The scene is set in Paris and its surroundings in the middle of the 19th century.
A young lawyer with a provincial background Armand Duval who works in Paris has received a message that there will be an auction in the salon of his former lover Marguerite Gautier who had recently died.
Armand arrives at Marguerite's luxurious apartment where all the things are impounded. He recalls his life with Marguerite which had been full of love and happiness. The young man also recalls his father's home in a South-French province where the engagement of his sister with the local mayor's son had taken place.
Armand and Marguerite meet in the Paris opera theatre for the first time. The young man falls in love with the courtesan from the first sight. After the performance, Marguerite goes to her salon with her closest friends to entertain them and Armand also joins their wild party. But the courtesan has fallen ill with a lung disease due to an uninterrupted wild lifestyle. Marguerite feels faint once again and she abandons the others in order to rest. Armand is worried about the young woman and follows her. Marguerite is pleasantly surprised as she encounters such compassion and care for the first time. She gives the man a camellia to show her gratitude.
When the guests have left, Marguerite feels affection for the young man. Her previous life seems to her a repulsive nightmare.
After waking up the next morning, Marguerite believes that she has fallen in love with Armand and she is ready to abandon her previous life. When Armand arrives, the lovers decide to start a new life together in a country house near Paris.
The lovers spend an idyllic summer together. But then Armand receives a letter from his father, George Duval, in which he allures his son to meet him in Paris. At the same time he secretly decides to visit the "notorious courtesan".
When George Duval and Marguerite meet, the man insists that Marguerite has to give up his son because Armand's sister wants to marry a young man who comes from a dignified family of the province. If a gentleman had a courtesan, it was approved in Paris but in country, on the contrary, it was completely disapproved and living together with a courtesan lover was unthinkable.
Upon Duval's insistence, Marguerite is forced to give up Armand and she sacrifices her love in the name of the girl's happiness. She leaves Armand a letter of good-bye in which she uses her need for the former merry lifestyle as an excuse.
Armand meets Marguerite once again in a high-society ball. The man demands an explanation for her sudden change of mind. But Marguerite has promised Duval to keep their agreement in secret and therefore she cannot reveal the real reason of her leaving. Unaware of the real background, Armand thinks Marguerite is futile and frivolous. Being offended, he throws the money which he had won in the card table in front of her feet in order to repay her all the expenditures and debts.
Marguerite is broken. Her life and health are on the way down: all her assets have been impounded and she is suffering a deadly disease.
She receives a letter from Duval in which he thanks her for keeping their agreement. Now it is possible for Armand's sister to get married - according to the provincial moral, the life is back in track. Duval, in remorse, reveals his son the truth about Marguerite's self-sacrificing love.
Armand dashes to Paris in order to beg forgiveness from his beloved woman. Marguerite is happy for the last time. She feels strong enough to start a new life but the fate has decided differently - Marguerite dies.