Prosper Merimee’s short story “Mateo Falcone” (1829) culminates in the killing of a ten-year-old boy by his father; the killing—the question needs to be posed whether it is a murder—takes place in a ravine in the rugged hills of Corsica, and its victim bears the ironic name of Fortunato. The father and killer, Mateo Falcone, bears a surname which, in the Italiote dialect of Corsica, means “falcon,” a bird of prey; in addition, just before the climax, Merimee endows Falcone with “lynx eyes,” yet another indication of his predatory nature. Mateo believes himself justified in the terrible act of killing his own son and does not even glance backward as he turns from the bloody scene to fetch a spade for the burial.
Fortunato’s crime, in the eyes of his father, is that he has betrayed Gianetto Sanpiero, a thief and outlaw who has ties to Mateo and the right to seek asylum with him if pursued; he had come to Mateo’s house, chased by the militia, only to find Mateo absent and the house under the charge of Fortunato, who hid him for a price and then revealed him to the militiamen for a higher price. “Is this my child?” Mateo asks his wife, Giuseppa, when he learns of the facts. The dissolution of the filial tie comes abruptly and completely: “All I know is that this child is the first member of his family to commit an act of treachery.” And under the code of vendetta, which is the prevailing custom in Corsica, treachery summarily incurs a capital sentence. Fortunato must die.
It would seem that this is the prevailing custom. The original subtitle of “Mateo Falcone” “Les moeurs de Corse” (“The Ways of Corsica”), indicates that, cruel as the unwritten law might be, this is how things are done in Corsica, whose people cannot be judged by imported standards or dogmatic notions of moral rectitude. The lack of commentary by the author bolsters this supposition. Given the prevailing Romanticism of the early nineteenth century, with its celebration of primitive and nonEuropean peoples and its Rousseau-derived assumptions that civilization is inherently corrupt and corrupting, one might guess that ”Mateo Falcone” is simply one more vote for the uncomplicated authenticity of cultural taboos and ethnic traditions. But is Merimee really suspending judgment? Are his readers really intended to suspend judgment along with him? Consider not the end but the beginning of the tale.
The first two paragraphs of ”Mateo Falcone” present a picture postcard of Corsica. According to Merimee (who would not in fact visit the island until seven years after writing about it), Corsica is civilized along its coast, where the cities lie, and increasingly uncivilized as one penetrates towards the interior:
“Coming out of Porto-Vecchio, and turning northwest towards the center of the island, the traveller in Corsica sees the ground rise fairly rapidly, and after three hours’ walk along tortuous paths, strewn with large boulders and sometimes cut by ravines, he finds himself on the edge of a very extensive maquis, or open heath. This heath is the home of the Corsican shepherds, and the resort of all those who come in conflict with the law….”
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 hand of the law, nor from the relatives of the dead man, except when you go down into the town to renew your stock of ammunition.
Corsica lies divided into two major regions mediated by a transitional region. There is the ring of cities and towns along the coastline, where people feel ”the hand of the law,” and there is the thick chaparral of the maquis, home to pastoralists living in a type of prehistoric world and to men of violence flying from the law. Finally, between them there is the no-man’s land where, not coincidentally, Mateo Falcone lives.
In an economic sense, Mateo has ties with civilization, since his wealth derives from his flocks, the produce of which is sold in Porto-Vecchio or Corte; sociologically, he belongs to the pre-urban world of the montagnards, a world governed not by law (and by all that implies) but by vendetta, a concept which contains the sub-concepts of honor and treachery. In the world of vendetta, peace is established not through the endorsement of impersonal justice decided rationally in courts by judicial officials but by the threat, and sometimes by the act, of violence. Mateo, for example, “lived on good terms with everybody in the district of PortoVecchio,” but this is partly because he is known as “a dangerous enemy.” Mateo gained his wife, Giuseppa, by eliminating a rival for her affections. ”He was a Corsican and a man of the mountains, and there are few mountain-bred Corsicans who, if they delve into their memories, cannot find some little peccadillo, a gunshot, a knifing, or some such trifling matter.” The illusory peace of the mountains is thus purchased at the price of those shots or dagger-thrusts, the victims of which serve as reminders that trespass will incur personal vengeance from parties who consider themselves injured.
Once dead, the exemplary victims of this unwritten law are reduced in a rhetoric of memory to “trifling matters.” One remembers the victims and what their death portends for anyone who breaks the unwritten law, but one also reduces them by thinking of them as of no importance. The mental gesture is in complicity with the practical and lethal act. In such a world, immediate familial and personal ties, governed by the ideas of honor and treachery, overwhelm any larger or more abstract obligations, including those embodied in the word “law.” These same ties can disrupt family from within, as they do in the case of the Falcones, resulting in Fortunato’s death. It is in flight from the law that Gianetto Sanpiero stumbles, wounded, into the Falcone property, where young Fortunato has been daydreaming about a forthcoming dinner at his uncle’s in Corte. To which world does Fortunato belong? The answer is: to none. Although he is probably destined to inherit the vendetta world of his father, at present Fortunato is simply an immature creature motivated by childish greed. At first he refuses asylum to Gianetto and hides him only when offered a bribe— one piece of silver.
