A successful lawyer on Wall Street hires Bartleby, a scrivener, to relieve the load of work experienced by his law firm. For two days, Bartleby executes his job with skill and gains the owner's confidence for his diligence. Then the copyist begins demonstrating signs of mental imbalance by refusing to proofread his work, finally refusing to copy altogether. Instead, he stares out the window at a blank wall. The lawyer, who discovers that Bartleby lives at the law office, gives him time to recover from eye strain, then tries to fire the recalcitrant employee. Bartleby refuses to leave. A second stratagem, moving to another office and leaving Bartleby behind, results in outrage from the new tenants, who charge the lawyer with responsibility for Bartleby's eccentricities.
After fleeing the scene for several days, the lawyer returns and learns that Bartleby has been arrested for vagrancy and taken to the Tombs. Still driven by a compassionate urge, the lawyer visits Bartleby and finds him free to roam the grassy yard, but confining himself to the study of a wall. On a subsequent visit, the lawyer observes Bartleby's huddled form lying dead at the base of a wall. Still haunted by the singular peculiarities of his deceased employee, the lawyer ponders rumors that the man was forced out of a job at the Dead Letter Office. In retrospect, the lawyer feels pity for Bartleby and all humankind.