Symbolic tale by Melville published anonymously in Putnam's Magazine (1853) and reprinted in The Piazza Tales (1856). One view is that it reflects Melville's futility at the neglect of his novels (“Dead Letters”) and his uncertainty about how to relate to society.
A Wall Street lawyer hires Bartleby, a curious, wraith-like figure, as a copyist. Bartleby refuses to mingle with the other employees, and, when asked to do anything besides copying documents, invariably says, “I would prefer not to.” Some inner dignity or pathos in him prevents his being discharged, even when he ceases to work and uses the office for living quarters. The lawyer moves to another building, and the new tenant has Bartleby arrested. Visited in prison by the lawyer, he is silent and refuses favors. Soon he dies, and the lawyer hears a rumor that Bartleby was formerly a clerk in the Dead Letter Office, whose strange atmosphere affected his attitude toward life to the end.