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In mid-nineteenth century Paris, beautiful courtesan Marguerite Gautier, is known by all as "the lady of the camellias" because of her preference for the flowers. Marguerite's friends know her as a woman whose heart is bigger than her pocketbook. Though she is given money and jewels by her many admirers, her extravagance and generosity have kept her in debt. Marguerite's friend, Prudence Duvernoy, tells her to find a rich man who can take care of her debts and one night, arranges for her to meet the wealthy Baron de Varville. While Prudence leaves their theater box to find de Varville, handsome young Armand Duval, who has been in love with Marguerite and secretly followed her for weeks, goes to her. Because they have never met, she thinks that he is the baron and is immediately attracted to him. When she is introduced to the real Baron de Varville by Prudence, Marguerite is disappointed, but realizes that she must leave with him. Six months later, Marguerite has become de Varville's mistress and has indulged herself extravagantly with his money. When he goes on a business trip to Russia, her frail health will not allow her to accompany him, so she stays home. At a coach auction, she sees Armand again and is told by her maid, Nanine, that he came to inquire about Marguerite's health every day during her illness. Later, Marguerite invites him to a party at her home, and when she becomes ill, he carries her into her bedroom and tells her that he is deeply in love with her and wants to take care of her. She feels that he does not belong with people such as her friends and asks him to leave, but gives him her key and asks him to return later. Before Armand can return, however, the baron returns to see Marguerite one more time. Marguerite then has the door bolted, and Armand is unable to open the door. Despondent, Armand then goes to see his family and asks for money to travel. Monsieur Duval, a kind and loving father, agrees to give his son the money he wants, and Armand then writes a bitter note to Marguerite telling her that he is going away to forget her. After receiving the note, Marguerite goes to Armand's apartment. Seeing her, he again expresses his love and begs her to go to the country with him to regain her health. Marguerite accepts and leaves with him, telling no one where she is going. During the summer, they fall more deeply in love and are very happy until she learns that the adjoining property is the estate of the baron. After selling some jewelry to pay for the wedding of a young friend and give her a dowry, Marguerite and Armand dream of their own wedding, but Marguerite realizes that she will never have that happiness. Near the end of the summer, Armand writes to his father for money from his inheritance. When Monsieur Duval receives the letter, he becomes concerned and tries to find out what has happened. After learning about Marguerite, he goes to the country house and meets her one afternoon while Armand is out. Monsieur Duval soon realizes that Marguerite truly loves Armand, but convinces her that the relationship will only bring his son disgrace and unhappiness. When Armand comes back that evening, Marguerite is wearing a gown and tells him that she is going to go back to the baron, then leaves the cottage. The baron takes Marguerite back, but now on his own, less loving and generous terms. Back in Paris, she resumes the old life, but its rigors ruin her health. Soon she is so deeply in debt and ill that there is no hope for her recovery. With Nanine's help she writes to Armand, but before she can finish the letter, he comes to her. Seeing how ill she is, he promises to take her back to the country to regain her strength. She dies in his arms, knowing that she is as happy as she will ever be.