The story, set in a Wall Street law office in the mid-1800’s, begins with the unnamed narrator, The Lawyer, stating that he would like to focus his tale on a group of humanity as of yet unwritten about: scriveners, or law-copyists, of whom he’s known many. But, rather than focus on a group of them, he will tell the tale of the oddest one he’s known: Bartleby.
After explaining that his office is occupied by himself, two other scrivener employees (Turkey, who is a drunk and therefore only useful before he starts drinking at lunch, and Nippers, who has some kind of habit that means he is only productive during the afternoon hours), and Ginger Nut, a twelve-year-old office boy, The Lawyer says that he has posted an ad to hire a new employee. Bartleby comes for an interview, and The Lawyer hires him.
While at first Bartleby proves an excellent employee, producing a huge quality of writing for his employer, his working habits are rigid and peculiar. When his boss asks him to examine a paper with him for errors, Bartleby replies that he “would prefer not to.” At first The Lawyer thinks he has misheard his employee, but when he repeats himself and Bartleby again prefers not to help, a pattern emerges that The Lawyer must reckon with. He considers firing Bartleby, but decides to try to reason with him, telling him that it’s common courtesy in this industry to go over copy for errors as a group. Bartleby listens, but again repeats that he’d “prefer not to” help. After considering firing Bartleby once more, The Lawyer decides not to, as he becomes busy with other matters and decides that Bartleby is useful for what he does provide—vast quantities of writing. And, in fact, The Lawyer justifies that keeping Bartleby on costs him little to nothing, but it makes him feel charitable and eases his Christian conscious.
One Sunday morning, The Lawyer is on his way to Church and decides to stop by the office. There, he finds the office door locked, and when the door is opened he finds Bartleby on the other side. Bartleby tells him that he needs a few moments alone inside, and after The Lawyer walks around the block and returns to the office, he finds himself alone. With Bartleby gone, The Lawyer snoops inside Bartleby’s desk, finds a few belongings, and determines that Bartleby must be living in the office at night and on weekends. At first The Lawyer thinks of Bartleby’s poverty and solitude, feeling a great pity for him, but soon that pity morphs into anger and repulsion, as The Lawyer believes Bartleby to have some incurable mental illness. He resolves to find out more about Bartleby’s personal life, find one of Bartleby’s relatives to take care of him, and fire Bartleby with generous severance pay as soon as possible.
The next day, The Lawyer calls Bartleby into his office. He asks Bartleby many questions about his family his personal history, but Bartleby prefers not to answer any of them. When he asks Bartleby to be a little reasonable, Bartleby says he would prefer not to do that either.
A day later, Bartleby ceases doing any work at all—he spends his days staring at the wall, and The Lawyer decides it is time to rid the office of Bartleby. At the end of the week he gives Bartleby a 20-dollar bonus (a generous amount at the time), wishes him well, and tells him to leave the key when he departs. The Lawyer is happy with how he’s handled the firing, but to his dismay Bartleby is still in the office when The Lawyer returns on Monday, and his 20-dollar bonus is sitting on his desk untouched. When The Lawyer confronts Bartleby that morning about why he has stayed, Bartleby simply says that he would prefer not to leave. The Lawyer knows he only has two options: call the police and have Bartleby removed, or simply keep him on as an employee. In what he deems a charitable gesture, The Lawyer decides to do the latter, and keeps Bartleby in his office as a valueless employee.
That is, until, other lawyers begin to discuss Bartleby’s peculiar presence in The Lawyer’s office. When The Lawyer believes these rumors might hurt his business, he decides to change offices and leave Bartleby behind for the next tenants or the landlord to deal with. However, the landlord soon tracks The Lawyer down and tells him that if The Lawyer doesn’t intervene, the police will be called and Bartleby will be forcibly taken away.
The Lawyer returns to his former office, talks to Bartleby, but despite many charitable offers, including a new job and even to come stay at The Lawyer’s home, Bartleby refuses all and The Lawyer leaves in a huff.
A while later, The Lawyer learns that Bartleby has been taken to prison. Out of pity, The Lawyer visits him, and pays another inmate to provide Bartleby with good-quality food. Alas, Bartleby prefers not to accept this gesture as well, refusing to eat and instead choosing to lie on the floor of the prison, wasting away.
The Lawyer cuts off his narration of Bartleby’s tale at this point, saying that the reader can provide the imagination to figure out how it ends for Bartleby. Instead, The Lawyer ends the story by relaying a piece of information he’s heard by rumor: that before working in the scrivener’s office, Bartleby worked for a number of years at the Dead Letter Office, burning lost letters.