase: "I would prefer not to." The term prefer begins to infect the Lawyer's speech, even his mind.

But who is Bartleby? What does he represent? Baffled by the character's behavior, many critics have bypassed interpreting Bartleby as a universal symbol in favor of looking at him in the context of Melville's life. Some critics think Bartleby represents Melville himself: at this time of his life, Melville's most recent works (including White Jacket (1850) and Moby Dick (1851)) had failed miserably, despite the fact that they would achieve acclaim later on. At that time, his readers wanted more adventure, like the adventure in his earlier works such as Typee. Some critics think that, therefore, the Lawyer represents Melville's readers, asking Melville to write the same old fiction he had been writing all along, and Bartleby is Melville himself, replying that he would "prefer not to" and eventually withdrawing into himself and his misery.

This is just one interpretation, and it is a very simplified version of it. A more universally symbolic interpretation is possible. We have one clue about Bartleby's past, given by the narrator at the end of the story: Bartleby is said to have once worked in the Dead Letter office, and to have lost his job after an administrative shake-up. The narrator (the Lawyer) wonders if such a miserable job—burning letters that have been sent to people that have died in the meantime or who have vanished—were what caused Bartleby's ennui and his descent into seeming insanity.