The Rationale of Suicide in Bartleby
One of the most strikingly confusing details of Herman Melville's "Bartleby" is the repetitive use of the specific form of his refusals; he "prefers" not to comply with his employer's demands. Bartleby never argues for his convictions, rather he refuses on the grounds of his preference. Such a vast repetition, along with its inherent perplexity, leads me to believe that the actual wording is symbolic in nature.
When someone is asked for his/her preferences, the question is directed to the individual's inner motives and desires. Any question addressed as a preference question, usually grants the consideration of the innermost inclinations. The lawyer never asked Bartleby whether he would like to comply or not, yet the latter keeps answering with the same term of preference; a choice of word that comes to show that Bartleby does not regard the demands laid upon him as intrinsically valid, he rather questions them in light of his inclinations and answers accordingly.
The lawyer, on the other hand, does view his demands as intrinsically valid. The lawyer represents society with all its requirements and demands. Society expects us to work for our living under the terms and conditions that it sets, but what if we choose not to? * The lawyer does not make much of Bartleby's choice of words, he does not recognize the real problem; namely, Bartleby is neither interested, nor subjected to the rules of society
Bartleby's state is further clarified by the symbolic use of the walls and the dead letter office described in the epilogue. First, throughout the story he is depicted time and again as facing and staring at a wall. Staring at a wall can mean one or both of the following options: either looking for an answer as in staring at a blanc card, or the possible end of the former; actually looking at a dead end when no answer is found.
It appears that Bartleby is hopelessly searching for something that he would actually "prefer" to do; an assumption backed by his symbolic open-eyed death at the end, and also by his reference to his interests while discussing other job options with his boss: "I would not like it at all" (par. 204) is the answer he repeats in different wording when offered five different lines of work. In other words, he is connected to his inner inclinations (our pure will that can incline us to either take an action or refrain from it), yet they do not incline him to do anything.
The reference to the dead letter solves the mystery; a letter that lacks an address is a dead letter; an address is the letter's direction; for the lack of direction a letter dies.