Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 554

“Mateo Falcone” is the product of Prosper Mérimée’s lifelong fascination with bandits, outcasts, and the code of honor among thieves. These same ingredients also appear in Mérimée’s most famous stories, “Carmen” (1845) and “Colomba” (1840). Mérimée loved tales of primitive justice and the desperate men who lived by a code...

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“Mateo Falcone” is the product of Prosper Mérimée’s lifelong fascination with bandits, outcasts, and the code of honor among thieves. These same ingredients also appear in Mérimée’s most famous stories, “Carmen” (1845) and “Colomba” (1840). Mérimée loved tales of primitive justice and the desperate men who lived by a code remote from that of conventional law. Like many Romantic authors, he set his stories in exotic locations, such as Córdoba and the Basque countryside in “Carmen,” Lithuania in “Lokis” (1869), the African coast in “Tamango” (1829), and Corsica in both “Colomba” and “Mateo Falcone.”

The characters of Mérimée’s stories often adhere to a brutal code of justice, at once impressive in its severity and appalling in its cost to human life. The character of Mateo Falcone was the author’s first embodiment of such a code. Although he lives in a cabin that consists of only a single room, Mateo Falcone is transformed by Mérimée into a descendent of the caesars, a paterfamilias (head of the household) who literally has the power of life and death over everyone who lives in his home.

Mérimée—who was something of an antiquarian and classical scholar—based “Mateo Falcone” on a legend of ancient Rome. The first Roman consul, Lucius Junius Brutus (late sixth century b.c.), who freed the Romans from the tyranny of the Tarquin kings, is said by the historian Livy to have executed his own sons when he learned that they were conspiring with his enemies. Interest in this legend was revived in Europe during the French Revolution by the artist Jacques-Louis David, who, in a painting entitled Brutus (1789), depicted the consul at the moment when the bodies of his sons were brought home for burial.

By elevating Mateo Falcone to a modern equivalent of this severe paterfamilias, Mérimée has created a character whose code of honor transcends even parental affection. Although Mérimée expects his readers to be shocked by Mateo’s actions at the end of the story, he also wants them to understand the Corsican’s strange system of values. By the end of the tale, readers may even begin to feel awe for this man whose stern sense of justice leads him to do what they themselves could never do.

It is ironic that Mateo Falcone’s strong sense of his family’s traditions ultimately compels him to kill a member of his own family. To draw attention to this theme, Mérimée alludes to Fortunato’s heritage frequently in the story. When Fortunato initially refuses to hide Sanpiero, the bandit insults him by saying “You’re no son of Mateo Falcone.” The only reply that Fortunato makes when Gamba threatens him is to repeat the name of his father. When Giuseppa finds the watch that Fortunato has accepted from Gamba, Mateo wonders whether the boy can really be his son. Giuseppa pleads for mercy on the grounds that Mateo is Fortunato’s father. Mateo’s response, however, is that that is precisely why justice must be done. By accepting a bribe and betraying a fellow Corsican, Fortunato has proven that he does not deserve his father’s name. Fortunato’s own actions have irrevocably alienated him from his family and its protection.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 544

Culture Clash
‘‘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.

Natural Law
In this story, the sacrifice of Fortunato is considered obedience to the natural law. Fortunato must die 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 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.

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