Prosper Merimee 1829
Prosper Merimee’s “Mateo Falcone” (1829), originally subtitled “Les moeurs de Corse” (“The Ways of Corsica”), chronicles the killing of a ten-year-old boy by his father. The story, Merimee’s first, is provocative in spite of the detached narrative voice of his unnamed narrator. This laconic, disconnected voice heightens the shock value of the event and at the same time demands the reader to interpret the story objectively. Such contemporaries as Stendhal (Henri Beyle), Henry James, and Walter Pater admired Merimee and praised him for his craft. Pater called “Mateo Falcone” “the cruellest story in the world.”
“Mateo Falcone” is a brief, but complex story. It features at least five points of view and at least four “ways of life” (the “moeurs” of the original subtitle). Merimee’s themes include betrayal and honor, savagery and civilization, vendetta and law, and custom and morality. Most importantly, “Mateo Falcone” exemplifies the art of storytelling at its most concentrated and allusive. Most critics consider the story disturbing and unforgettable.
Prosper Merimee was born in Paris in 1803 to a moderately successful painter, Leonor Merimee, and his wife, Anne. Merimee’s mother was a painter as well as the granddaughter of Madame Leprince de Beaumont, who had written and published a version of the popular children’s story “Beauty and the Beast.”
Merimee began attending the Lycee Napoleon at the age of eight. He showed promise in Latin and a few other subjects, but was generally considered an average student. He developed a strong interest in art and archeology, however, and from an early age became infatuated with members of the opposite sex. Although Merimee did not become a painter, he valued the skills of drawing and sketching and made much use of them in later life. He taught himself Serbian, Russian, and Greek, and he had learned English at home from his parents.
After graduation from the Lycee, Merimee entered law school; after receiving his degree, he embarked on a lifelong career as a civil servant. Most significantly, he became Minister of Historical Monuments in 1834. With his position he is credited with salvaging much of the French Gothic architectural legacy. He had a strong sense of history, and he strove not only to preserve important sites and buildings but to instill a popular appreciation of them.
Merimee began writing as a young man. He knew Stendhal and other writers of the day and received valuable advice from them. His earliest published works were two “hoaxes:” a collection of supposedly Spanish plays and a volume of “Illyrian” (Albanian) ballads. Merimee also wrote travel books and journalism, and he translated the Russian poet Pushkin into French for the first time. While not prolific as a fiction writer, Merimee produced a respectable body of work. In 1870, the year that Merimee died, composer Georges Bizet adapted a Merimee story with a Spanish setting as an opera. Probably because of the enormous success of that opera, “Carmen” (1845) is Merimee’s bestknown work.
“Mateo Falcone” is set in Corsica in the seventeenth century in the region of Porto-Vecchio, which is midway between the town of Corte and the maquis, the wild country of the Corsican highlands where outlaws and misfits find refuge from law and authority. Mateo Falcone, a forty-eight-year-old father of three married daughters and one ten-year-old son, is a successful sheep rancher. He sets off to gather his flock one afternoon. His wife, Guiseppa, accompanies him, and they leave their son, Fortunato alone.
Fortunato daydreams in the autumn sun. He anticipates going into town in a few days to have dinner with his uncle, a local notable, or “corporal.” Suddenly, gunshots echo from nearby. On nearby path, a wounded man appears. He has been shot in his thigh. Seeing Fortunato, he asks whether the boy is the son of Mateo Falcone. He introduces himself as Gianetto Sanpiero, the implication being that he has a tie to Falcone and thus a right to expect asylum. Fortunato at first declines to hide Gianetto, but when the bandit offers a piece of silver, the boy conceals him beneath the hay.
Six soldiers arrive, led by adjutant Tiodoro Gamba, who addresses Fortunato as “cousin,” once again implying a tie to the Falcones. Tiodoro wants to know whether Fortunato has seen a man on the trail. Fortunato evades Tiodoro’s questions, and Tiodoro suspects that the boy is in complicity with Gianetto. He threatens to beat Fortunato, but the boy only replies that he is Mateo Falcone’s son, and the lieutenant understands that he dare not harm Fortunato for fear of angering the father. The soldiers search the property but find nothing. Finally, Tiodoro attempts to bribe Fortunato with a shiny new watch:
As he spoke he brought the watch closer and closer until it was almost touching Fortunato’s pale cheek. The child’s face clearly showed the struggle between cupidity and the claims of hospitality that was raging within him. His bare chest was heaving, and he seemed to be fighting for breath. And still the watch swung, twisted, and occasionally bumped against the tip of his nose. At last his right hand slowly rose towards the watch; his fingertips touched it; and he felt its full weight in his palm, though the adjutant still held the end of the chain. The dial was pale blue, the case newly furbished; in the sunshine it seemed ablaze. . . . The temptation was too great. (Excerpt from “Mateo Falcone” translated by Nicholas Jotcham)
Fortunato accepts the bribe and silently nods in the direction of the haystack. The soldiers discover Gianetto, who curses the boy. Fortunato throws the silver back at Gianetto. The prisoner accepts his capture; the soldiers treat him with respect, even though he has killed one of them and wounded another.
