Bartleby is a writer who withers and dies after refusing to copy other writers. More specifically, he has been described as 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 is "about a writer who forsakes conventional modes because of an irresistible preoccupation with the most baffling philosophical questions." Bartleby may also represent Melville's relation to his commercial, democratic society.
Melville made an allusion to the John C. Colt case in Bartleby. The narrator restrains his anger toward Bartleby 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."