“Bartleby the Scrivener” centers on a "scrivener," or copyist, for a law firm. The story is narrated by the Lawyer, the man who employs Bartleby. The Lawyer has two other scriveners, Turkey and Nippers, and an errand boy, Ginger Nut. As the story begins, the Lawyer realizes he needs another copyist. A strange young man named Bartleby answers the ad, and the Lawyer hires him. Bartleby writes swiftly and accurately for the first few days.

All copies must be examined for accuracy, and the Lawyer calls in Bartleby and asks him to examine a document; Bartleby replies, "I would prefer not to." This reply surprises the Lawyer so much he can't respond. Later, when a large document must be examined and all the copyists are lined up to examine each page, the Lawyer again calls in Bartleby, who again replies that he "would prefer not to" examine the document. The Lawyer knows he should fire Bartleby, but he is so puzzled by the man he allows him to continue working. The Lawyer begins to notice other odd habits about Bartleby. He never eats anything, except snacks. He never leaves the office. He still refuses to examine his own papers, always saying that he prefers not to.

When stopping by the office on a Sunday, the Lawyer discovers that Bartleby has been living there. He pities for Bartleby's cheerless life, but he is still troubled. A few days later, Bartleby tells the Lawyer he is going to stop writing. He gives Bartleby his salary and tells him to leave. But when he returns to the office after hours, Bartleby is still there.

The Lawyer points out the injustice of Bartleby's remaining in the office when he refuses to work. Bartleby hides in his corner, and the Lawyer cannot bring himself to force Bartleby out. He decides to let Bartleby remain in the office, doing nothing. But after the Lawyer's friends and clients make some unpleasant remarks about the squatter in his office, he realizes that allowing Bartleby to stay is bad for business. The only answer he can find is, if the scrivener will not leave, then the Lawyer will have to buy a new office.

A few days after the move, the Lawyer is confronted by a small mob of people who inform him that Bartleby is now hanging around inside the building all day. The Lawyer speaks to Bartleby again, telling him that either he must leave the building, or he will be arrested. The Lawyer even invites Bartleby to stay at his own home, but Bartleby refuses. He is arrested as a vagrant and sent to prison. The Lawyer visits him, but Bartleby wants nothing to do with him. Later, the Lawyer again visits Bartleby, who is sleeping outside in the prison yard. Upon reaching him, he discovers Bartleby has died.

The Lawyer tells the reader that sometime after Bartleby's death, he heard a rumor that the scrivener had once been a clerk in the Dead Letter office. He wonders whether such a depressing job might have driven the man to his deranged behavior.