Mateo and Guiseppa return from the pastures. Tiodoro advances cautiously and explains to Mateo what has happened. The soldiers leave with their prisoner. When Mateo ascertains the facts, he tersely asks his wife whether the boy is really his child. Fortunato collapses in tears, sobbing and crying, and the wife becomes hysterical. Mateo commands Fortunato to leave with him into the high country.
As Mateo and Fortunato climb into the mountains, Guiseppa prays inside the house to an icon of the Virgin Mary. In a ravine, Mateo commands Fortunato to kneel and say his prayers. When he finishes praying, Fortunato begs for mercy, but Mateo gives none. He raises his rifle and shoots.
Fortunato Falcone is Mateo’s ten-year-old son. His father regards him as “the hope of the family.” The name Fortunato, meaning “the fortunate one,” reflects his father’s pride. Before the wounded Gianetto appears at the family home, Fortunato had been daydreaming about the meal that he is to eat with his wealthy uncle in Corte in a few days. Fortunato shows little human feeling towards the hunted Gianetto and agrees to hide him only when bribed with a piece of silver. When Tiodoro offers him a watch in exchange for information about Gianneto, Fortunato eyes it “just as a cat does when a whole chicken is offered to it” and gives away the bandit’s hiding place. On the other hand, once he has divulged Gianetto’s hiding place, Fortunato returns the silver.
Giuseppa is the wife of Mateo Falcone and the mother of Fortunato. Merimee discloses few details about her. She has borne four children to Mateo, whom she married after a rival had been shot dead, presumably by Mateo himself. She is thus implicated in the Corsican cycle of violence. She begs for mercy for Fortunato when Mateo takes the boy to the mountains to kill him and prays to the Virgin Mary when her husband refuses.
Mateo Falcone, aged fifty when the narrator knew him, was “a comparatively rich man for that country—Corsica—where he lived.” Falcone owns a large, one-room house of the peasant type halfway between the nearest town (Corte) and the wild maquis, or cane-fields, where outlaws take refuge from the law. He excels in the Corsican art of
shooting; his acquaintances consider him an excellent marksman. The narrator implies that Falcone married his wife, Giuseppa, after dispatching his rival with a single rifle shot from long distance. The three daughters that Giuseppa bore “enraged him.” At last she bears a son, which pleases him.
Those in the region of Porto-Vecchio, in which Falcone lives, consider him either a “a good friend” or “a dangerous enemy.” Admired and feared, “he lived at peace in the district.” Readers understand Falcone as a man entirely devoted to the Corsican code of vendetta, or blood-feud. Protecting family and friends is a priority; the family bond transcends any abstract idea of law. Falcone, having married off his girls, knows that he “could count in case of need on the daggers and rifles of his sons-in-law.” The wounded bandit who seeks asylum in Falcone’s house when he is absent tells Falcone’s reluctant son, Fortunato, that his father will say that the son “did right” in hiding him from the pursuing soldiers.
Falcone adheres to the concept of machismo. His wife and children are hardly more than chattel. His wife, for example, must carry burdens from the field, “for it is considered undignified for a man to carry any other burden but his weapon.” After Falcone kills his son, he goes looking for a spade “without throwing a single glance back at the body.”
Tiodoro Gamba is an adjutant (an officer) of the local militia and, as such, a representative of the law. He regards himself as a relation of Mateo, as indicated by his use of the term “cousin” in addressing Fortunato. Tiodoro is wary of Mateo and, out of fear of angering him, does not beat Fortunato to get information, as he contemplates doing at one point during the interrogation. Tiodoro demonstrates psychological acuity when he determines to bribe rather than coerce Fortunato; he can understand Fortunato better than Fortunato can understand Tiodoro. He also approaches Mateo with calculated circumspection because he knows Mateo to be volatile and violent. Tiodoro differs from Mateo and all the other characters in that he no longer belongs to the vendetta world of the mountains. Like Gianetto Sanpiero, however, Gamba carries out his duty without letting personal feelings enter into it. He metes out decent treatment to the wounded captive. He also seems remarkably unconcerned over the death of one of his men in the pursuit: “That is not of great consequence, for the dead man was only a Frenchman.”
Gianetto Sanpiero is a fugitive from the law. One of his crimes is that he stole a milch-goat from the Falcones. Gianetto has apparently been in town to buy powder for his rifle so that he could protect himself and hunt game where he has been hiding. Merimee gives him dignity; he shows no personal animosity towards the soldiers who pursue and capture him. He shows understandable spite towards Fortunato after the boy reveals his hiding place to the soldiers.
“Mateo Falcone” concerns the cultural clash between savagery and civilization. The French, in particular, developed these themes, beginning with the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose Essay on the Origin of Inequality Among Men (1854) presented the notion that primitive people were uniquely free and true to themselves in their existence, while civilized people, on the contrary, led corrupt, hypocritical lives. Health and simplicity were associated with the savage, according to Rousseau, and neurosis and complexity to the “civilized” human being.
Merimee was not a follower of Rousseau, however, even though he was interested in Rousseau’s philosophy. Merimee’s idea of savagery was actually grounded in classical literature. Thus the Corsican ways described in the tale resemble those of the Cyclopes in Homer’s Odyssey. The Cyclopes, like Merimee’s Corsicans, are island-bound pastoralists; the Cyclopes understand a basic and brutal code of vengeance.
