Bohemianism and Counter-Culture

Scenes de la Vie de Boheme

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 This classic novel of Bohemian life by Henry Murger is based on a series of magazine sketches later made into a successful play. The novel is a series of loosely united chapters beginning with the first meeting of the four main characters ("Gustave Colline, the great philosopher, Marcel, the great painter, Schaunard, the great musician, and Rodolphe, the great poet" [123]) and ending with their departure from Bohemia in favor of bourgeois life. Jules Janin called the book "a first chapter in the code of youth" (qtd. in Maurice 111).

His purpose in telling the story, he said, was to glorify and legitimize Bohemia. "Scenes de la Vie de Boheme is only a series of social studies, the heros of which belong to a class badly-judged until now, whose greatest crime is lack of order, and who can even plead in excuse that this very lack of order is a necessity of the life they lead" (36), wrote Murger at the end of the first chapter.

 Musetta waters flowers in the middle of the night. She had told Marcel that she would stay with him as long as the flowers lived, and each evening without his noticing she got out of bed to care for them (81). Illustration by Montader.

The Bohemians are usually in flamboyant, irrelevant moods; their speech is peppered with witticisms. When they return home from a day of extravagant spending, having made a great deal of money very suddenly, Colline places their leftover six francs on the table. Marcel asks what should be done with them, and Schaunard immidiately responds, "Suppose we invest it in Government bonds."

Their merry acceptance of poverty leads to some questioning of authority figures: when the new landlord asks Marcel where his furniture is, the painter unfolds a screen painted with the interior of a palace and announces that this is all he has. "But surely, sir, you must have some furniture," the landlord says. "No, it takes up too much room. You are stuck full of chairs and have no place to sit down," Marcel replies. The landlord is baffled and asks again, "But at any rate you have a bed. What do you sleep on?" Marcel replies, "On a good conscience, sir" (13).

Much of the novel tells of the love lives of the various characters, particularly Marcel's relationship with the lorette Musette and Rodolphe's relationship with grisette Mimi. These relationships flare with passion for a few weeks, then are replaced by others only to resurface later on. Placed directly in the middle of all these stories, Murger placed a seemingly unrelated tale of a sculptor and his mistress, Francine, who dies of consumption. "Times are not always gay in Bohemia" (225), Murger says as an introduction to this latter topic, and though that statement first sounds flippant, he is quite serious. The last few paragraphs of the chapter are a bitter indictment of many of the morals the Bohemians seem to stand for: Jacques dies and his friends, the Water-Drinkers, a club similar to the Bohemians and named after a group Murger himself belonged to, do not attend his funeral because it fell on the first day of the exhibition. "'Art before all,' said [the leader of the Water-Drinkers]. Jacques' family was not a rich one, and he did not have a grave of his own. He is buried somewhere" (249).

At the end of the novel the characters turn back to the bourgeoisie. Marcel turns abruptly toward a more conventional life, lecturing Rodolfe for pages about his change of heart. "Well, the past is past and we must break the ties that still bind us to it The hour has come to go forward without looking backward; we have had our share of youth, carelessness, nd paradox. All these are very fine … but this comedy of amorous follies, this loss of time, of days wasted with the prodigality of people who believe they have an eternity to spend - all this must come to an end" (319). The Bohemians separate and go on to prosaic careers (Musette marries a postmaster, for example), but keep their youthful Parisian days in their hearts.