Prosper Mérimée Essay - Mérimée, Prosper (Short Story Criticism)

Mérimée, Prosper (Short Story Criticism)


Prosper Mérimée 1803-1870

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

The following entry presents criticism of Merimee's short fiction works from 1989 through 2002.

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 fiction, Mérimée excelled in many genres, including drama, historical novels, and translation. Yet commentators maintain that it is his short stories and novellas that most strikingly portray his concise, detached prose style and exemplify his greatest achievements.

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 demonstrated proficiency in languages and literature, and upon graduation pursued law at the University of Paris. Instead of studying, however, he frequented the Parisian salons, where he met the French author Stendhal, who became a close friend and supporter. In 1824 Mérimée began writing articles on the Spanish theater for Le Globe, a Paris journal. The next year Le theater de Clara Gazul (1925; The Plays of Cara Gazul) appeared, a volume of dramas written by Mérimée but presented as the works of a Spanish actress. Similarly, in 1827, he published La gazula, a collection of ballads that were purportedly transcribed from Serbian by Hyacinthe Maglanovitch. Between the years 1829 and 1830 Mérimée published short stories in periodicals, which formed the core of his early efforts in the short fiction genre and were later collected in book form as Mosaïque (1833). In 1831 Mérimée gained employment as a civil servant and by 1834 was appointed Inspector General of Historical Monuments, a position that satisfied his interests in antiquities and travel. As inspector general and later as a senator under Napoleon III and Empress Eugénia, Mérimée journeyed throughout France, southern Europe, and the Near East, gathering material for both his fictional and historical writings. During the mid-1860s his health declined, and he began spending winters in Cannes, where he wrote his final short stories. He died of emphysema and heart failure on September 23, 1870.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Mérimée's first attempt at the short-story form, “Mateo Falcone,” combines detached narration, concise description, local color, and poignant, though limited characterization to delineate how a Corsican father's devotion to family honor drives him to kill his only beloved son for betraying the family's name. Another of his early stories that utilizes local color is “Tamango,” an ironic yet realistic depiction of the West African slave trade. In this take, Mérimée satirizes both civilized humanity and the myth of the noble savage through the actions of the central character, African chief Tamango. Critics note that “Mateo Falcone” and “Tamango,” though powerful narratives, present relatively simple character types, whereas another short story, “Le vase étrusque,” is built upon a more complex character that many commentators liken to Mérimée himself. Through the sensitive, sympathetic portrayal of Saint-Clair, a man driven by jealousy toward his tragic death, critics observe that Mérimée successfully delineated the complex nature and motives of a character type unique in his writings. “La Vénus d'Ille” (“The Venus d'Ille”), inspired by the myth of Venus, mixes Mérimée's characteristic verisimilitude with the supernatural, marking a new phase in his short fiction. The narrator of this tale, a Parisian intellectual interested in archeology, lends credibility to an otherwise fantastic story of an ancient statue of Venus that becomes animated after having been unearthed in a Pyrenean village. The statue bears an inscription that the narrator translates as “beware if she loves you,” although few villagers heed this warning. Later, a young man carelessly places his fiancée's wedding ring on the statue's finger, but when he attempts to remove the ring, the statue closes its fingers on it. In the end, the statue fatally crushes the bridegroom in an embrace on his wedding night.

Carmen (1845) is considered Mérimée's best-known work of short fiction. Some critics have commented that the eponymous character of this popular work provides a human counterpart to the statue in “The Venus d'Ille.” Mérimée's fascination and appreciation of Mediterranean culture is engagingly apparent in the vibrant Spanish setting of this frame novella in which an archeologist encounters Don José, a soldier turned bandit who relates the tragic story of his passion for the free-spirited gypsy Carmen. Mérimée's prose style is strikingly exhibited in this narrative, which incorporates the archeologist's ironic perspective with Don José's sincere confession of Carmen's murder. Atypical in this work is Don José's colorful and metaphorical speech, so unlike the impersonal tone of Mérimée's more sophisticated narrators. One of his final stories, “Lokis,” concerns a Lithuanian woman who is purportedly raped by a bear and later gives birth to a son, Szémioth, who exhibits bearish tendencies. Eventually, Szémioth kills his bride on their wedding night, and she is found with teeth marks on her neck. Similar to “The Venus d'Ille,” the subject matter of “Lokis” involves the destructive capacities of unleashed passion; only in this later take, Mérimée seems also to focus on a primitive animal force that is a component of even the most civilized human beings.