Law and Order
In “Mateo Falcone,” vendetta assumes the role of law and authority instead of the traditional legal system. With vendetta, the response to acts of violence is always another act of violence. For example, if one man kills another’s brother, the deceased’s brother then kills the killer, and then the kin of the second dead man seek to kill his killer, and so on. Violence breeds more violence, and the founding principle of the system is not justice but revenge. Under an established legal system, those accused of a crime—say, of a killing—come under the jurisdiction of established authorities, whose loyalty is to an abstract system rather than to clans or to individual persons. The accused receives a trial in a court where evidence influences the discussion. Vendetta belongs to the countryside, law to the town. (Corte, the name of the town in Merimee’s story, means “law-court.”)
Vendetta is a custom, an unwritten rule acted on out of ancient habit and the pressure of conformity. A custom is a “lifeway,” in the language of anthropology, and the original subtitle of “Mateo Falcone” was “The Ways of Corsica.”
Honor and Betrayal
Honor, in the Corsican context, is the local custom of cultivating and appreciating loyalty among family and friends. Betrayal is the failure to recognize the bonds of loyalty, as when Fortunato gives up Gianetto for the sake of a shiny watch. Yet it is not a betrayal, according to the rules of vendetta, for Mateo to kill Fortunato for having revealed Gianetto for a price.
In this story, the sacrifice of Fortunato is considered obedience to the natural law. Fortunato must the in order to avenge the betrayal of someone in the community; the boy’s death will guarantee the tenuous peace in the region. Otherwise, Gianetto’s partisans might have come after someone in Mateo’s family, whereupon Mateo would have been obliged
Topics for Further Study
- Read Part I of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Inequality, paying particular attention to the theory of “the noble savage.” Compare Rousseau’s idea of the primitive and the pre- or non-civilized with the depiction of Corsican montagnard life presented by Merimee in “Mateo Falcone.”
- Discuss the concept of justice both in the abstract and as it relates to Merimee’s “Mateo Falcone.” Pay particular attention to Mateo’s killing of Fortunato. If the killing strikes you as intuitively unjust, what then is the precise definition of justice? What is the just punishment in this case?
- Research the history and ethnology of Corsica. Use an encyclopedia and other sources, if they are available. Does Merimee give a generally accurate picture of Corsican life? If not, where does his depiction diverge from reality?
- Read the “Exordium” and the “Eulogy on Abraham” in Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling (1843), in which Kierkegaard discusses the test of Abraham and Isaac that is related in the Old Testament. Compare the story of Abraham and Isaac and Kierkegaard’s commentary with Merimee’s story of Mateo and Fortunato Falcone.
- From the Chicago mobsters of the 1920s to today’s drug cartels and street gangs, the ideas of “honor” and “treachery” have been used to justify brutal acts. Compare the code of the mobsters and drug cartels to the code of the Corsican montagnards as depicted by Merimee.
to retaliate, and so on. It ought to be noted that Mateo’s killing of Fortunato resembles Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac in the Old Testament. There, however, God intervenes to substitute a lamb for the child.
Violence and Cruelty
Violence is the eternal human problem. Cain killed Abel; the Egyptians oppressed the Hebrews; the Romans permitted the execution of Jesus. Wars are waged over boundaries and devastate vast civilian populations. Revenge leads to new wars. Civilization and religion address the problem of human violence and to this day try to find solutions to eliminate or lessen the violent impulses of man.
Romanticism and Realism
“Mateo Falcone” (1829) illustrates the cruel toll exacted on a Corsican family by the code of vendetta, or feud. Falcone kills his own son, Fortunato, because the son has betrayed a man to the authorities. Two concerns govern Merimee’s style in “Mateo Falcone.” The first is geographical and ethnological verisimilitude; the second is narrative minimalism, so that, for most of the story, Merimee’s style can be described as spare and laconic.
It is useful to know that before he wrote the sequence of short stories that make up the collection Mosaic, in which “Mateo Falcone” appears, Merimee had written two literary hoaxes, the second of which, La Guzla (1827), exploits stylistic conventions associated with romanticism. Briefly, La Guzla (the word refers to the national instrument of the Albanian “bards,” or poets) pretends to be a translation of native ballads of the mountagnards of “Illyria” (Albania), collected and translated into French by an Italian traveler familiar with the region. La Guzla, comes complete with scholarly notes on the sources of the poems and the character of the montagnards. In his mid-teens, Merimee had been deeply impressed by James MacPherson’s Ossian, offered as translations into English of actual (but in truth fictitious) Celtic originals from the Middle Ages. Merimee also admired Byron’s DonJuan, which includes many vignettes in exotic settings. The three opening paragraphs of “Mateo Falcone” reflect—perhaps ironically—features of romanticism.
Romantic and Realistic Syntax
The long opening paragraph of the story stretches out its sentences. It guides us from Porto-Vecchio, a coastal town of Corsica, “northwest towards the center of the island,” where the ground becomes hilly and is “strewn with large boulders and sometimes cut by ravines.” The maquis itself is a type of underbrush “composed of different types of trees and shrubs mixed up and entangled thickly enough to please God.” Merimee explains that “if you have killed a man, go into the maquis of Porto-Vecchio, with a good gun and powder and shot, and you will live there in safety. . . . The shepherds will give you milk, cheese, and chestnuts, and you will have nothing to fear from the law. . . .”
