Prosper Mérimée Essay - Mérimée, Prosper (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Mérimée, Prosper (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Prosper Mérimée 1803-1870

(Also wrote under the pseudonym Clara Gazul) French short story writer, dramatist, poet, critic, novelist, historian, and translator.

For further information on Mérimée's life and works, see NCLC, Vol. 6.

Mérimée is generally considered one of France's greatest short story writers. Critics contend that his insightful depictions of human nature exhibit both an emotional restraint reminiscent of Stendhal, and an economy of language and psychological detail similar to that of Gustave Flaubert. Though best known for his short stories and novellas, Mérimée excelled in many genres. His novel Chronique du règne de Charles IX (1829; 1572: A Chronicle of the Times of Charles the Ninth) attests to his interest in history and to his narrative skill, and was regarded by A. W. Raitt as "the greatest French historical novel of the Romantic Period." Mérimée's prose style, however, is perhaps best exhibited in the novella Carmen (1845), the passionate story that inspired Georges Bizet's famous opera of the same name. Mérimée's plays, which are clever imitations of Spanish dramas, are considered by many to be more successful than their models. His letters, the most renowned of which are collected in Lettres à une inconnue (1874; Letters to an Unknown), are noted for sensitively illuminating the facets of Mérimée's enigmatic personality. Mérimée also achieved recognition as a statesman and French translator of Russian literature. And, while interest in his writing has decreased somewhat in the twentieth century, critics continue to judge his various works as outstanding examples of their genres.

Biographical Information

Born in Paris, Mérimée was raised among the artists, critics, and writers who attended his parents' literary salon. At the Lycée Napoléon, Mérimée excelled in the subjects of language and literature, and upon graduation pursued the study of law at the University of Paris. While there, he frequented the Parisian salons and met Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle), who later became a close friend and supporter of Mérimée's literary efforts. In 1824, Mérimée began writing articles on the Spanish theater for Le Globe, a Paris journal, and collaborated with Stendhal on a play, which was never produced. The next year Mérimée published Le théâtre de Clara Gazul, a volume of dramas that were presented as the works of Clara Gazul, a fictitious Spanish actress. Subsequently, Mérimée produced a collection of poetry entitled La guzla; ou, choix de poésies illyriques (1827). Both this and his previous work Mérimée claimed to have written in order to display "the simplicity and basic absurdity of the use of local color." Next Mérimée turned to the historical novel and published 1572: A Chronicle of the Times of Charles the Ninth. Shortly after the publication of his novel, Mérimée began a career as a public official. He served in a number of government positions throughout his lifetime, including Inspector General of Monuments and senator. His travels as a statesman provided the inspiration for the stories he wrote for the Révue de Paris between 1829 and 1845. Many of these tales were later collected and published as Mosaïque (1833) and Nouvelles (1852). During this period Mérimée produced his two well-known novellas Colomba (1841) and Carmen, both of which have since been acknowledged as masterpieces of narration. Following the publication of Carmen in 1845, Mérimée wrote little fiction until near the end of his life. He began to study the Russian language in 1848 and by 1849 had translated several tales of Alexander Pushkin. Later, Mérimée translated Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector General and Dead Souls. Little was known of Russian literature at this time in France, and Mérimée remained its principal interpreter. In 1869 Mérimée briefly returned to original fiction, composing his final stories, which were collected and published posthumously as Dernières nouvelles (1873).

Major Works

The largely Spanish-inspired plays of Le théâtre de Clara Gazul were intended as parodies, and though many of Mérimée's contemporaries were duped, modern critics consider these dramas to have little enduring significance. His La guzla, a collection of ballads that were purportedly transcribed from Serbian by the bard Hyacinthe Maglanovitch, was also more of a hoax than serious literature. The novel 1572: A Chronicle of the Times of Charles the Ninth, however, displays the cynical side of Mérimée, and foreshadows the complex narrative technique that characterizes much of his later fiction, the two finest examples being the novellas Colomba and Carmen. An unpredictable tale of vengeance, Colomba follows the efforts of Orso, a young man from Corsica who discovers that his father has been murdered. Urged by his sister, Colomba, to dispose of the killers according to Corsican tradition, Orso remains unsure of his actions until he encounters the responsible bandits by chance and avenges his father's death. The title character of Carmen, a seductive femme fatale, assaults the hapless, but virtuous, Don José with her charms. Complicated by many seemingly conflicting points of view, the novella is considered an excellent specimen of narrative paradox. The brief story Mateo Falcone, contained in Mosaïque, is representative of Mérimée's largely ironic and pessimistic short fiction. It studies the tragic loneliness of Mateo Falcone, who, learning that his only son, Fortunato, has committed an act of treachery, executes the boy. The tale continues to be considered a superlative achievement in the short story form. Among his other works, Mérimée's Letters to an Unknown comprises four decades of correspondence to his close friend Jenny Dacquin. Written with wit and perception, the Letters clearly render the events and attitudes of mid-nineteenth-century France.

