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The Narrator introduces himself and his employees, Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut.
Necessity drives the Narrator to hire an additional helper, Bartleby.
The Narrator asks Bartleby to help him examine a copied document, but, to his astonishment, Bartleby "prefers" not to comply.
Dumbfounded, the Narrator asks Nippers to complete the job instead.
Days later, a similar scene occurs: the Narrator asks all of his clerks to help him double check a document and its copies, and everyone obeys – except Bartleby.
The Narrator, even more confused, tries first to reason with Bartleby, then asks the others for their opinion. Everyone agrees that Bartleby is either just in the wrong, or simply crazy.
As time passes, the Narrator begins to wonder about Bartleby's nature – what can possibly explain this odd character? Ultimately, he decides to be kind to the strange scrivener, though sometimes he is driven to try and goad Bartleby into some kind of reaction.
One afternoon, the exasperated Narrator tries to provoke Bartleby to do – well, anything. He refuses yet again. The Narrator appeals to the other clerks for support, and they back him up.
The Narrator attempts to test Bartleby's resolve by asking him to do some other little tasks, like going to the Post Office, or simply going to the next room to fetch Nippers. Bartleby declines.
At a loss, the Narrator goes home for the day.
However, the Narrator soon gets used to Bartleby's oddness, and grows accustomed to his presence. Bartleby's efficiency as a copyist still makes him valuable, after all.
One Sunday, the Narrator stops by the office on the way to church, only to discover that Bartleby is in the office – and that he apparently lives there.
Looking through Bartleby's things, the Narrator's feelings change from pity to fear, and he resolves to give Bartleby some money and send him away from the office for good.
The next day, the Narrator attempts to pry into Bartleby's personal life and history, but the scrivener prefers not to say anything about himself.
The day after, Bartleby tells the Narrator that he doesn't plan to write any more. The Narrator assumes this is a temporary change, but it turns out to be permanent.
This is the last straw. The Narrator is still sorry for Bartleby, but the only thing to do is fire him. However, that's not so easily done – Bartleby prefers not to leave the office.
The Narrator gives Bartleby six days to vacate the office. Unsurprisingly, he doesn't.
After the six days, the Narrator offers Bartleby some money, and tells him that he must leave before work the next day.
The Narrator is sure that Bartleby will be gone in the morning, and he obsessively thinks the matter over all night. When morning comes, he's sure that Bartleby will have left – but, of course, he hasn't!
The Narrator comes as close as he ever does to exploding in rage. He finally confronts Bartleby, but again, the scrivener simply states that he prefers not to leave.
The infuriated Narrator gets pretty worked up, but forcefully calms himself down. He even starts to sympathize with Bartleby again.
After a while, Bartleby's creepy and inexplicable presence starts to disturb the Narrator's business.
The Narrator decides, rather irrationally, that instead of forcing Bartleby to leave the office, he will pack up his whole practice and move to another building, just to escape.
In his new office, the Narrator receives a visitor, who turns out to be the new tenant in his old office. The guy is here to complain about Bartleby. The Narrator assures the visitor that Bartleby is not his responsibility.
After another week, the landlord and other tenants come to beg the Narrator for help – Bartleby is driving them all crazy.
The Narrator, feeling guilty, goes to visit Bartleby at the old place. He tries to convince Bartleby to leave and take up a new life somewhere else, but…well, you can guess what happens. Bartleby prefers to stay.
The Narrator, powerless against Bartleby's profoundly weird and powerful determination, flees the premises. He even flees the city, heading out to New Jersey for a while to collect his thoughts.
When he returns, the Narrator finds that Bartleby has been arrested and moved to prison.
The Narrator goes to visit Bartleby, who doesn't want to talk to him.
The Narrator feels that Bartleby has been wrongly imprisoned. He tries to cheer the prisoner up.
On his way out, the Narrator meets up with the prison grubman (cook), and gives him some extra cash to make sure Bartleby lives comfortably.
A few days later, the Narrator returns to check in with Bartleby. He discovers the scrivener lying dead in the prison yard.
The Narrator ends with a meditation upon Bartleby's former job, as an employee of the Dead Letter Office.