This story, in its most basic, stripped-down form, is a simple one: a successful lawyer, in need of assistance, hires a new scrivener (a kind of human Xerox machine) to join his small firm. Enter Bartleby, a quiet, initially efficient, anti-social little man. Bartleby proceeds to work well as a copyist, but refuses to help out with any other office tasks – or rather, he simply "prefers" not to. The lawyer and his other employees are shocked, but Bartleby just won't do what they ask.
Bartleby is always in the office, either working or staring out the window at a facing wall, and it turns out that he actually lives in the office. Eventually, this refusal grows more bizarre, when Bartleby announces that he will no longer work as a copyist – but prefers simply to stay in the office and not do any work. Finally, he is firmly asked to leave…but he just doesn't.
Rather than take any more drastic measures to get Bartleby out of his office, the lawyer actually picks up and moves his practice elsewhere. Another practice moves into the building, only to discover that Bartleby is still a fixture there. The new occupants complain to the Narrator, but he tells them the truth – Bartleby isn't his responsibility. At the end of their rope, the new occupants have the police arrest Bartleby. The story concludes with Bartleby in prison. He prefers not to do anything there, either, and even prefers not to eat. The Narrator goes to visit Bartleby, but unsurprisingly, he can't get through to the strange scrivener. Eventually, Bartleby wastes away and starves to death, leaving only the Narrator to mourn him.
As a rather odd end note, the narrator informs us that Bartleby previously worked as a clerk in an obscure branch of the Post Office known as the Dead Letter Office, sorting through undeliverable mail. We have to wonder what kind of effect these "dead" letters must have had on his psyche. But still, Bartleby is a mystery left unsolved.