Such a wild place, outside the long arm of the law, is a romantic convention. In fact, the effect of the first three paragraphs of the story is to lull readers into romantic expectations.
By the fifth paragraph, Merimee omits the standard long periods of the scene-setting introduction. Much of the action is expressed in concise dialogue. Consider the killing:
“Oh, father, have mercy on me. Forgive me! I will never do it again. I will beg my cousin the corporal to pardon Gianetto.”
He went on talking. Mateo cocked his rifle and took aim.
“May God forgive you!” he said.
The boy made a frantic effort to get up and clasp his father’s knees, but he had no time. Mateo fired, and Fortunato fell stone dead. (Excerpt from “Mateo Falcone”)
Merimee reduces everything to the minimum. In French, “Mateo fired” reads “Mateo fit feu.” The tri-syllable followed by the two monosyllables has tremendous finality. Merimee also deploys ambiguity in the tale. Who is the “he” who says “May God forgive you!”? Is it Fortunato or Mateo? Or does it matter?
Merimee’s two styles in “Mateo Falcone” do not contradict each other or disrupt the unity of the text. On the contrary, they work together to force upon the reader the difficult ethical questions posed by the tale.
By the time of Merimee’s birth in 1803, Napoleon, a Corsican who had made himself Emperor of France, was at the height of his power. By 1814, when Merimee was eleven years old, Napoleon’s wars had devastated Europe. Napoleon finally was beaten at the hands of an allied force led by the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo in Belgium. The island of Corsica became part of France in the eighteenth century and was retained by the French nation even after Napoleon’s defeat.
France after Napoleon
After Napoleon, Louis XVIII became king. His supporters began to persecute anyone that had been associated with the Napoleonic regime. Louis attempted to assuage the extremists, but he was unable to control his supporters. In 1830, the year of “Mateo Falcone,” political discontent among the increasingly powerful middle classes (the bourgeoisie) erupted in revolution.
The vendetta, portrayed so shockingly in “Mateo Falcone,” was a significant part of French politics in the first three decades of the nineteenth century.
During these tumultuous years, romanticism gained prominence as a literary and artistic movement. Romanticism appeared, almost simultaneously, in England and in the German-speaking states of Central Europe (there was no united Germany until 1870). It was the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), a Frenchman whose Essay on the Origin of Inequality Among Men (1754), The Social Contract (1762), Emile (1762), and Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1778) signaled a return to emotionalism and primitivism in Europe and the United States. “Man is born free,” Rousseau claimed in The Social Contract, “and everywhere he is in chains.” Savages led noble lives; civilized men and women suffered from the repression of their natural impulses.
Influenced by Rousseau’s ideas, young artists in Great Britain and Germany took up the cause of spiritual liberation. For example, William Wordsworth preached the innocence of childhood, the salvation offered by wild nature, and the corruption
Compare & Contrast
- Nineteenth Century: The vendetta is perceived as a viable and ancient method of justice in many communities. The interest in Rosseau’s theory of primitivism, with its implied rejection of the established legal system, somewhat legitimized traditional methods of justice and punishment.
Twentieth Century: The vendetta still exists in different forms throughout the world. In the United States, revenge killings and drive-by shootings take thousands of lives every year. The perceived failure of the established legal system has led to vigilantism, as frustrated citizens take matters into their own hands to settle their own alleged vendettas.
- Nineteenth Century: France is a world power, despite its often turbulent domestic and foreign politics. After the overthrow of the monarchy in 1789, the country is a republic for many years before the ascension of Napoleon. France then waged war against the rest of Europe (1796–1815) until Napoleon was finally defeated in the battle of Waterloo. With Napoleon exiled, the monarchy was restored, but eventually overthrown in a violent revolution in 1848.
1990s: France has enjoyed a relatively stable political and social situation for several decades. The country is considered an important part of the European community and an important trading and political friend to the United States.
of great cities, in his poems. Mozart celebrated “natural man” in the person of Papageno, the birdcatcher, in the opera The Magic Flute (1783). Johann Wolfgang von Goethe gave the world, in his Faust, Parts I and II, the archetypal Man of Will who yearns for the infinite and cannot be satisfied by the narrow confines of logic or propriety. In France, Goethe enjoyed great popularity, as did George Gordon, Lord Byron, another British poet, whose Don Juan and Childe Harold influenced a young Merimee. The great poet of French romanticism was Victor Hugo, also an advocate of will and imagination.
Realism and Naturalism
By 1830, the fascination with romanticism began to fade. Artists and writers turned from the primitive began studying the psychological and social customs of people in natural settings. They started to show things as they really were, not a romanticized version of it.
“Mateo Falcone” certainly has romantic elements, particularly in its description of settings. Yet it also reflects the blossoming interest in realism, as it describes the action in the story in concise terms. “Mateo Falcone” represents, in this sense, a crucial moment not only in the development of Merimee but in the larger development of nineteenth-century French and European thought.
