The near-destitute painter, Marcello and poet, Rodolfo burn pages from Rodolfo’s play in order to keep warm on Christmas Eve. They are soon joined by their friends, the philosopher, Colline and the musician, Schaunard who arrives with food, fuel and money which he collected from an eccentric student. Schaunard decides they should save the food for later and announces instead that he will take everyone out to dinner at Café Momus to celebrate his good fortune.
Before they can leave, they are stopped by the landlord, Benoît, who has come to collect their rent. The friends get him drunk, and when he reveals that he has been unfaithful to his wife, they throw him out without paying their rent in mock moral indignation.
Marcello, Rodolfo and Colline go out, but Rodolfo remains for a moment to finish an article he is writing. A girl comes to the door. Her candle has blown out and she asks Rodolfo if he has a match to light it. The girl introduces herself as Mimì and tells Rodolfo of her life as an embroiderer. Before long, they realize they have fallen in love and Mimì decides to go with Rodolfo to Café Momus to meet his friends.
Rodolfo introduces Mimì to his friends at the Café Momus. As they dine at the café, Marcello’s former girlfriend, Musetta, arrives with her new admirer, the rich but elderly Alcindoro. She is tired of Alcindoro and seeks to regain Marcello’s attention by singing of her popularity. When Musetta sees that her plan has worked, she sends Alcindoro off on an errand and falls into Marcello’s arms. Schaunard’s purse has gone missing and none of them can pay the bill, so Musetta charges everything to Alcindoro and the friends leave.
Mimì, coughing violently, comes to the place where Marcello and Musetta now live searching for Marcello. She tells him of Rodolfo’s persistent jealousy and her belief that they should part. When Rodolfo appears, Mimì hides nearby. She overhears Rodolfo telling Marcello that he intends to leave her because she is flirtatious, but when pressed for the real reason, he confesses that he fears she will die of her illness if she continues to live in poverty with him. He hopes that if he is unkind to her, she will leave him and find a wealthier suitor who can better help her. Mimì stumbles forward, coughing and weeping, to bid Rodolfo farewell, but their love is too strong to part, so they decide to remain together until the spring. Meanwhile, Marcello has found Musetta flirting and they quarrel violently.
Several months later, Marcello and Rodolfo work while discussing their girlfriends, who have left them and found wealthy lovers. Rodolfo has seen Musetta in a fine carriage and Marcello has seen Mimì dressed like a queen. Schaunard and Colline arrive with a frugal dinner and all parody eating a banquet; they dance and sing, and Schaunard and Colline engage in a mock duel. Musetta then appears. Mimì has left her patron, a wealthy viscount. Musetta found her in the street, weakened by illness, and Mimì begged Musetta to bring her to Rodolfo.
Mimì, haggard and pale, is helped into a bed. Musetta and Marcello leave to sell Musetta's earrings in order to buy medicine and Colline leaves to pawn his overcoat. Alone together, Mimì tells Rodolfo that her love for him is her whole life. Mimì is delighted as Rodolfo presents her with the pink bonnet he bought her. They remember their past happiness and first meeting.
Suddenly, Mimì is overwhelmed by a coughing fit. The others return with medicine and a muff to warm Mimì's hands. Mimì thanks Rodolfo for the muff, reassures him that she is better, and falls asleep. As Musetta prays, Mimì dies. Rodolfo becomes aware that something is wrong and rushes to the bed, calling Mimì's name in anguish as he weeps.