Critical Reception

Though critics have principally studied and praised his short stories, Mérimée himself valued his historical writings most highly and largely disparaged his fictional works. Still, while both 1572: A Chronicle of the Times of Charles the Ninth and a later work, Histoire de Don Pédre Ier, roi de Castille (1848), are admired as masterpieces of scholarship and style, most twentieth-century observers have focused their attention on the features of Mérimée's shorter, fictional works. Carmen has remained popular throughout the twentieth century through the ballets, films, and new stagings of Bizet's opera that it has inspired. Mérimée's other works, however, are not widely read, though critics have continued to judge them positively. Commentators as diverse as Henry James and Georg Brandes have praised Mérimée's short stories, and more recent critics have lauded his narrative skills and objective prose style. While scholars rarely fault Mérimée's work, some have asserted that his abilities were essentially technical and that his work lacks emotion. However, most critics agree that Mérimée's enduring appeal lies in the objectivity and lucid precision of his prose, which V. S. Pritchett termed "crystalline, exact, apparent."

Principal Works

Le théâtre de Clara Gazul [The Plays of Clara Gazul] (dramas) 1825

La guzla; ou, choix de poésies illyriques (poetry) 1827

La Jaquerie; suivie de la famille de Carvajal (drama) 1828

Chronique du règne de Charles IX [1572: A Chronicle of the Times of Charles the Ninth] (novel) 1829

Le carrosse du Saint-Sacrement (drama) 1830

L'occasion (drama) 1830

*Mosaïque (short stories) 1833

**Colomba (novella) 1841

Carmen (novella) 1845

Histoire de Don Pédre Ier, roi de Castille (history) 1848

Nouvelles (short stories) 1852

††Dernières nouvelles (short stories) 1873

Lettres à une inconnue [Prosper Mérimée 's Letters to an Incognita; also published as Letters to an Unknown, 1897] (letters) 1874

The Writings of Prosper Mérimée (poetry, drama, novellas, short stories, novel, and letters) 1905

Oeuvres complètes. 12 vols. (poetry, drama, novellas, short stories, novels, and letters) 1927-33

Romans et nouvelles (short stories) 1951

*Mosaïque is a collection including the following: Mateo Falcone, Vision de Charles XI, L'enlèvement de la redoute, Tamango, Federigo, Le vase étrusque, La partie de trictrac, La perle de Toledo, and Les mécontents.

**Colomba is a collection including the following: Columba, Les âmes du purgatoire, and La Vénus d'Ille.

Nouvelles is a collection including the following: Carmen, Arsène Guillot, and L'abbé Aubain.

††Dernières nouvelles is a collection including the following: Lokis, La chambre bleue, Il Viccolo di Madama Lucrezia, and Djoûmane.


Algar Thorold (essay date 1909)

SOURCE: "Prosper Mérimée," in Six Masters in Disillusion, Archibald Constable and Co. Ltd., 1909, pp. 26-55.

[In the following excerpt, Thorold evaluates Mérimeé 's literary style.]

Mérimée's literary contribution at first sight seems rather the product of the leisure of an accomplished man of the world than that of a professional man of letters. An accomplished man of the world he certainly was, wearing his immense learning with unobtrusive grace, willing to devote his time and erudition to making a success of country-house theatricals, devoted to little girls and cats, between which branches of the animal kingdom he maintained the existence of a mysterious...

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Frank Paul Bowman (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "Hero, Fate, and Literature," in Prosper Mérimée: Heroism, Pessimism, and Irony, University of California Press, 1962, pp. 84-145.

[In the following excerpt, Bowman explores narrative technique, plot structure and devices, and the thematic operations of fate in Mérimée's fiction.]

Psychological Realism

Although the average reader would consider Mérimée a realist, a precursor of Flaubert if not Zola, he himself unhesitantly castigated the new school of literary realism of the 1850's and 1860's, and had violent objections to Flaubert's method. He suggested that if he were a tyrant he would punish his enemies by making them read...

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R. C. Dale (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Theory of Significant Detail" and "Theory of Structure," in The Poetics of Prosper Mérimée, Mouton and Co., 1966, pp. 42-62 and 85-91.

[In the following excerpt (with footnotes numbered continuously), Dale outlines Mérimeé's aesthetic theory.]

