Bohemianism and Counter-Culture

Life on a Bohemian Budget

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Bohemians were poor and proud of it. Attempting to support themselves by art alone or having to pay their tuition fees at the University, many had little money left to pay their rent, buy food, or keep themselves warm. Sometimes this poverty was considered amusing by the bohemians (many of whom came from bourgeois homes and expected to return to such a lifestyle later), but it could also be dangerous, even life-threatening.


Borrowing money was a constant part of life. "They [Bohemians] cannot take ten steps on the Boulevard without meeting a friend, and thirty, no matter where, without encountering a creditor," wrote Henry Murger in the preface to Scenes de la Vie de Boheme. When leaving his house on the 15th of the month, a common day for receiving bills, Murger's character Rodolphe remarked "Today the streets are paved with creditors" (118). Many frequented pawn shops when they needed some quick money. One contemporary of Murger had to wear a Turkish costume for several days because he had pawned his own clothes in order to borrow the costume to attend a ball.


 Marius, from Les Miserables, fell into poverty when he left home after renouncing his grandfather's bourgeois values. This engraving is titled "The Excellence of Misfortune," suggesting that Marius took pride in his situation.

When one character in George du Maurier's novel Trilby got into extensive debt,

"then would Anthony hie him to some beggarly attic in some lost Parisian slum and write his own epitaph in lovely French or German verse ... and telling himself he was forsaken by friends, family, and mistress alike, look out of his casement over the Paris chimney-pots for the last time, and liston once more to 'the harmonies of nature' ...and bewail 'the cruel deceptions of his life,' and finally lay himself down to die of sheer starvation ... Fainter and fainter would he grow, and finally, on the third day or thereabouts, a remittance would reach him from some long-suffering sister or aunt in far Lausanne; or else the fickle mistress or faithless friend (who had been looking for him all over Paris) would discover his hiding-place ... and then vogue la galere! and back again to Bohemia, dear Bohemia and all its joys, as long as the money lasted . . . e poi, da capo!" (92-3)

At times, however, the consequences of poverty were not so humorous. Another friend of Murger ate nothing but raw potatoes for one week, without salt, because he had no way to cook them. Another had no real shirt for the entire winter of 1838, which was unusually cold. He wore only a blue cotton blouse; one night he was left homeless and, after walking for hours, fell unconscious into the snow.

Such conditions caused despair. In 1843, Murger himself wrote, "We are starving. We've reached the end of our tether. Without question, we shall have to blow our brains out if we can't find a niche somewhere."