Critical Reception

Although interest in Mérimée's work has declined in the years since his death, Carmen has remained popular in the twentieth century through the ballets, films, and new productions of Bizet's opera that it has inspired. In the past, commentators as diverse as Henry James and George Brandes praised Mérimée's short stories and historical works, and more recent critics laud his narrative skills and objective prose style. Many critics also concur that Mérimée's last works attest to his unfailing narrative skill, as well as evidence a renewed creative power in his later years. While scholars rarely fault his work, some have asserted that his abilities are 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.

Principal Works

La double méprise [A Slight Misunderstanding] (novella) 1833

Mosaïque 1833

Colomba (novella and short stories) 1841

Carmen (novella) 1845

Nouvelles 1852

Dernières nouvelles 1873

The Writings of Prosper Mérimée. 8 vols. (poetry, drama, novellas, short stories, novel, and letters) 1905

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

The Venus d'Ille, and Other Stories 1966

Le theater de Clara Gazul [as Clara Gazul; The Plays of Clara Gazul] (drama) 1825

La gazula (poetry) 1827

La Jacquerie (drama) 1828

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

La carosse de Sainte-Sacrement [as Clara Gazul] (drama) 1830

L'occasion [as Clara Gazul] (drama) 1830

Histoire de Don Pèdre ler, roi de Castille [History of Peter the Cruel] (history) 1848

Lettres à une inconnue. [Prosper Mérimée's Letters to an Incognito; also published as Letters to an Unknown] 2 vols. (letters) 1874

Correspondance générale. 17 vols. (letters) 1941-64


Nicholas Jotcham (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Jotcham, Nicholas. Introduction to Carmen and Other Stories, translated by Nicholas Jotcham, pp. vii-xxv. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Jotcham provides an overview of Mérimée's life and short fiction.]

‘I am one of those who have a strong liking for bandits—not that I have any desire to meet them on my travels; but, in spite of myself, the energy of these men, at war with the whole of society, wrings from me an admiration of which I am ashamed.’

(Mérimée's 1851 article on Gogol)

Prosper Mérimée is now best remembered as an...

(The entire section is 6321 words.)

Ora Avni (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Avni, Ora. “Speech Acts.” In The Resistance of Reference: Linguistics, Philosophy, and the Literary Text, pp. 175-229. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Avni applies speech act theory to the story “The Venus d'Ille.”]

We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk so we need friction. Back to the rough ground.



Of the various aspects of...

(The entire section is 14611 words.)

Roger Little (essay date January 1992)

SOURCE: Little, Roger. “Oroonoko and Tamango: A Parallel Episode.” French Studies 46, no. 1 (January 1992): 26-32.

[In the following essay, Little finds connections between “Tamango” and Aphra Behn's novel Oroonoko.]

In both Mrs Aphra Behn's most celebrated novel, Oroonoko; or The Royal Slave (1688), and Prosper Mérimée's short story ‘Tamango’ (1829), there occur similar episodes of ‘the biter bit’. The eponymous black hero of each tale is an outstanding African with potential qualities of leadership (ironically undercut at every turn in Tamango's case) and a nice sideline in selling his fellow Africans as slaves. Each in turn is...

(The entire section is 3915 words.)

David J. Mickelson (essay date May 1996)

SOURCE: Mickelson, David J. “Travel, Transgression, Possession in Mérimée's Carmen.Romanic Review 87, no. 3 (May 1996): 329-44.

[In the following essay, Mickelson reads Carmen “as a flirtation with danger encountered during travel.”]

“Je vais aller en Espagne, c'est-à-dire en Afrique.”


“Comment ferez-vous pour parler de l'Espagne quand vous y serez allé?”

—Heine to Gautier

There's more to Carmen than meets Bizet. Explications of Mérimée's best-known novella often...

(The entire section is 7215 words.)

François Rigolot (essay date spring 1997)

SOURCE: Rigolot, François. “Ekphrasis and the Fantastic: Genesis of an Aberration.” Comparative Literature 49, no. 2 (spring 1997): 97-112.

[In the following essay, Rigolot offers a reading of “The Venus d'Ille” in order “to shed some light on the complex definition of the fantastic as a displaced mode of ekphrastic representation.”]

