What is the significance of the discovery that Bartleby has been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office?
The lawyer who hires Bartleby as a clerk becomes increasingly perplexed as his once hard-working employee stops working, responding to every request with an "I prefer not to."
Bartleby eventually dies, and the lawyer hears a rumor that he had previously worked at the Dead Letter Office, the place where letters that have never been received and can't be returned end up, ultimately to be burned. The lawyer speculates that every day Bartleby would have been confronted with the depressing spectacle of communications never achieved, a world in which money that a desperate person needed never came, in which engagement rings were lost in the mail. Being confronted constantly with evidence of lives ruined by an inability to make a vital connection had such an effect on Bartleby's mind that he withdrew from connection, the lawyer thinks. To the lawyer, in other words, Bartleby's position at the Dead Letter Office is the key to understanding his strange, passive-aggressive behavior. As the lawyer puts it:
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, and assorting them for the flames?
Believe it or not, the US Postal Service has what is called a Mail Recovery Center. The old name of this service, however, is the Dead Letter Office. This is where undeliverable mail ends up, either because the address can't be found or for some other reason. Periodically, unclaimed packages will be auctioned off.
The significance of Bartleby's having worked at the Dead Letter Office is that he has become the personification of a dead letter. Every day he does less and less work until finally he is doing nothing at all, saying, "I prefer not to." His employer does fire him, but he just won't go away--because he has nowhere else to go. His boss has to move his offices to get rid of Bartleby, who keeps going to the same place he has always gone to.
Have you heard the old saying that you'd have to burn the house down to get somebody out of it? That's sort of like Bartleby. Eventually, the new owner of the office has Bartleby arrested, but he is so lost in jail that he starves himself to death, preferring not to eat.
Perhaps he serves as a warning to us not to get so wrapped up in our jobs!