Merimee had the good fortune to be appreciated by critics and readers. Many commentators throughout the years have praised the great economy of Merimee’s narrative style, his intense evocation of locale through few words, and his ability to create stark and powerful action. These traits appear in “Mateo Falcone” and endear the story to its earliest critics.
Walter Pater, an English critic writing around 1880, called Merimee’s fiction “intense, unrelieved, an art of fierce colours.” “Mateo Falcone” has, in particular, provoked admiration. Pater, for example, thought it quite possibly “the cruellest story in the world,” intending the description as a compliment.
Critics have cited the classical qualities of “Mateo Falcone,” as in A. W. Raitt’s 1970 comment that the story “obeys the unities as strictly as any classical tragedy.” For Maxwell H. Smith (1972), the story represents Merimee’s “first dazzling success” and constitutes a “brief tale condensed into a dozen pages . . . sufficient to confirm the literary reputation” of its creator.
Smith’s reading of the tale exemplifies the typical interpretation, for Smith refers to “the tragic loneliness of Mateo after the sacrifice of his beloved son,” a remark which subtly justifies the killing, at least, so to speak, in its context. The typical reading is thus one that discusses the social code depicted in the story, particularly the role of vendetta. One might call this recurrent reading the “ethnological reading” in that it takes the position of a non-involved and non-judgmental observer of a particular ethnic “way of life.” Merimee’s original subtitle, “Les moeurs de Corse,” or “The Ways (or Manners) of Corsica,” perhaps influences critics to take this stance.
Some critics have examined the detached and alienated narrative voice of the narrator in the story. Raitt and Albert J. George, for example, both comment on the narrator’s detachment, a trait noted previously by Hippolyte Taine and Pater in the nineteenth century.
Bertonneau is a Temporary Assistant Professor of English and the humanities at Central Michigan University, and Senior Policy Analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. In the following essay, he examines the roles of treachery and vendetta in “Mateo Falcone” and contrasts them with rational justice that prevails in civilized urban communities.
Prosper Merimee’s short story “Mateo Falcone” (1829) culminates in the killing of a ten-year-old boy by his father; the killing—the question needs to be posed whether it is a murder—takes place in a ravine in the rugged hills of Corsica, and its victim bears the ironic name of Fortunato. The father and killer, Mateo Falcone, bears a surname which, in the Italiote dialect of Corsica, means “falcon,” a bird
What Do I Read Next?
- Merimee’s story “Colomba,” like “Mateo Falcone,” features a Corsican setting; it can also be found in Merimee’s collection Mosaique.
- Merimee’s story “The Taking of the Redoubt,” also in Mosaique, is a study of the violence of war, which Merimee considers different from the violence associated with feuds or criminality.
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Inequality among Men (1754) maintains that civilization is corrupt and full of injustice, whereas primitive culture is “naturally just.” Since “Mateo Falcone” can be read as a riposte to Rousseau’s popular theory of savage nobility, Part I of the Essay makes good comparative reading.
- Jorge Luis Borges’s story “The South” concerns the fate of a civilized, sophisticated librarian from Buenos Aires who journeys into the southern provinces of Argentina hoping to explore what seems to him to be the romantic life of gauchos and other colorful characters. What he finds is a world of machismo and brutality. This is an excellent contrast between the civilized and uncivilized, between law and vendetta.
of prey; in addition, just before the climax, Merimee endows Falcone with “lynx eyes,” yet another indication of his predatory nature. Mateo believes himself justified in the terrible act of killing his own son and does not even glance backward as he turns from the bloody scene to fetch a spade for the burial.
Fortunato’s crime, in the eyes of his father, is that he has betrayed Gianetto Sanpiero, a thief and outlaw who has ties to Mateo and the right to seek asylum with him if pursued; he had come to Mateo’s house, chased by the militia, only to find Mateo absent and the house under the charge of Fortunato, who hid him for a price and then revealed him to the militiamen for a higher price. “Is this my child?” Mateo asks his wife, Giuseppa, when he learns of the facts. The dissolution of the filial tie comes abruptly and completely: “All I know is that this child is the first member of his family to commit an act of treachery.” And under the code of vendetta, which is the prevailing custom in Corsica, treachery summarily incurs a capital sentence. Fortunato must die.
It would seem that this is the prevailing custom. The original subtitle of “Mateo Falcone” “Les moeurs de Corse” (“The Ways of Corsica”), indicates that, cruel as the unwritten law might be, this is how things are done in Corsica, whose people cannot be judged by imported standards or dogmatic notions of moral rectitude. The lack of commentary by the author bolsters this supposition. Given the prevailing Romanticism of the early nineteenth century, with its celebration of primitive and non-European peoples and its Rousseau-derived assumptions that civilization is inherently corrupt and corrupting, one might guess that “Mateo Falcone” is simply one more vote for the uncomplicated authenticity of cultural taboos and ethnic traditions. But is Merimee really suspending judgment? Are his readers really intended to suspend judgment along with him? Consider not the end but the beginning of the tale.
