It may well be that the narrator of this tale, a rather successful Wall Street business man, had hired Bartleby at the very end of Bartleby's ability to cope. Indeed, Bartleby did, at first, work quite well. There was, however, something a bit disconcerting about Bartleby's manner:
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. I should have been quite delighted with his application, had be been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically.
In the science of cardiology, hearts that are about to stop beating, relinquish their dance-like rhythms and become alarmingly regular and mechanical. Perhaps this is the state that Bartleby had finally, after years at work elsewhere, devolved into. This is not laziness; it is a breakdown.
This, and maybe the offhand and impersonal way that the narrator gave Bartleby his his latest and final assigment, did the man in:
In my haste and natural expectancy of instant compliance, I sat with my head bent over the original on my desk, and my right hand sideways, and somewhat nervously extended with the copy, so that immediately upon emerging from his retreat, Bartleby might snatch it and proceed to business without the least delay.
In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”
Bartleby, a man who had become all but a machine himself, was treated like the automaton he had become, and that was the end. He had reached the breaking point, and he broke down, like a dying heart or a seized engine. Done, finished, kaput.