Alexander Schaunard, a poor musician and painter, is unable to pay the rent for his cold and windy top-floor room in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Eluding the porter who is on watch to keep Schaunard from moving his few pieces of furniture, the musician tries in vain to borrow money from his impecunious friends. Shortly after he leaves the tenement, Marcel, a painter, comes to take over the room Schaunard vacated. The painter has no furniture except his canvas flats, and he is pleased to find that his quarters contain Schaunard’s table, chairs, bed, and piano.
Although Schaunard approaches all of his friends in alphabetical order, he is unable to borrow more than three of the seventy-five francs he needs to satisfy his landlord. At dinnertime, his stomach leads him to Mother Cadet’s, famous for her rabbit stew. He arrives too late, however; his table companion, Colline, ordered the last stew of the evening. Colline, barricaded behind a pile of books, kindly offers to share the stew with Schaunard. Not to be outdone, Schaunard orders extra wine. Colline orders yet another bottle, Schaunard calls for a salad, and in conclusion Colline orders dessert. By the time they leave Mother Cadet’s, they are well pleased with the world. Stopping by a café for coffee and liqueurs, they fall into conversation with Rodolphe, who, to judge by his clothes, can only be a poet.
Rodolphe soon becomes as expansive as they. Forgetting that he no longer has a room, Schaunard offers to take Colline and Rodolphe home with him, for the hour is late and they live at the far ends of Paris. As they reel into the house, the porter, too, forgets that Schaunard was dispossessed. The musician is a bit taken aback when he finds another key in his door, but the three make so much noise that Marcel opens the door to them and gladly accepts the supper they brought with them. Schaunard and Marcel decide to stay together, since the musician owns the furniture and the painter has paid the rent. The other two are surprised to find themselves in a strange room the next morning. After another day and night of convivial treating, when all but Schaunard still have a few francs in their pockets, the four decide to meet daily.
One day, Marcel receives an invitation to dine with a patron of the arts. He is famished and yearns to go, but he realizes that he has no dress coat. Just then a stranger appears at the door asking for Schaunard, whom he wants to hire to paint his portrait. Marcel points to the caller’s coat, and Schaunard, preparing to begin the painting, asks the man to doff his coat and put on a borrowed dressing gown because the picture, intended for the man’s family, ought to be as informal as possible. Marcel appropriates the coat and goes to the dinner. Schaunard persuades his sitter to send out for a fine dinner and keeps the man entertained until Marcel returns.
One evening in Lent, Rodolphe is disturbed to find that everywhere he looks people and birds are pairing off. Schaunard tells him that he is in love with love and offers to find him a girl. Schaunard does produce a fresh, pleasing girl, but she refuses to stay with Rodolphe more than a few days. She does not understand his poetizing.
Lacking money for his rent, Rodolphe turns to his stove-maker uncle, who wants him to write a manual on stove-making. Having learned that an advance to Rodolphe means that he will disappear until the money has been spent, the uncle keeps the young man locked up. The manual proves to be slow and boring work. Rodolphe strikes up an acquaintance with an actress on the floor below, and she promises to get his play produced. When a letter arrives with word that Rodolphe has won three hundred francs, the uncle refuses to let him go. Rodolphe makes a knotted rope out of his quilt and slides down to the actress’s apartment. She provides a disguise for him, enabling him to leave the house. Later, she does have his play produced, but it brings the young writer neither fame nor fortune. Before long, his address, as he says, is Avenue St. Cloud, third tree as you go out of the Bois de Boulogne, fifth branch.
(The entire section is 1689 words.)