The first two paragraphs of “Mateo Falcone” present a picture postcard of Corsica. According to Merimee (who would not in fact visit the island until seven years after writing about it), Corsica is civilized along its coast, where the cities lie, and increasingly uncivilized as one penetrates towards the interior:
Coming out of Porto-Vecchio, and turning northwest towards the center of the island, the traveller in Corsica sees the ground rise fairly rapidly, and after three hours’ walk along tortuous paths, strewn with large boulders and sometimes cut by ravines, he finds himself on the edge of a very extensive maquis,
“That vendetta is a lower order of existence than mercy is suggested by the animal qualities with which Merimee endows Mateo. He is an ignoble savage; compared with mercy, vendetta is sub-human.”
or open heath. This heath is the home of the Corsican shepherds, and the resort of all those who come in conflict with the law. . . .
If you have killed a man, go into the maquis of Porto-Vecchio, with a good gun and powder and shot, and you will live there in safety. . . . The shepherds will give you milk, cheese, and chestnuts, and you will have nothing to fear from the hand of the law, nor from the relatives of the dead man, except when you go down into the town to renew your stock of ammunition.
Corsica lies divided into two major regions mediated by a transitional region. There is the ring of cities and towns along the coastline, where people feel “the hand of the law,” and there is the thick chaparral of the maquis, home to pastoralists living in a type of prehistoric world and to men of violence flying from the law. Finally, between them there is the no-man’s land where, not coincidentally, Mateo Falcone lives.
In an economic sense, Mateo has ties with civilization, since his wealth derives from his flocks, the produce of which is sold in Porto-Vecchio or Corte; sociologically, he belongs to the pre-urban world of the montagnards, a world governed not by law (and by all that implies) but by vendetta, a concept which contains the sub-concepts of honor and treachery. In the world of vendetta, peace is established not through the endorsement of impersonal justice decided rationally in courts by judicial officials but by the threat, and sometimes by the act, of violence. Mateo, for example, “lived on good terms with everybody in the district of Porto-Vecchio,” but this is partly because he is known as “a dangerous enemy.” Mateo gained his wife, Giuseppa, by eliminating a rival for her affections. “He was a Corsican and a man of the mountains, and there are few mountain-bred Corsicans who, if they delve into their memories, cannot find some little peccadillo, a gunshot, a knifing, or some such trifling matter.” The illusory peace of the mountains is thus purchased at the price of those shots or dagger-thrusts, the victims of which serve as reminders that trespass will incur personal vengeance from parties who consider themselves injured.
Once dead, the exemplary victims of this unwritten law are reduced in a rhetoric of memory to “trifling matters.” One remembers the victims and what their death portends for anyone who breaks the unwritten law, but one also reduces them by thinking of them as of no importance. The mental gesture is in complicity with the practical and lethal act. In such a world, immediate familial and personal ties, governed by the ideas of honor and treachery, overwhelm any larger or more abstract obligations, including those embodied in the word “law.” These same ties can disrupt family from within, as they do in the case of the Falcones, resulting in Fortunato’s death. It is in flight from the law that Gianetto Sanpiero stumbles, wounded, into the Falcone property, where young Fortunato has been daydreaming about a forthcoming dinner at his uncle’s in Corte. To which world does Fortunato belong? The answer is: to none. Although he is probably destined to inherit the vendetta world of his father, at present Fortunato is simply an immature creature motivated by childish greed. At first he refuses asylum to Gianetto and hides him only when offered a bribe— one piece of silver.
When his “cousin,” Tiodoro Gamba, an adjutant of the militia, arrives with a posse, Fortunato reveals Gianetto for the price of a shiny new watch, which Tiodoro promises him. This is the crime, the “treachery,” that infuriates Mateo and leads to Fortunato’s killing. In geographical terms, the killing is outside the law, for according to custom or not, it takes place beyond the Falcone property, in the hills, towards the no-man’s-land of the maquis. Also, when Giuseppa divines Mateo’s intentions, she pleads mercy (not given) and then prays before an icon of the Virgin. The killing is not only outside the law, it violates the Judaeo-Christian notion of mercy. It is an impious deed.
At this point, one begins to notice certain tangential but important allusions in Merimee’s text. Instantly determined to exercise maximum punishment for the act, Mateo “struck the ground with the butt of his gun, then shouldered it, and set off again on the path leading to the maquis, calling on Fortunato to follow him. The child obeyed.” The image of the father leading his only son into the mountains with the purpose of killing him brings to mind the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Old Testament. Merimee tells us that Giuseppa, to Mateo’s fury, had first borne three daughters but at last bore a son, “the hope of the family.” Here again, Mateo and Fortunato resemble Abraham and Isaac, for Isaac was the only son of elderly parents and Fortunato is the only son of Mateo. Abraham is willing to sacrifice Isaac at the behest of God. In the Biblical story, however, God stays the sacrifice at the last second by substituting a lamb for Isaac. From then on, human sacrifice is forbidden, and a new moral dispensation appears.
Giuseppa’s devotion to the Virgin links her to that new moral dispensation, and her inclination to mercy, contrasted with Mateo’s brutality, shows that there is an alternative to the unwritten rule of age-old custom. Indeed, in his description of the maquis, Merimee wrote that it was “thick enough to please God.” Merimee was perhaps not a believer in any orthodox sense (it is known that his parents were agnostic), but neither was he a partisan of violence. Although the phrase “to please God” is a figural commonplace, it nevertheless suggests a presence, a concept, which Giuseppa recognizes and Mateo does not. And while not identical with the law, as represented by Tiodoro Gamba and the militia, this principle, like the law, stands in explicit opposition to vendetta.