To these dead forms, came living beauties essence
Able to make them startle with her presence.

—George Chapman, “Ovid's Banquet of Sense”

A fascination with the idea of illusionist representations pervades the history of Western culture. From time immemorial great artists have been...

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Peter W. M. Cogman (essay date fall-winter 1997-1998)

SOURCE: Cogman, Peter W. M. “Cheating at Narrating: Back to Mérimée's ‘La Partie de trictrac’.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 26, nos. 1-2 (fall-winter 1997-1998): 80-90.

[In the following essay, Cogman proposes a link between Mérimée's interest in storytelling and the tale “La Partie de trictrac.”]

“La Partie de trictrac”1 has presented problems for critics in that the two principal aspects of the story—the tale and its telling—do not seem at first obviously related. Perhaps for this reason it is, as Michel Crouzet notes, “un texte sacrifié, que l'on commente et apprécie fort peu” (1: 385). On the one hand there is the...

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Robin MacKenzie (essay date April 2000)

SOURCE: MacKenzie, Robin. “Space, Self and the Role of the Matecznik in Mérimée's Lokis.Forum for Modern Language Studies 36, no. 2 (April 2000): 196-208.

[In the following essay, MacKenzie examines the duality theme and its relationship to the representation of space and the role of the matecznik in “Lokis.”]

“Lokis” was one of Mérimée's last stories, begun in July 1868 and published in the Revue des deux Mondes in September 1869.1 Generically, it is usually categorised as a conte fantastique, though some critics stress the merveilleux aspects of the tale.2 The plot can be read as a...

(The entire section is 6383 words.)

Corry L. Cropper (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Cropper, Corry L. “Fictional Documentary: The Other as France in Mérimée's ‘Les Mormons.’” In The Documentary Impulse in French Literature, edited by Buford Norman, pp. 51-63. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.

[In the following essay, Cropper traces connections between Mérimée's essay “Les Mormons” and his story “The Venus d'Ille.”]

Appointed Inspector General of Historical Monuments in 1834, Prosper Mérimée became one of the first Frenchmen to have as his full-time job the responsibility of documenting France's artistic and architectural treasures for the state. Over the years, Mérimée's official travel reports and his fiction would intersect at...

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Armine Kotin Mortimer (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Mortimer, Armine Kotin. “Secrets of Literature, Resistance to Meaning.” In Confrontations: Politics and Aesthetics in Nineteenth-Century France, edited by Kathryn M. Grossman, Michael E. Lane, Bénédicte Monicat, and Willa Z. Silverman, pp. 55-66. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.

[In the following essay, Mortimer elucidates the ambiguous meanings of several stories, including “The Venus d'Ille,” concluding that Mérimée intended uncertainty in the story.]

Did Mérimée's Vénus d'Ille intend to murder Alphonse de Peyrehorade, when she invaded his nuptial bed, or did she merely embrace him with all the strength of her passion for him—and then discover to her...

(The entire section is 4704 words.)

Corry L. Cropper (essay date March 2002)

SOURCE: Cropper, Corry L. “Playing at Monarchy: le jeu de paume in Literature of Nineteenth-Century France.” French Review 75, no. 4 (March 2002): 720-29.

[In the following essay, Cropper determines the symbolic significance of the French game le jeu de paume in “The Venus d'Ille.”]

For centuries le jeu de paume, a precursor to our modern day tennis, was the exclusive cultural and social property of France's nobility. In the fourteenth century, Charles V, by royal decree, forbade anyone not of noble birth to play the game. From then until the fall of the monarchy, bourgeois and commoners indulging in the noble privilege of playing the...

(The entire section is 4887 words.)

Further Reading


Bouvier, Luke. “Where Spain Lies: Narrative Dispossession and the Seductions of Speech in Mérimée's Carmen.Romanic Review 90, no. 3 (May 1999): 353-77.

Provides a stylistic analysis of Carmen and compares the novella with subsequent adaptations.

Colmeiro, José F. “Exorcising Exoticism: Carmen and the Construction of Oriental Spain.” Comparative Literature 54, no. 2 (spring 2002): 127-44.

Investigates the perception of Spain as an “oriental nation” and determines the role of Carmen in this misconception.

Gould, Evlyn. “Carmen: Novella.”...

(The entire section is 207 words.)