Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1689
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...
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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.
Mademoiselle Musette is a friend of Rodolphe, but she is never more than a friend, though neither knows why. When he asks leave to introduce Marcel, Musette invites them both to a party. She was just jilted by her lover, the councilor of state. On the day of her party, her creditors take her furniture from her rooms and put it in the courtyard to be sold the following morning. Unabashed, Musette has her party in the courtyard and invites all the tenants. They are still laughing and singing when the porters come to take the furniture away. It is such a successful party that Rodolphe and Marcel carry Musette off to the country for the day.
On their return to Paris, Rodolphe allows Marcel to take Musette home. Soon after he leaves her at her doorway, he feels a tap on his shoulder. There stands Musette, who tells him that she no longer has a key to her room and that it is after eleven o’clock at night. Calling her the goddess of mirth, Marcel takes her home with him. The next morning, he buys her a pot of flowers. She says that she will stay with him until the flowers fade. He is surprised at their continued freshness until the day he finds Musette watering them carefully.
M. Benoit is dunning Rodolphe for three quarters of rent, three pairs of shoes, and additional loans of money, for he is landlord, shoemaker, and moneylender all in one. Rodolphe walks the streets all day in the hope that providence will provide. When he returns, the room has already been rented to someone else, but the landlord allows Rodolphe to go upstairs to claim his papers. A young woman named Mimi is the new tenant. After one look at Rodolphe, she tells M. Benoit that she was expecting the gentleman.
On Christmas Eve, the four friends, accompanied by Mimi and Musette and Schaunard’s Phemie, repair to the Café Momus, whose owner and wife have a weakness for the arts; relying on that weakness, the bohemians order a fine supper. In their high holiday spirits, they run up a huge bill before they draw lots to see who should be the one to speak diplomatically to the proprietor. Schaunard is having no success on that errand when a stranger, Barbemuche, asks to be introduced and offers to pay the bill. Schaunard suggests a game of billiards to settle the matter. Barbemuche has the good taste to lose the match, and the bohemians’ dignity is saved.
Neither Mimi nor Musette can resist going off with other lovers. One time, Mimi and Rodolphe quietly agree to separate, but it is not long before Mimi comes to call, ostensibly to take away her belongings. Instead, she stays with Rodolphe again.
Jacques, a sculptor, and the dressmaker Francine are tenants in the same apartment building. They meet one evening when Francine’s candle is extinguished by the wind and she comes to Jacques to relight it. In doing so, she also loses her key and the two play a lovers’ game in looking for it (since Jacques, who finds it right away, has been so clever as to hide it quickly in his pocket). Francine, ill with tuberculosis and suffering terribly in the cold Paris winter, as a last request, asks Jacques for a muff to warm her hands. Jacques buys her the muff, but Francine dies the next day. Upon her death, Jacques is distraught, and although he recovers somewhat from the heartbreak, he becomes ill and dies not long after in a pauper’s hospital.
Musette was said to alternate between blue broughams and omnibuses. While she is living with M. Maurice, she receives a letter from Marcel asking her to come for dinner, for the friends even have wood for a fire. She receives the note in a roundabout way but leaves the bewildered M. Maurice immediately. Because snow is beginning to fall, she stops at a friend’s house and meets an interesting young man there. Five days later, she arrives at Marcel’s room. The fire is dying out, and the food is gone. She stays one day before returning to M. Maurice with the announcement that she quarreled with Marcel. She tells M. Maurice that each of her loves is the verse of a song, but Marcel is the refrain.
The second time Mimi and Rodolphe separate, she goes to live with Paul, a young viscount. Meeting by chance on the street, Mimi and Rodolphe bow. The poet goes home and writes a long poem for Mimi, which so irritates the young nobleman that he puts Mimi out of his house.
On another Christmas Eve, as Marcel and Rodolphe try to forget their sorrows, Mimi comes back, so ill that a doctor insists that she be taken at once to a hospital. She is afraid to go, even though her friends try to encourage her with the hope that she will be well by spring. Rodolphe goes to see her on the first visiting day. Before the next day for calling, he hears that she is dead. A few days later, his correspondent admits that he was mistaken, that Mimi was moved to a different ward. Rodolphe hurries to the hospital, only to have his hopes shattered forever. Mimi, grieved because Rodolphe failed to appear for the expected visit, died that morning.
One year later, Rodolphe writes a book that is receiving much critical attention. Schaunard produces an album of songs. Colline marries well, and Marcel’s pictures are accepted for the annual exhibit. Musette comes to spend a final night with Marcel before marrying the guardian of her last lover.