Style and Technique

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The publication of “Mateo Falcone” in 1829 is often regarded as the start of the modern short story in France. With the tale’s combination of exotic settings and realistic details, this story paved the way for the work of Gustave Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, and the later stories of Mérimée himself. Although Mérimée filled “Mateo Falcone” with detailed descriptions of the Corsican countryside and its inhabitants, he himself did not first visit the island until ten years after the story was written. “Mateo Falcone” thus fits into the tradition of imaginative Romantic exoticism that also includes the historical novels of Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, père, the mythological paintings of Eugène Delacroix, and the operas and orchestral works of Nicolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov.

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Although generally realistic in tone, “Mateo Falcone” contains several symbolic elements. The name “Falcone” (falcon), for example, suggests Mateo’s ferocity and clear sight, details that are mentioned several times in the story. The name “Fortunato” contrasts with the boy’s disastrous fortune in the story. The silver watch with which Gamba bribes Fortunato is reminiscent of the thirty pieces of silver by which Judas Iscariot was bribed by the chief priests to betray Jesus in the Bible.

Historical Context

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Napoleonic France
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 corrupM tion 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.

Literary Style

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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 Don Juan, 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.

Compare and Contrast

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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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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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.

Smith, Maxwell A. ‘‘Mosaique,’’ in Prosper Merimee, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972, pp. 98–116.

Further Reading
Bowman, F. P. Prosper Merimee: Heroism, Pessimism and Irony, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962. 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.

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