When his “cousin,” Tiodoro Gamba, an adjutant of the militia, arrives with a posse, Fortunato reveals Gianetto for the price of a shiny new watch, which Tiodoro promises him. This is the crime, the “treachery,” that infuriates Mateo and leads to Fortunato’s killing. In geographical terms, the killing is outside the law, for according to custom or not, it takes place beyond the Falcone property, in the hills, towards the no-man’s-land of the maquis. Also, when Giuseppa divines Mateo’s intentions, she pleads mercy (not given) and then prays before an icon of the Virgin. The killing is not only outside the law, it violates the Judaeo-Christian notion of mercy. It is an impious deed.
At this point, one begins to notice certain tangential but important allusions in Merimee’s text. Instantly determined to exercise maximum punishment for the act, Mateo “struck the ground with the butt of his gun, then shouldered it, and set off again on the path leading to the maquis, calling on Fortunato to follow him. The child obeyed.” The image of the father leading his only son into the mountains with the purpose of killing him brings to mind the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Old Testament. Merimee tells us that Giuseppa, to Mateo’s fury, had first borne three daughters but at last bore a son, “the hope of the family.” Here again, Mateo and Fortunato resemble Abraham and Isaac, for Isaac was the only son of elderly parents and Fortunato is the only son of Mateo. Abraham is willing to sacrifice Isaac at the behest of God. In the Biblical story, however, God stays the sacrifice at the last second by substituting a lamb for Isaac. From then on, human sacrifice is forbidden, and a new moral dispensation appears.
Giuseppa’s devotion to the Virgin links her to that new moral dispensation, and her inclination to mercy, contrasted with Mateo’s brutality, shows that there is an alternative to the unwritten rule of age-old custom. Indeed, in his description of the maquis, Merimee wrote that it was ”thick enough to please God.” Merimee was perhaps not a believer in any orthodox sense (it is known that his parents were agnostic), but neither was he a partisan of violence. Although the phrase ”to please God” is a figural commonplace, it nevertheless suggests a presence, a concept, which Giuseppa recognizes and Mateo does not. And while not identical with the law, as represented by Tiodoro Gamba and the militia, this principle, like the law, stands in explicit opposition to vendetta.
The principle is mercy, which demands that men acknowledge the humanity of other men so as not to sacrifice them to idols and false causes—for example, the illusory honor of the Corsican ” way.” “Father, father, don’t kill me!” shouts Fortunato, kneeling in prayer. But Mateo merely instructs him to say his prayers; “the child recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, stammering and sobbing.” (The Lord’s Prayer asks God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”—an injunction which Mateo does not heed.) Mateo intones an “amen” each time Fortunato concludes, but the act seems empty given the circumstance. Fortunato then says the Ave Maria, reminding us that his mother is at that very moment praying to the Virgin. Then someone—Merimee’s calculatedly ambiguous syntax makes it uncertain who—says, “May God forgive you!” (English translations that attribute these words to Mateo resolve an ambiguity without warrant to do so.) Mateo fires. Fortunato dies. In the very last line of the story, Mateo tells his wife to ”send word to my son-in-law Tiodoro Bianchi to come and live with us,” making the dead Fortunato merely a replaceable commodity—something already reduced to a trifle.
Yet how does one justify this interpretation given the lack of any narrative judgment in Merimee’s text? One starts by acknowledging the vast difference between the mentality that permits Mateo to kill his own son over a matter of ”honor” and the mentality that regards that act as inexcusable. If readers of Merimee’s time and our own instinctively rebel over Mateo’s deed and immediately find apologies for Fortunato (his youth, his parents’ failure to instill in him a moral sense, the manipulative cleverness of Tiodoro Gamba), this in itself is significant. Readers rebel because they belong to an order conditioned by notions of impersonal law and Judeo-Christian mercy, an order which can only come into being through explicit rejection of an earlier order based on the endless sacrificial violence of the vendetta. That vendetta is a lower order of existence than mercy is suggested by the animal qualities with which Merimee endows Mateo. He is an ignoble savage; compared with mercy, vendetta is sub-human.
If modern readers thus instinctively believe that the killing of Fortunato is a murder and not an act of “justice,” as Mateo claims, this is because they have a more refined notion of justice, tempered by mercy, than the implacable montagnard. Not for nothing does Merimee stress the unchanging antiquity of the Corsican interior, which reflects classical concepts of barbarism, as in the depiction of the Cyclopes by Homer in the Odyssey . The Cyclopes, like the Corsican montagnards, are an island people without written laws and with no permanent institutions; they live by herding, and their only principle of organization is family solidarity and a code of vengeance. Merimee’s observation that the maquis is a region where obliging pastoralists provide one with milk, cheese, and chestnuts needs to be balanced against the acknowledgment of what it costs to sustain that idyllic condition. The cost is that one gives up the protection of the law and submits to violence without mercy. A man is safe only as long as he has weapons and ammunition. Fortunato has none; all he has is a shiny new watch. So Fortunato dies, an Isaac whom God cannot rescue.
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.
Thomas Bertonneau, “Overview of ‘Mateo Falcone,'” for Short Stories for Student!:, The Gale Group, 2000.