The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter

by Henri Murger
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 902

Henry Murger’s The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter, which is also sometimes translated as Scenes of Bohemian Life, is not a literary masterpiece in the traditional sense, but it is a classic work. Murger, the son of a tailor/concierge and a man of little formal education, learned about writing from reading such popular nineteenth century French authors as Victor Hugo and Alfred de Musset, as well as from absorbing what he could from his associates.

Life in mid-nineteenth century Paris was a mixture of many elements. Louis-Philippe, who ruled from 1830 to 1848, had limited appreciation for the arts and literature, and the days of patronage for artists had faded. Murger’s first literary attempts, mostly poetry and bits of prose, met with little success and he lived meagerly, experiencing firsthand the poverty, hunger, and illness that afflicted so many people in Paris. It was not until 1845, when he began to write the short episodes for the French publication Le Corsaire, a newspaper that was read avidly by the artist population of the Latin Quarter, that he began to gain a reputation. However, because the remuneration for one such article was a mere fifteen francs, his poverty continued.

By the end of 1846, more than two dozen of Murger’s vignettes had been published in Le Corsaire, and he had established a small following. In 1849, Théodore Barrière, a successful Parisian theatrical producer, joined with Murger to produce a musical play, La Vie de Bohème, based on the experiences of Murger’s characters. It was as a result of this play that Murger gained true recognition. His characters, positioned halfway between reality and fantasy, won the hearts of French readers who were tired of the drudgery of revolution and political strife.

In 1851, Murger published the combined episodes in book form. The value of The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter lies less in the work’s literary style than in the fresh, unusual, expressive way in which Murger creates his characters and situations. Murger’s scenes, which do not really constitute a novel, contrast the cruel realities of daily life defined by unrelieved material need with fantasies of wealth, comfort, and delightful suppers in the Latin Quarter. Probing social margins and testing society’s rules of propriety, Murger’s characters, not being able to afford other entertainment, turn facets of everyday life into art. Although poverty and its resultant hunger, illness, and desperation are never far from the surface, the book is filled with humorous scenes created by the characters themselves in their attempt to keep life bearable.

The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter is fundamentally an autobiographical work. Murger was born in the Latin Quarter, and it was there that he struggled to achieve literary success in his early adulthood. The Café Momus, where the bohemians meet, was a place Murger, too, frequented. His friends from that time, called the “Water-Drinkers,” appear in his work as members of the “Bohemian Club.” The Water-Drinkers were a group that included poets, a painter, a philosopher, and a sculptor, and Murger’s fictional characters closely parallel them in their professions and personalities, though in some instances he combined the traits of different people to create a single character. The poet Rodolphe represents Murger himself, however, and his painter friend Marcel remains Marcel in the book.

Murger’s first love, Marie Fonblanc, and his later beloved, Lucile Louvet, serve as models for Mimi, Musette, and Francine. It was Lucile’s death that served as the model for the death of the character Mimi, which many consider the most poignant moment in the book. The women are categorized as “grisettes,” poor young women of nineteenth century Paris who were unencumbered by middle-class restrictions. They were known for their gaiety, capriciousness, frugality, and fastidious lovemaking. Unwilling to sell their favors unless driven to it by need, they are portrayed as not promiscuous but valiant.

Murger depicts the picturesque details of everyday life in the Latin Quarter in a nonchalant and often conversational style that easily draws the readers into the lives of the characters. Readers feel a kinship with the youthful spirited artists, and they empathize with their pain as well as their delight. Certain recurrent themes unify the work, perhaps, most important, exposure to cold and hunger. Many of the episodes center around the characters’ efforts either to alleviate their want or, if that is not possible, to find a way to forget about it. The freezing garret, snowy Parisian scenes, and Mimi’s cold hands all arouse a longing for spring, the sun, or enough wood for a fire. The healing capacity of warmth becomes a familiar reference.

The term “bohemian” to refer to the carefree and impoverished lifestyle of the struggling artists of nineteenth century Paris did not exist at the time of Murger’s writing. It was in fact this collection of sketches that, more than any other single work, forged the concept of “bohemian” artistic life, which within a few years became a permanent part of literary and social history. By the 1890’s, Murger’s play had been revived five times, and in 1896 in Turin, Italy, one of the most enduring operatic masterpieces, Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème (1896), which is based on Murger’s book, was given its premiere. It is the pervading spirit of the youthful resilience that makes The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter a classic of French literature.

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