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In Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street," a great deal of what drives Bartleby's boss is a sense of complete mystification, then concern, and finally frustration. But the employer feels guilty that Bartleby is eventually put in prison.
When he is first hired, Bartleby's work ethic is impressive.
At first Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing. As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion. He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light.
However, as time goes on, Bartleby begins to resist his employer's requests to work. On the first occasion, the employer has a job to do that does not involve copying: he needs Bartleby to help compare a copy to an original to make sure no mistakes have been made. And it needs to be done quickly. He is therefore amazed when Bartleby refuses to accommodate him.
...I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do...Imagine my surprise...when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”
This happens again and again.
One Sunday the employer stops at his office and finds Bartleby there, but he "prefers" not to let the employer enter. Bartleby then suggests that if his boss takes a short walk, Bartleby will probably let him in when he returns.
The employer feels sad. He recognizes that they are both alike: "sons of Adam"—trying to make their way through the world, so he tries to speak to Bartleby the next day, only to be rebuffed, and it rankles the employer.
Ultimately, as Bartleby refuses to work, his employer tries to fire him. When his boss tells him to leave, Bartleby again replies that he would "prefer" not to. The employer is forced to move his office, while Bartleby stays—the new tenant has him arrested.
The employer visits him there; Bartleby says he wants nothing to do with his employer.
“It was not I that brought you here, Bartleby,” said I, keenly pained at his implied suspicion. “And to you, this should not be so vile a place. Nothing reproachful attaches to you by being here."
The employer is hurt by Bartleby's suspicion that his boss is to blame—this infers that the boss cares about him. The boss even gives the "grub-man" money so Bartleby eats well.
...Look to my friend yonder. You will not lose by it. I will see you again.
Days later he returns, looking for Bartleby. The employer is told that Bartleby has been sleeping a short time in the yard. He goes to him. When the turn-key asks if he's sleeping, the employer notes that Bartleby is dead.
The story ends as the employer hears a rumor about Bartleby's previous employment—working in the "Dead Letter Office" for the government: a job working with letters that could not be delivered and were ultimately burned. Bartleby's job sorting through letters that never can be delivered to their destination. The hopelessness of this job could only "heighten" Bartleby's apathy.
Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters...?
The employer shows a deep concern for Bartleby, and feels guilty that Bartleby thought he had him arrested. But he believes the dead letters were his undoing.
On errands of life, these letters speed to death.
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