Bartleby's character can be read in a variety of ways. Based on the perception of the narrator and the limited details supplied in the story, his character remains elusive even as the story comes to a close.
As an example of clinical depression
Bartleby shows classic symptoms of depression, especially his lack of motivation. He is a passive person, although he is the only reliable worker in the office other than the narrator and Ginger Nut. Bartleby is a good worker until he starts to refuse to do his work. Bartleby does not divulge any personal information to the narrator. Bartleby's death suggests the effects of depression—having no motivation to survive, he refrains from eating until he dies.
As a reflection of the narrator
Bartleby's character can be interpreted as a "psychological double" for the narrator that criticizes the "sterility, impersonality, and mechanical adjustments of the world which the lawyer inhabits." Until the very end of the short story, the work gives the reader no history of Bartleby. This lack of history suggests that Bartleby may have just sprung from the narrator's mind. Also consider the narrator's behavior around Bartleby: screening him off in a corner where he can have his privacy "symbolizes the lawyer's compartmentalization of the unconscious forces which Bartleby represents."
The psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas insists the story is more about the narrator than the narrated. "The narrator's willingness to tolerate [Bartleby's] work stoppage is what needs to be explained ... . As the story proceeds, it becomes increasingly clear that the lawyer identifies with his clerk. To be sure, it is an ambivalent identification, but that only makes it all the more powerful."
Analysis of the narrator
The narrator, Bartleby's employer, provides a first-person narration of his experiences working with Bartleby. He portrays himself as a generous man, although there are instances in the text that question his reliability. His kindness may be derived from his curiosity and fascination for Bartleby. Moreover, once Bartleby's work ethic begins to decline, the narrator still allows his employment to continue, perhaps out of a desire to avoid confrontation. He also portrays himself as tolerant towards the other employees, Turkey and Nippers, who are unproductive at different points in the day; however, this simply re-introduces the narrator's non-confrontational nature. Throughout the story, the narrator is torn between his feelings of responsibility for Bartleby and his desire to be rid of the threat that Bartleby poses to the office and to his way of life on Wall Street. Ultimately, the story may be more about the narrator than Bartleby, not only because the narrator attempts to understand Bartleby's behavior, but also because of the rationales he provides for his interactions with and reactions to Bartleby. The narrator's detached attitude, towards life in general, and his compatriots in particular, seems to become increasingly compromised as the story goes on through his emotional and moral entanglement with Bartleby, culminating in the story's pivotal final line "Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!"
Various philosophical influences can be found in "Bartleby, the Scrivener." The story alludes to Jonathan Edwards's "Inquiry into the Freedom of the Will"; and Jay Leyda, in his introduction to The Complete Stories of Herman Melville, comments on the similarities between Bartleby and The Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity by Joseph Priestley. Both Edwards and Priestley wrote about free will and determinism. Edwards states that free will requires the will to be isolated from the moment of decision. Bartleby's isolation from the world allows him to be completely free. He has the ability to do whatever he pleases. The reference to Priestley and Edwards in connection with determinism may suggest that Bartleby's exceptional exercise of his personal will, even though it leads to his death, spares him from an externally determined fate.
"Bartleby" is also seen as an inquiry into ethics. Critic John Matteson sees the story (and other Melville works) as explorations of the changing meaning of 19th-century "prudence." The story's narrator "struggles to decide whether his ethics will be governed by worldly prudence or Christian agape." He wants to be humane, as shown by his accommodations of the four staff and especially of Bartleby, but this conflicts with the newer, pragmatic and economically based notion of prudence supported by changing legal theory. The 1850 case Brown v. Kendall, three years before the story's publication, was important in establishing the "reasonable man" standard in the United States, and emphasized the positive action required to avoid negligence. Bartleby's passivity has no place in a legal and economic system that increasingly sides with the "reasonable" and economically active individual. His fate, an innocent decline into unemployment, prison and starvation, dramatizes the effect of the new prudence on the economically inactive members of society.