“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.
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 to retaliate, and so on. It ought to be noted that Mateo’s killing of Fortunato resembles Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac in the Old Testament. 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.
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.