The principle is mercy, which demands that men acknowledge the humanity of other men so as not to sacrifice them to idols and false causes—for example, the illusory honor of the Corsican” way.” “Father, father, don’t kill me!” shouts Fortunato, kneeling in prayer. But Mateo merely instructs him to say his prayers; “the child recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, stammering and sobbing.” (The Lord’s Prayer asks God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”—an injunction which Mateo does not heed.) Mateo intones an “amen” each time Fortunato concludes, but the act seems empty given the circumstance. Fortunato then says the Ave Maria, reminding us that his mother is at that very moment praying to the Virgin. Then someone—Merimee’s calculatedly ambiguous syntax makes it uncertain who—says, “May God forgive you!” (English translations that attribute these words to Mateo resolve an ambiguity without warrant to do so.) Mateo fires. Fortunato dies. In the very last line of the story, Mateo tells his wife to “send word to my son-in-law Tiodoro Bianchi to come and live with us,” making the dead Fortunato merely a replaceable commodity—something already reduced to a trifle.
Yet how does one justify this interpretation given the lack of any narrative judgment in Merimee’s text? One starts by acknowledging the vast difference between the mentality that permits Mateo to kill his own son over a matter of “honor” and the mentality that regards that act as inexcusable. If readers of Merimee’s time and our own instinctively rebel over Mateo’s deed and immediately find apologies for Fortunato (his youth, his parents’ failure to instill in him a moral sense, the manipulative cleverness of Tiodoro Gamba), this in itself is significant. Readers rebel because they belong to an order conditioned by notions of impersonal law and Judeo-Christian mercy, an order which can only come into being through explicit rejection of an earlier order based on the endless sacrificial violence of the vendetta. That vendetta is a lower order of existence than mercy is suggested by the animal qualities with which Merimee endows Mateo. He is an ignoble savage; compared with mercy, vendetta is sub-human.
If modern readers thus instinctively believe that the killing of Fortunato is a murder and not an act of “justice,” as Mateo claims, this is because they have a more refined notion of justice, tempered by mercy, than the implacable montagnard. Not for nothing does Merimee stress the unchanging antiquity of the Corsican interior, which reflects classical concepts of barbarism, as in the depiction of the Cyclopes by Homer in the Odyssey. The Cyclopes, like the Corsican montagnards, are an island people without written laws and with no permanent institutions; they live by herding, and their only principle of organization is family solidarity and a code of vengeance. Merimee’s observation that the maquis is a region where obliging pastoralists provide one with milk, cheese, and chestnuts needs to be balanced against the acknowledgment of what it costs to sustain that idyllic condition. The cost is that one gives up the protection of the law and submits to violence without mercy. A man is safe only as long as he has weapons and ammunition. Fortunato has none; all he has is a shiny new watch. So Fortunato dies, an Isaac whom God cannot rescue.
Source: Thomas Bertonneau, “Overview of ‘Mateo Falcone,’” for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.
A. W. Raitt
In the following excerpt, Raitt examines the narrative style of Merimee‘s “Mateo Falcone,” maintaining that the lack of moral judgment by the narrator contributes to the impact of the story.
Which of the tales is most effective is ultimately a matter of personal choice. Certainly none makes a more powerful impact than “Mateo Falcone.” The story itself is not new; a good half-dozen versions were already in print. Nor can Merimee be given much credit for the details of local colour, since he had culled them all from various guide-books and historical works about Corsica (after he had himself visited the island in 1839, he corrected some of the more glaring inaccuracies and removed the subtitle of Moeurs de la Corse (Corsiscan Manners) which in the meantime had become sadly dated). But if Merimee’s imagination invents little it excels at the selection and rearrangement of given materials and the vivid immediacy of “Mateo Falcone” is utterly convincing. Hastening through a series of linked crises—the arrival of the hunted bandit, the vain search by the troops, the bribe and its acceptance, the return of Mateo, the shooting of the boy—it maintains an almost unbearable tension. Few lines in French literature deliver a more stunning blow with simple means than the famous sentence relating the boy’s death: ‘Mateo fired and Fortunato fell stone dead.’ The total absence of moral comment or inner psychological analysis concentrates attention exclusively on the action itself, but that is so carefully prepared and so full of emotive force that further explanations could only seem superfluous. The exact adjustment of outward deed or gesture to inward states of mind is always one of the great strengths of Merimee’s art. Here the contrast between the awfulness of the killing and the author’s rigid refusal to capitalise on it conveys a sense of icy sobriety which fully justifies Walter Pater’s description of “Mateo Falcone” as ‘perhaps the cruellest story in the world’ [Prosper Merimee, in Studies in Modern European Literature, 1900].
Source: A. W. Raitt, “Story-Teller,” in Prosper Merimee, London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1970, pp. 120-36.
Albert J. George
In the following excerpt, George asserts that the bare narrative style of Merimee’s “Mateo Falcone” underscores the theme of family honor.
