As mentioned in the previous section, "Bartleby" is one of the most complex stories ever written by Melville, 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 dissatisfaction and 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, if any, real-life Bartlebys, telling their employers they would "prefer not" to do something, yet remaining at that place of business.

One popular strategy has been to approach the story from a biographical standpoint. When he published "Bartleby" in 1853, Melville had just come off the dismal failure of Moby Dick in the marketplace (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 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 contemplative or stylistic 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. This is a very brief version of the biographical interpretation of "Bartleby," and it is by no means the "right" interpretation—there is probably no such thing as a "right" interpretation—but it does give some insight into the themes of "Bartleby."