It's about a Wall Street lawyer who hires a copyist (scrivener) who doesn't want to do anything. There. Done. Finis.
But wait, there's more! We are drawn into this character and want to understand him. His name is Bartleby. And whenever he is asked to do anything, he replies with the simple phrase, "I would prefer not to."
That becomes the catch phrase of this entire story. "I would prefer not to." So you as the reader are just like the narrator who is fascinated by his employee who refused to do what he's told. You wonder what on earth the man is thinking. You want to fire him, but you've become attached to the little beggar. He has such an air about him, a respectful politeness of how he will not be made to do what he chooses not to. It drove me crazy! I kept thinking, "Fire the guy!" But the story went on and on, as the employer continued to indulge this deadbeat. The story becomes a tragic downfall with no meaning and no understanding of its cause.
To be completely honest, I got tired of it. I wanted it to end. Why? Because I couldn't see a reason behind it. I wanted Melville to lead us down some dark road of this person's soul, to understand what could make him act that way. But he never did.
I won't deny I think it was brilliant insight. The problem is, I can't quite put my finger on why. Perhaps it's about our own desire for understanding. Maybe it's about the human need for congruity. Oh, wait, maybe because it did something to pull us all into that office, with it's tension, and its... Wait! I've got it!
It's the conflict! The conflict was ideal. It gives you that creepy feeling of awkwardness. It's a train wreck, you can't not watch! Picture it as your average story, and all the characters are doing exactly as characters should do, and then something happens and...
But the beauty of this story is that it changes that dynamic. All the characters are NOT doing exactly as they should do. You've got one character who is misfiring. He's defying not only convention, but expectation. At that moment, the story becomes all about this character. You want to fit his actions into your predetermined reasons for that behavior. You want to understand, and you want to pigeonhole that understanding into something already labeled and understood in your own world.
But you can't. Because everything he does defies explanation.
I guess that was Melville's goal. I happened to stumble on this short story without having heard anything about it. But after a quick internet search I found there's a heck of a debate of the inner meanings of this thing.
It's hard to say whether this story stands up well to the modern reader, because it's hard to say just what the heck the whole thing is about. In the end, I'm no better off for having read it.