Details were Mérimée's chief formal concern: he knew that he created his impressions "in the mind's eye" by means of a comparative accumulation of details; he also knew that he must rely heavily on details when he wanted to reconstruct that impression for a reader. Having observed the extent of his fascination for details, we may now see how they became the rallying point for the formal side of his poetics.


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Russell King (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Prosper Merimee: Attempts at Romantic Drama," in Nottingham French Studies, Vol. VI, No. 2, October, 1967, pp. 67-76.

[In the following essay, King assesses the dramatic value of Mérimée's theatrical works.]

Prosper Mérimée's literary reputation rests particularly on the two contes Carmen and Colomba. Had he not composed these two short masterpieces, it is doubtful whether the critic's and reader's attention would have been focussed on his writings.1 Next in order of "popularity" comes his only novel, Chronique du règne de Charles IX (1829). Today, Mérimée's theatre occupies, as it were, only third...

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A. W. Raitt (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "History and Fiction in the Works of Mérimée, 1803-1870," in History Today, Vol. XIX, No. 4, April, 1969, pp. 240-47.

[In the following essay, Raitt summarizes the importance of historical authenticity to Mérimeé 's fictional works.]

Prosper Mérimée, born in 1803, grew up at a time when historical studies in France were coming to enjoy enormous popularity, both in their own right and as an apparently inexhaustible source of inspiration for imaginative literature. His was the generation of such illustrious representatives of the new school of historiography as Michelet, Augustin Thierry and Thiers, the same generation as those novelists and dramatists like...

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A. W. Raitt (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Historical Novelist," in Prosper Mérimée, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1970, pp. 84-97.

[In the following essay, Raitt studies the technique of Mérimeé's Chronique du règne de Charles IX and evaluates his work as a historical novelist.]

. . . remarquons seulement à quelles absurdes et dégoûtantes exagérations s'abaissent les hommes dans leurs querelles religieuses.

'Les Mormons', Études anglo-américaines

La Jaquerie (the usual spelling is Jacquerie, but Mérimée's version is an uncommon alternative rather than a mistake by Balzac's...

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Anthony E. Pilkington (essay date 1975-76)

SOURCE: "Narrator and Supernatural in Mérimée's La Vénus D'Ille" in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. IV, Nos. 1-2, Fall-Winter, 1975-76, pp. 24-30.

[In the following essay, Pilkington examines the "gap between objective reality and subjective viewpoint" elicited by the narrator of "La Vénus d'Ille"]

The role of the narrator and the theme of the supernatural in La Vénus d'Ille have received a good deal of critical attention. This paper will attempt to relate to each other the narrative and thematic aspects of the tale, in order to define something of the distinctive quality of Mérimée's achievement in the story which he...

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Eileen Boyd Sivert (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Fear and Confrontation in Prosper Mérimée's Narrative Fiction," in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. VI, Nos. 3-4, Spring-Summer, 1978, pp. 213-30.

[In the following essay, Sivert surveys the motif of fear, especially the fear of public humiliation, throughout Mérimée's fiction.]

Fear, whether from natural or supernatural causes, dominates Prosper Mérimée's narrative fiction. Events tend to become less important than the characters' reactions to those events, which in turn are less important than the reaction of one character to another. Mérimée's use of fear in the master-slave relationship is broad and obvious; yet of even more interest is the...

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James F. Hamilton (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Pagan Ritual and Human Sacrifice in Mérimée's Mateo Falcone," in The French Review, Vol. LV, No. 1, October, 1981, pp. 52-59.

[In the following essay, Hamilton traces evidence of pagan myth in the story and symbolism of "Mateo Falcone."]

The historical position of Mateo Falcone (1829) as the "literary prototype" and "modern source" of the short story reflects more than a judgement of aesthetic form.1 Mérimée based his masterpiece upon a traditional tale of Corsica which, unbeknown to him, was probably a variant of an ancient story.2 My thesis has to do primarily with the story-telling instincts of Mérimée...

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Kathryn J. Crecelius (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Mérimée's Federigo: From Folktale to Short Story," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 19, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 57-63.

[In the following essay, Crecelius details Mérimée's transformation of a common folktale into the tightly-structured short story Federigo.]

"Ce conte est populaire dans le royaume de Naples . . . [I]l paraît avoir été composé vers la fin du Moyen Age."1 With the addition of this short note regarding the origin of the tale, Mérimée dodges complete responsibility for the composition of his Federigo, which appeared in the Revue de Paris in 1829. He reiterated his position many years later, when...

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Laurence M. Porter (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "The Subversion of the Narrator in Mérimée's La Venus d'Ille," in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. X, Nos. 3-4, Spring-Summer, 1982, pp. 268-77.

