Christmas Eve. A struggling young poet Rodolfo and his friend Marcello, a painter, are working in a Parisian garret. It is a bitterly cold Christmas Eve, and they have no money for food or firewood. Colline, a student of philosophy, arrives, also broke. To their delight, another friend, the musician Schaunard, enters bearing food, drink and firewood—he has just been paid by a patron. The four of them celebrate.
The landlord Benoit arrives, demanding the overdue rent. Unable to pay, the Bohemians distract him with wine. This loosens his tongue and he begins to boast about his extramarital affairs. The bohemians, feigning indignation, throw him out.
Marcello, Colline and Schaunard head out to the Café Momus, but Rodolfo stays behind to finish an article he is writing. There is a knock at the door. It is Mimi, a young seamstress who lives upstairs. The wind blows out her candle. She drops her key and they search for it in the darkness. Finding it, Rodolfo tells her of his poetry; Mimi tells him of her life. They fall in love.
(brief pause for scene change)
Later that night in the Latin Quarter. Full of high spirits, the four bohemians and Mimi join the throng. Hat sellers, toy sellers and vendors of all sorts crowd the streets. The bohemians take a table at the Café Momus and begin to celebrate the holiday. Marcello’s tempestuous ex-girlfriend Musetta enters with Alcindoro, her wealthy new lover. She becomes furious when Marcello pretends to ignore her, but it is clear that Musetta and Marcello still have feelings for each other. She finds an excuse to send Alcindoro away on an errand. When a military parade passes by, the lovers and their friends slip away into the crowd, leaving Alcindoro to pay the bill.
A cold February dawn. Marcello and Musetta are now living in a tavern on the outskirts of Paris, near a toll-gate. A pale and worn Mimi comes to see Marcello. She tells him of Rodolfo’s incessant jealousy. Rodolfo had stormed out earlier that evening, and has spent the night in the tavern. Mimi hides when he wakes and comes out. Rodolfo eventually reveals to Marcello that his jealousy is just an act. He is actually terrified to watch Mimi’s fragile health deteriorate. He feels guilty, knowing that he is unable to provide for her, and fears that she will die if she stays with him. Mimi’s persistent coughing gives away her hiding place, and Rodolfo realizes that she has heard everything he has said. The two lovers embrace, pledging to delay their break-up until spring; they both realize that a long-term relationship is no longer possible for them. Marcello and Musetta begin to quarrel and Musetta storms off in anger.
(brief pause for scene change)
A few months later. It is now spring; both couples have split up. Marcello and Rodolfo try to work, but the memories of happier times with their respective lovers fill them with sadness. Schaunard and Colline try to raise their spirits. Suddenly Musetta bursts in with news. Mimi is desperately ill and—having left the rich man she had been living with—wants to spend her last hours with Rodolfo. Mimi arrives in a state of collapse, and her friends attempt to make her comfortable. Musetta sends Marcello out to sell her earrings and buy medicine. Musetta goes out herself to look for a muff to warm Mimi’s cold hands. Colline decides to sell his old coat to pay for a doctor; Schaunard goes with him. Left alone, Rodolfo and Mimi recall their first meeting. Their friends return and Colline says that the doctor is on his way. Thinking that Mimi has fallen asleep, Rodolfo begins to feel hopeful. When he sees his friends’ faces and realizes that Mimi has died, he cries out in anguish.