Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 811
*Latin Quarter. District of Paris on the south bank of the Seine River surrounding the University of Paris’s Sorbonne College. Predominantly populated by students and artists, the Latin Quarter is the primary setting of the novel, which unfolds during the closing years of France’s July Monarchy and the advent of its Second Republic. At a time when middle-class values are officially prized and honored, the young intellectuals of the novel resist and drop out of the “official world” to lead an impecunious existence among the lower classes. They think nothing of welshing on their debts and are consequently frequently ejected from their apartments. Almost as a matter of pride, the young poet Rodolphe sometimes sleeps in a box at the Odéon Theater and sometimes outdoors, once even in the branches of a tree on the Avenue St. Cloud. Despite their irregular living arrangements, the young friends stay in constant touch, having favorite places in which to engage each other in endless talk, primarily about what is wrong with society and about their relationships with women.
Café Momus. Quintessential Paris bistro where the members of the Bohemian Club are known as the “Four Musketeers.” It is located at the Carrefour de Buci in Paris’s Saint-Germain-des-Près area, a center of Left Bank activities. There the four friends meet alone in a room large enough to hold forty customers, but because these fellows are so obnoxious, they drive everybody else away. Rodolphe monopolizes the house newspapers and bullies the café’s owner into subscribing to The Beaver, a unknown journal that he edits himself. Colline plays backgammon from morning until midnight. Marcel paints, moving all of his equipment into the café: easel, oils, brushes, male and female models. Alexander Schaunard uses the café as a place to advertise music lessons. If all this were not enough, these intruders even brew their own coffee and do not always pay what they owe. When the owner stops giving them credit, they stop frequenting his café.
The bonding among the Bohemians is a male practice, overcast with adolescence exuberance. Such characteristics have no specific local or time period, but Henri Murger suggests that his characters’ raffish behavior goes hand and hand with the permissive, artistic milieu of the Latin Quarter, a place where free spirits can play by their own rules.
*Paris. The story of the Bohemians lies mainly in Paris’s sixth arrondissement, but some of the novel’s action occurs in other parts of Paris, particularly the historic downtown area. Colline lives on the Ile St.-Louis in the fourth district; Rodolphe lives for a time in Montmartre in the eighteenth district; Musette, Marcel’s mistress, holds court near the Bois de Boulogne in the sixteenth district. The four friends sometimes meet in a restaurant on the rue St.-Germain l’Auxerrois in the first district. However, no matter where they are, the spirit of Bohemia invariably goes with them.
Murger’s sympathy with his characters is personal—he puts himself in the story in the personage of Rodolphe; he knows the Paris of the period intimately and could not have conceived of his story’s being set in any other city. The Bohemian spirit, he claims, is possible only in Paris. However, Murger’s tale is about universal attitudes. There is nothing exclusively Parisian about bad manners or bloated egos. The novel reveals little about its characters’ backgrounds, except to suggest that the characters come from the very bourgeois class they deride. However, even while explaining behavior more through environmental than personal forces, Murger produces some unintended social commentary about the Paris of the 1840’s.
In the nineteenth century, poor girls from the provinces flocked to Paris in droves to find their fortunes, many discovering, or realizing, that their chief assets were their young bodies. They thus became the prey of men willing to take advantage of their desperation and hopes. Murger pretends his heroines are equal partners in the search for love with the men, but his Bohemians are predaceous. Rodolphe, for example, expects Mimi to wait on him, and he expects to enjoy sex whenever he wants it. Moreover, he is furiously jealous and tyrannical. Schaunard is hardly more sympathetic, sometimes hitting his mistress Phémie with his walking stick. Yet, despite these attitudes, Murger still pretends that the women are as free spirited as the men because this is the way things are done in the Latin Quarter in Paris.
Despite his intentions, Murger unwittingly demonstrates that there are no exclusive places in the world for lazy freeloaders, and that life in Paris, especially for his male characters, is more determined by style than environment. When his Bohemians tire of their hand-to-mouth existence and decide to grow up, they join the “official world,” in Paris, but far from their old haunts.
Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 239
Baldick, Robert. The First Bohemian: The Life of Henry Murger. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1961. Definitive biography of Murger with an introduction giving background on the period and an extensive (although mostly French) bibliography. Offers biographical information about Murger and his literary career and discusses Murger’s style and the basis of characters and situations in his book.
Josephs, Herbert. “Murger’s Parisian Scenes and Puccini’s La Bohème.” In La Bohème, by Henry Murger, translated by Elizabeth Ward Hughes. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1988. Addresses specific aspects of Murger’s writing, as well as the transformation of the book into a libretto for Puccini’s opera.
Lewis, D. B. Wyndham. Introduction to La Bohème, by Henry Murger, translated by Elizabeth Ward Hughes. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1988. The introduction to the first translation, which discusses the history of the book, aspects of Murger’s style, and the value of his writing.
Moss, Arthur, and Evalyn Marvel. The Legend of the Latin Quarter: Henry Murger and the Birth of Bohemia. New York: Beechhurst Press, 1946. Gives an excellent overview and background information to The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter.
Seigel, Jerrold. Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830-1930. New York: Viking, 1986. Discusses the history of the concept of bohemian lifestyle in Paris; includes background and specific discussion of Murger’s writing and his influence; credits Murger with having defined bohemia in his writing.