To be sure, “Mateo Falcone” (1829) came primarily from an article in the Revue trimestrielle of July, 1828, which contained the story of a Corsican shot by his relatives for betraying two deserters. Merimee also turned to the abbe Gaudin for details on a land he had not yet visited, but to this basic material he brought the skill that would make him one of France’s greatest storytellers.
“Mateo Falcone” is related like an anecdote, in a clean style, stripped to essentials, lacking even the colorful adjectives so dear to the romantics. The plot is handled with a sure sense of the dramatic, all elements united to produce a single effect. Merimee thus produced a narrative that fits perfectly Poe’s later definition of the formal short story.
Merimee introduced the reader to the maquis with a fine sense of visual appeal, then fell back on the direct approach: “Si vous avez tue un homme . . .” To heighten the exoticism, he gave advice on how to prepare for a stay in these wilds. Then, abruptly, he presented Mateo as though he had known him personally: “Quand j’etais en Corse en 18—. . .” Mateo lived on the edge of the heath, a good friend and an implacable enemy, famed for his marksmanship. He had three daughters, which infuriated him, and a ten-year-old son, ironically named Fortunato, upon whom he doted.
Most of the story happened in Mateo’s absence, although he dominates the action. One fall day he left with his wife to inspect the flocks, leaving Fortunato to mind the house. The subsequent plot is articulated almost like a four-act play. Act I introduces an escaping bandit, Gianetto Sanpiero, wounded and hotly pursued by gendarmes, who bought refuge in a haystack from Fortunato for five francs. Act II revolves around Fortunato’s betrayal for a silver watch offered by Sergeant Tiodoro Gamba. In a scene forecast by Fortunato’s bargaining with Gianetto, the sergeant tempts the child, thrice subjecting him to bribery before the boy turns Judas. Act III brings Mateo back, and when he appears the stage is set for an explosion. Characteristically, he thinks the soldiers have come for him, then finds himself in a dilemma when Gamba reveals Fortunato’s treachery. Mateo faces his problem in Act IV. He smashes the watch the sergeant had given Fortunato and marches the child into the glen. Patiently he hears the boy recite his prayers, then shoots him. Without a glance at the corpse, Mateo orders his wife to send for a relative to replace his son.
Using the appeal of the exotic, Merimee constructed the story around a point of honor, a subject dear to the romantics. For the sake of plausibility Merimee interjected himself into the introduction, but once the story began he let the characters shape their own tragedy. Events slip by rapidly, their passing noted in phrases which indicate that Merimee organized his material to keep psychological and reading time as close as possible to plot time. The action does not begin until Mateo has been absent a few hours, then Gianetto appears and is hidden in a matter of moments. “Quelques minutes apres” the police appear, Fortunato succumbs in about the same time, and Mateo arrives as the bandit leaves on a stretcher. For ten minutes he ponders and, after about the same time, Fortunato dies.
The narrative ostensibly revolved around the Corsican code of honor. Fortunato occupied the stage most of the time but only to prepare the dilemma, as important to the plot as the wounded bandit. At this point Merimee’s ironical mind came into full play. Mateo was created according to the accepted recipe for the primitive but he failed to conform to the tradition of the “good” savage. Unlike the rational creature so dear to the eighteenth century, he never examined his own code. Family “honor” took precedence over all else and no transgression could be pardoned, even for a child. Mateo took all of ten minutes to decide on the murder of an only son who had informed on the killer of a policeman. Far from being a natural democrat, the good savage was an egotist who dared not challenge the local tabus. . . .
Source: Albert J. George, “Stendhal, Balzac, Merimee,” in Short Fiction in France 1800-1850, Syracuse University Press, 1964, pp. 65-134.
George, Albert J. “Introduction” and “Stendahl, Balzac, Merimee,” in his Short Fiction in France: 1800-1850, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1964, pp. 1-9, 106-09.
Jotcham, Nicholas. “Introduction” and “Mateo Falcone,” in his The World’s Classics: Prosper Merimee: Carmen and Other Stories, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. vii-xxxiii, 54-66.
Raitt, A. W. Prosper Merimee, London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1970, pp. 9-10, 120-36.
“Mateo was created according to the accepted recipe for the primitive but he failed to conform to the tradition of the ‘good’ savage.”
Smith, Maxwell A. “Mosaique,” in Prosper Merimee, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972, pp. 98-116.
Considers Merimee’s fiction as a running autobiographical account of his life and a continuous commentary on his times.
Garraty, John, and Peter Gay, eds. The Columbia History of the World, New York: Harper and Row, 1972.
Overviews developments in France during the period of Merimee’s life.
George, Albert J., “Stendhal, Balzac, Merimee,” in Short Fiction in France 1800-1850, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1964, pp. 65-134.
Comments on the verbal economy of Merimee’s story and analyzes the themes of honor and betrayal.
Lyon, Sylvia. The Life and Times of Prosper Merimee, New York: Dial Press, 1948.
A detailed biography which establishes the vital context for Merimee’s literary activity.
Taine, Hippolyte. Essais de critique et d’histoire, Hachette: Paris, 1874.
A valuable nineteenth-century critical reference on Merimee by a contemporary and acquaintance of the author.