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 corruption 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.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Prosper Merimee, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.