Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1006

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Prosper Mérimée is one of a handful of French writers credited with inventing the nouvelle, something more than a short story but less than a novel. His first exercise in this genre was Colomba (1840), a much-acclaimed tale about a vendetta set in Corsica. Carmen may be seen as an attempt to repeat the success of the earlier story by mixing similar ingredients: an exotic and colorful setting; a central character who operates outside the law but with reference to some definite code of honor; and, of course, a bewitching femme fatale.

The thematic materials in Carmen are somewhat reminiscent of the gothic novels that flourished a generation before, novels that were often set in wild places haunted by colorful characters. The form of its plot and the manner of its narration are, however, very different from the florid excesses of gothic melodrama. The plot of Carmen is borrowed from the Abbé Prévost’s Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731, 1733, 1753; Manon Lescaut, 1734, 1786), which tracks the moral decline of a supposedly honorable man who becomes infatuated with an altogether unsuitable woman. Mérimée’s narrative style is laconic and rather clinical, full of anthropological asides regarding the customs and language of the Gypsies. Most of these asides, as Mérimée admits, are lifted from the early works of the English writer George Henry Borrow, author of The Zincali: An Account of the Gypsies in Spain (1841). The result of Mérimée’s syncretic amalgamation is a work delicately suspended between realism and Romanticism, a kind of work that had not previously existed and that Mérimée made his own.

In Manon Lescaut’s account, a worthy man’s descent into ruin is attributed to an oppressive, almost tangible force operating within a context defined by the author’s Jesuitical Catholicism. Carmen, too, is marked by fatalism, but the fate that pursues Don José is no dark, oppressive one. His decline, which occurs over a series of dispirited failures, begins even before he meets Carmen, for he has fled his homeland after killing a man in a duel fought over a tennis match. When Carmen tempts him, Don José knows precisely where his duty lies, yet by capitulating again and again, he eventually becomes so casual in his immorality as to plot and execute the murder of Carmen’s supposed husband on a whim rather than as an act of true desperation.

The only resistance Don José can raise against his temptress is displayed in the frame narrative, when he refuses to murder the archaeologist to whom he eventually tells his life story. He is restrained by the fact that the archaeologist previously saved him from being captured. This raises the doubt as to whether Don José is entirely reliable as a narrator or whether his matter-of-factness represents the state of mind instilled by the imminence of his execution. Most of the events he describes speak for themselves, however, and they make sense only if one accepts that they happened as casually as he describes them.

Don José’s fatalism matches Carmen’s, especially in the remarkable conclusion of the story, which differs sharply not only from that of Manon Lescaut but also from those of such nineteenth century recapitulations of that plot as La Dame aux camélias (1848; Camille, 1857) by Alexandre Dumas, fils. Carmen knows that Don José will kill her, but she refuses to save herself by lying, even though she built her entire career on conscienceless deception. In effect, she not only invites destruction but also insists on it, and she does so not out of principle or passion but out of a basic inability to care.

Those who know the story of Carmen only through Georges Bizet’s famous 1875 opera of that name would hardly recognize the story, because the composer and his librettist carefully obliterated the very elements that make the story unique. Lucas the picador becomes a much more powerful figure in the opera so as to justify Carmen’s desertion and Don José’s jealousy. Yet the point of Mérimée’s story is that the motivation for murder is so slight. In his story, Carmen is fickle and Don José weak, and that is all there is to it; their infatuation is not a grand passion of the kind whose erotic ecstasy might explain—perhaps even justify—acts of reckless violence. Carmen is certainly a femme fatale in the great tradition of French literary femmes fatales, but she has neither the secret capacity for honest passion that marks the tragic heroines of Romanticism nor the cold callousness of the antiheroines of the Decadent movement. She is a Gypsy (or perhaps, if one of her seeming lies is in fact the truth, a changeling adopted by Gypsies), and she has a different way of feeling as well as a different way of behaving.

The clinical tone of Mérimée’s description of the doomed affair is no mere pastiche of scientific objectivity; it expresses an authentically scientific view of the mechanisms of human behavior. Unlike the Abbé Prévost, who might have been a bad Catholic but was nevertheless a Catholic through and through, Mérimée is an agnostic who clearly considers that the soul—if it exists at all—is an irrelevance, and that judgment is a purely human business. He does record that Carmen is sometimes described as a sorceress and a “child of Satan,” and he even concedes her a measure of magical and prophetic power, but he never endorses the evaluation to the point of regarding her death as predestined damnation.

Mérimée’s objectivity secures his place as an original writer despite his tendency to borrow all his plots and much of his local color from any sources that came conveniently to hand. Carmen embodies this attitude of mind and manner of execution most strikingly and forcefully, and that is one of the reasons for the work’s enduring position as a literary landmark.