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.
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.