The narrator, an elderly lawyer who does a comfortable business helping wealthy men deal with mortgages, title deeds, and bonds, relates the story of the strangest man he has ever known. Bartleby is a new addition to the narrator's staff. The narrator already employs two scriveners, Nippers and Turkey. Nippers suffers from indigestion, and Turkey is a drunk, but the office survives because in the mornings Turkey is sober even though Nippers is irritable, and in the afternoon Nippers has calmed down even though Turkey is drunk. Ginger Nut, the office boy, gets his name from the little cakes he brings the men. Bartleby comes in answer to ad, and the narrator hires the forlorn looking young man in hopes that his calmness will soothe the temperaments of the other scriveners.
One day, when Bartleby is asked to help proofread one of the documents he copied, he answers simply, "I would prefer not to." It is the first of many refusals. To the dismay of the narrator and the irritation of the other employees, Bartleby takes part in fewer and fewer duties around the office. The narrator makes several attempts to reason with Bartleby and learn about him, but Bartleby always responds the same way when asked to do a task or give out information about himself: "I would prefer not to." One weekend, when the narrator stops in at the office, he discovers that Bartleby is living at the office. The loneliness of Bartleby's life strikes the narrator: at night and on Sundays, Wall Street is as desolate as a ghost town. He alternates between pity and revulsion for Bartleby's bizarre behavior.
Bartleby continues to refuse duties, until finally he is doing no work at all. And yet the narrator cannot get him to leave. The scrivener has a strange power over his employer, and the narrator feels he cannot do anything to harm this forlorn man. But his business associates begin to wonder at Bartleby's presence at the office, since he does no work, and the threat of a ruined reputation forces the narrator to do something. His attempts to get Bartleby to go are fruitless. So the narrator moves his offices to a new location. But soon afterward, the new tenants of the narrator's old offices come to him asking for help: Bartleby will not leave. When they oust him from the offices, Bartleby haunts the hallways. The narrator goes to see Bartleby in one last attempt to reason with him, but Bartleby rejects him. For fear of being bothered by the anti-Bartleby folks, the narrator stays away from work for a few days. When he returns, he learns that Bartleby has been put in prison.
At the prison, Bartleby seems even more glum than usual. The narrator's friendliness is rebuffed. The narrator bribes a turnkey to make sure Bartleby stays well fed. But when the narrator returns a few days later, Bartleby has died. He preferred not to eat.
Some time afterward, the narrator hears a rumor that Bartleby worked in a Dead Letter Office. The narrator reflects that the dead letters would have made anyone of Bartleby's temperament sink into an even darker gloom. The letters are emblems for our mortality and the failure of our best intentions. Through Bartleby, the narrator has glimpsed the world as the miserable scrivener must have seen it. The closing words of the story are the narrator's resigned and pained sigh: "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!"