The narrator of the story is an elderly lawyer who has an office on Wall Street. He is very experienced and successful man who worked with many people, so he has a hobby of collecting their stories. Today he wants to tell the readers one of the most interesting and mysterious one - the story of one of his scriveners named Bartleby.
The narrator starts from the vivid description of his other three scriveners he gave ironic nicknames: Turkey, Nippers and Ginger Nut. We see that he really enjoys observing them and studying their personalities and behaviour. Turkey is the oldest of the three, approximately in his sixties (similar to the narrator). He is short and plump and does resemble a bird he is nicknamed for somehow. Turkey is a responsible worker but due to his age he gets tired fast and in the evening and often make mistakes and drops ink on the papers. The narrator tries to ask him work in the mornings only, but Turkey argues with him saying that he is an old and respectable man and he won’t be disgraced that way. So the narrator has to agree with him, understanding that Turkey is too stubborn to see the truth. He just gives the least important documents to his employee in the afternoon and hopes Turkey won’t spoil anything.
Nippers is almost the complete opposite of Turkey. He is roughly twenty five years old, tall, with long hands and legs. In addition he works best in the evening after he has meal. In the morning his stomach problems make Nippers extremely nervous, angry and inattentive to the details in the documents. He also has something alike to obsessive-compulsive disorder: Nippers is constantly adjusting the height of his desk, fixing either one side or another, trying to make it perfectly parallel to the floor. He is never satisfied with the result though. Lunch calms him a bit, so the narrator has to micro-manage his employees’ work, distributing the most important documents to the one who is now the most effective.
The third his employee isn’t a scrivener yet. He is errand boy nicknamed Ginger Nut because he is often asked to bring ginger nut cakes for lunch to the whole office. Ginger Nut doesn’t have any remarkable traits (or the adults don’t care about them).
The narrator describes an average daily life of his office. There is too much work for two scriveners, so when a sickly-looking man knock on his door and says that he wants to work as one, the lawyer gladly agrees. The man is named Bartleby and he looks very socially awkward. Bartleby gets a personal corner, divided from the rest of the office. He doesn’t talk to anyone without purpose, working steadily and thoroughly, even at night, using a candle in his dark corner. At first he seems to be just an excellent worker and the lawyer doesn’t mind his quirks such as silence or staying in the office not going out at all.
But once Bartleby just refuses to examine a small document the lawyer gave to him, saying “I’d prefer not to”. The narrator is shocked: he isn’t used to refusals. But he decides not to argue for the first time, despite he doesn’t understand why Bartleby refuses to do such a simple task. The lawyer asks Nippers to do this instead. Nippers gets incredibly irritated (it was in the morning) and promises that it is the last time he does Bartleby’s work. Everything seems to go smooth until Bartleby refuses again - with the same words: “I’d prefer not to”. The lawyer tries to persuade him, but Bartleby calmly repeats these words again.
The lawyer is puzzled. Bartleby’s behaviour is very uncommon and none of the socially accepted reactions fits as response. So the only thing he can do is to pretend everything is fine (calming down Turkey and Nippers in the meanwhile). Bartleby doesn’t go out and doesn’t examine documents, he just writes.
The second strange thing happens when the narrator decides to come to his office on Sunday. He tries to open the door with his key but understands that a key is already inserted from inside. The amazed lawyer knocks on the door and Bartleby, in his underwear only, opens the door, politely and calmly asking the narrator to have a short walk until he dresses up and goes out. The lawyer is unable to find words. He silently closes the door and indeed goes for a walk trying to wrap his mind around what he just saw. He is sure that Bartleby is a decent man and even if he needs to work on Sunday he will never do this in the underwear.
When the narrator returns, Bartleby is gone. The lawyer hesitates a bit but then decides to investigate and sees that Bartleby’s possessions are already in the office, he lives here. The narrator again doesn’t know how to react, thinking that Bartleby is mentally ill or homeless and desperate. He decides to pretend that nothing happened again because he doesn’t want to be cruel to such a miserable person.
From now on the lawyer secretly observes Bartleby’s life. He doesn’t go away from the office, washing and sleeping at night there, and eats nothing except the ginger nut cakes Ginger Nut brings to the office. The lawyer is also worried with the rumors amongst his colleagues: they discuss the strange scrivener he has and think that it is inappropriate for such a respected person.
The last straw is Bartleby refusing to even write. Finally the lawyer allows himself to get angry and ask for the reasons of that. Bartleby comes to the light and the narrator sees the dull blind eyes: the scrivener lost his sight because of writing in twilight. The lawyer feels ashamed and, despite the anger of other scriveners, distributes Bartleby’s work among Turkey and Nippers until Bartleby gets better. But nothing changes: Bartleby just lives in the office doing nothing. The narrator tries to talk to him and ask to do at least something, but Bartleby refuses with the same words: “I’d prefer not to”. The lawyer’s patience comes to an end and, supported by the other two scriveners, he decides to fire Bartleby. This doesn’t change anything: the strange man just refuses to leave.
The lawyer can barely hold his anger. But it is too embarrassing to call the police because he can’t fire his own employee. After the long meditations he decides to move to another office leaving Bartleby here, so the madman won’t be his problem anymore. In a few days the narrator finds the suitable place to move and promptly changes his address. Both he and his personnel are finally happy. The only thing that is left from Bartleby is the sentence “i’d prefer…” that clang to any other member of the office.
But in a few days the new owner of the office demands to take away the man they left there. Bartleby comes with him, escorted by the police and just sits on the stairs in front of the new door, refusing to go away because “he’d prefer to stay”. Finally the police arrests the former scrivener and imprisons him. The narrator, feeling guilty, decides to visit Bartleby in prison and sees him sitting in the cell and looking at the wall, motionless. He tries to talk to him but Bartleby refuses, with the same words and calm tone. Unable to do anything else, the lawyer pays money to the prison cook, so that Bartleby will be treated well. But despite his efforts, Bartleby just starves himself to death in a few days.
The lawyer makes an investigation to understand who was Bartleby, but finds out only that his previous occupation was a post worker. Bartleby worked in the Dead Letter Office - the department that deals with undelivered mail. The narrator finds this occupation very suitable for the deceased.