Herman Melville may have written the story as an emotional response to the bad reviews garnered by Pierre, his preceding novel. Christopher Sten writes, in "Bartleby, the Transcendentalist: Melville's Dead Letter to Emerson." that Melville found inspiration in Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays, particularly "The Transcendentalist" which shows parallels to "Bartleby".
Bartleby is a scrivener—a kind of clerk or a copyist—"who obstinately refuses to go on doing the sort of writing demanded of him." During the spring of 1851, Melville felt similarly about his work on Moby Dick. Thus, Bartleby may represent Melville’s frustration with his own situation as a writer, and the story itself is “about a writer who forsakes conventional modes because of an irresistible preoccupation with the most baffling philosophical questions.” Bartleby may also be seen to represent Melville's relation to his commercial, democratic society.
Melville made an allusion to the John C. Colt case in this short story. The narrator restrains his anger toward Bartleby, his unrelentingly difficult employee, by reflecting upon "the tragedy of the unfortunate Adams and the still more unfortunate Colt and how poor Colt, being dreadfully incensed by Adams ... was unawares hurled into his fatal act."