[In the following essay, Porter investigates the emotional repression of the narrator in La Vénus d'Ille.]

Typical of the fantastic in general, La Vénus d'Ille (1837) associates sexuality with destruction and madness.1 A bronze statue of Venus apparently comes to life and kills a bridegroom on his wedding night, because he had betrothed himself to her by placing a ring on her finger.2 If one invokes the main psychological principle for interpreting fantasy—the...

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Ignacio R. M. Galbis (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "More on the Sources of Mérimée's Carmen," in Journal of Basque Studies in America, Vol. 6, 1985, pp. 29-38.

[In the following essay, Galbis recounts the Spanish and Basque sources of plot and character in Mérimeé's Carmen.]

It is a well-documented fact that the basic source for Mérimée's famous nouvelle Carmen1 was a popular tale that the French author heard at one of the many soirées he attended at the estate of the Countess of Montijo on the outskirts of Madrid. It is my intention to suggest that, besides that primary source of inspiration, there are other Spanish historic, literary and even ethnical elements included...

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Kathryn J. Crecelius (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Narrative as Moral Action in Mérimée's Colomba," in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. 14, Nos. 3-4, Spring-Summer, 1986, pp. 225-37.

[In the following essay, Crecelius explores the moral dimension of narrative form and the multiplicity of viewpoints in Colomba.]

Colomba has long been one of Mérimée's best-known and most admired stories. It is a complex tale of crime and punishment in which elements of what we have come to know as the detective story are inscribed within a larger narrative that investigates the nature of guilt, justice and truth, and their relationship to literature. Indeed, Colomba can be viewed...

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Scott Carpenter (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Metaphor and Madness in Mérimée's La Vénus dille," in Romance Notes, Vol. XXVII, No. 1, Autumn, 1986, pp. 75-80.

[In the following essay, Carpenter notes the thematic importance of uncertainty, analogy, and madness to Mérimée's La Vénus d'Ille.]

Like so many of his stories, La Vénus dille, Mérimée's unsolved murder mystery, culminates in death, sex, and insanity: Mlle de Puygarrig, believing her husband murdered in their wedding bed by an animated statue, succombs to madness. There is more at stake here than a simple case of Pygmalion gone awry—as critics have been quick to point out.1 Michel Guerrero, in his...

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P. W. M. Cogman (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "The Narrators of Mérimée's Carmen" in Nottingham French Studies, Vol. 27, No. 2, November, 1988, pp. 1-12.

[In the following essay, Cogman describes the function of the elder and younger narrative voices in Mérimée's Carmen, noting their relation to the work's themes of freedom and constraint.]

When it was first published in the Revue des Deux Mondes of 1st October 1845, Mérimée's Carmen1 did not contain the concluding chapter on gypsy customs and language, which was only added in the 1847 publication in volume and in all subsequent editions. This chapter has always posed problems for commentators. Some have...

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Scott D. Carpenter (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Diversions in Reading: Esthetics and Mérimée's La Chambre bleue" in French Forum, Vol. 14, No. 3, September, 1989, pp. 303-10.

[In the following essay, Carpenter examines Mérimeé's short story La chambre bleue as a marginal and subversive text that conjoins themes of sex and death, transgression and communication.]

How does one distinguish between major and minor literary works or between essential and contingent elements within them? The assumption that such distinctions are possible underlies the entire enterprise of literary studies or even, as Jacques Derrida has argued, all of Western esthetics.1 While the privileging of one...

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Geoffrey Edwards and Ryan Edwards (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Carmen's Transfiguration from Mérimée to Bizet: Beyond the Image of the Femme Fatale," in Nottingham French Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2, Autumn, 1993, pp. 48-54.

[In the following essay, Edwards and Edwards observe the manner in which the title character of Mérimeé 's Carmen is transformed from a stereotypical femme fatale to a fully-realized and self-defining individual in Georges Bizet's drama of the same name.]

The 1875 première of Georges Bizet's Carmen at the Opéra Comique in Paris was a scandale du théâtre. Audience and critics alike were startled by Bizet's musical innovations and appalled by the selection of...

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Further Reading


Johnstone, G. H. Prosper Mérimée: A Mask and a Face. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1927, 282 p.

Recounts Mérimée's literary and political exploits.

Lyon, Sylvia. The Life and Times of Prosper Mérimée. New York: Dial Press, 1948, 320 p.

Biography that focuses on the backgrounds of nineteenth-century literary and social history.


Bowman, Frank Paul. "Narrator and Myth in Mérimée's Vénus d'Ille." The French Review 33, No. 5 (April 1960): 475-82.


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