The plot is deceptively simple. The Lawyer, a well-established man of sixty working on Wall Street, hires a copyist—seemingly no different from any other copyist, though the Lawyer is well-accustomed to quirky copyists. But Bartleby is different. Bartleby's initial response of "I would prefer not to," seems innocent at first, but soon it becomes a mantra, a slogan that is an essential part of Bartleby's character. It is, as the Lawyer points out, a form of "passive resistance."
Bartleby's quiet, polite, but firm refusal to do even the most routine tasks asked of him has always been the main source of puzzlement. Bartleby has been compared to philosophers ranging from Cicero, whose bust rests a few inches above the Lawyer's head in his office, to Mahatma Gandhi. His refusal of the Lawyer's requests has been read as a critique of the growing materialism of American culture at this time. It is significant that the Lawyer's office is on Wall Street; in fact, the subtitle of "Bartleby" is "A Story of Wall Street." Wall Street was at this time becoming the hub of financial activity in the United States, and Melville (as well as other authors, including Edgar Allan Poe) were quick to note the emerging importance of money and its management in American life. Under this reading, Bartleby's stubborn refusal to do what is asked of him amounts to a kind of heroic opposition to economic control.
But if this interpretation is correct—if Melville intended such a reading—it seems to be an extremely subtle theme, since the Lawyer never really contemplates Bartleby's refusal to be a working member of society. He is simply amazed by Bartleby's refusal to do anything,
even eat, it seems, or find a place to live. Throughout the story, Bartleby simply exists; he does do some writing, but eventually he even gives that up in favour of staring at the wall. There are many more interpretations of Bartleby and the story.