Marguerite Gautier is a courtesan in the city of Paris. The symbol of her character is the camellia, pale and cold. She was once a needleworker who, while taking a rest cure in Bagneres, was befriended by a wealthy duke whose daughter she resembled. After the death of his daughter, the duke takes Marguerite back to Paris and introduces her into society. Somehow the story of Marguerite’s past life is rumored on the boulevards, and society frowns upon her. She is respected only by a few friends who know that she longs for a true love and wishes to leave the frivolous life of Paris. She is heavily in debt for her losses at cards and has no money of her own to pay her creditors.
The Count de Varville, her latest admirer, offers to pay all of her debts if she will become his mistress. Before she gives her consent, however, she meets Armand Duval. Armand has nothing to offer her but his love. He is presented to Marguerite by her milliner, Madame Prudence, who pretends to be her friend but who is loyal to her only because Marguerite is generous with her money.
At first Marguerite scorns Armand’s love, for although she longs for a simple life she thinks she could never actually live in poverty. Armand is persistent, and at last Marguerite loves him and tells him she will forsake her present friends and go away with him. She has a racking cough. Armand wants Marguerite to leave Paris and go to a quiet spot where she can rest and have fresh air.
Marguerite, Armand, and Nanine, her maid, move to a cottage in the country. For many weeks Armand is suspicious of Marguerite and fears she misses her former companions. Convinced at last of her true love, Armand loses his uneasiness and they are happy together. The garden flowers he grows replace the camellias she always wore in Paris.
Their happiness is brief. Armand’s father calls on Marguerite and begs her to renounce his son. He knows her past reputation, and he believes that his son placed himself and his family in a disgraceful position. Marguerite will not listen to him, for she knows that Armand loves her and will not be happy without her. Then Armand’s father tells her that his daughter is betrothed to a man who threatens to break the engagement if Armand and Marguerite insist on remaining together. Moved by sympathy for the young girl, Marguerite promises Armand’s father that she will send his son away. She knows that he will never leave her unless she betrays him, and she plans to tell him that she no longer loves him and is going to return to her former life. Armand’s father knows then that she truly loves his son, and he promises that after her death, which she believes will be soon, he will tell Armand she renounced him only for the sake of his family.
Marguerite, knowing that she can never tell Armand the lie directly, writes a note declaring her dislike for the simple life he provided for her and her intention to return to de Varville in Paris. When Armand reads the letter, he swoons in his father’s arms.
He leaves the cottage and then Paris and does not return for many weeks. Meanwhile Marguerite resumes her old life and spends all her time at the opera or playing cards with her former associates, always wearing a camellia in public. Count de Varville is her constant companion, but her heart is still with Armand. Her cough is much worse....
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Knowing she will soon die, she longs to see Armand once more.
When Marguerite and Armand meet at last, Armand insults her honor and that of the Count de Varville. He throws gold pieces on Marguerite, asserting they are the bait to catch and hold her kind, and he announces to the company present that the Count de Varville is a man of gold but not of honor. Challenged by de Varville, Armand wounds the count in a duel and leaves Paris. He returns only after his father, realizing the sacrifice Marguerite made, writes, telling him the true story of Marguerite’s deception, and explaining that she left him only for the sake of his sister’s honor and happiness.
By the time Armand reaches Paris, Marguerite is dying. Only Nanine and a few faithful friends remain with her. Madame Prudence remains because Marguerite, even in her poverty, shares what she has. Marguerite and Nanine move to a small and shabby flat, and there Armand finds them. He arrives to find Marguerite on her deathbed but wearing again the simple flowers he had once given her. He throws himself down beside her, declaring his undying love and begging for her forgiveness. The once beautiful Marguerite, now as wasted as the flowers she wears on her breast, dies in the arms of her true love.