Bartleby is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma – and, much to some readers' frustration, this conundrum goes unsolved at the end of the story. What exactly is it that makes Bartleby what he is? Why can't he just compromise like the rest of us do and get along with society? Finally, what would he prefer to do? None of these questions are answerable, and all of them have occupied readers of "Bartleby the Scrivener" for the past century and a half.
Any attempt to describe Bartleby's character would be futile, since we have practically no information on him. Rather than flailing around in the murky waters of psychoanalysis, let's take a look at what we do know, and what it might mean. First of all, look at the adjectives Melville uses over and over to describe the scrivener: pallid, forlorn, even cadaverous. The image depicted here is not healthy one, to put it mildly. However, though Bartleby is physically weak, he has incredible mental strength; his passive resistance to anything demanded of him or suggested to him is unbreakable. This demonstrates paradoxically both the power of human will and its dangerous nature – as individual and unique creatures, Bartleby shows us both what we are capable of and how harmful it can be.
Bartleby's quiet but impenetrable resistance totally isolates him from the rest of the characters in the story. There's nothing insolent about his refusal to do everything (though "I would prefer not to" does seem to take on an infuriatingly taunting tone the more it's repeated) – and what makes his attitude seem so mocking is the Narrator's (and our) inability to comprehend it. How, we ask, can someone simply prefer not to survive? But that's the point of Bartleby's stance: he prefers to do as he chooses, even if it kills him.