Prosper Mérimée’s classic French novella Mateo Falcone
was first published in the magazine Revue de Paris
in 1829. Mérimée was a key writer from the Romanticism movement whose most famous work, the novel Carmen
, inspired Bizet’s famous opera of the same name. Mérimée’s accomplishments included developing the short story as a fiction form. He was also a historian and archeologist.Mateo Falcone
is meant to reveal deep truths about the character and values of the people native to the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Above all else, they prize strict adherence to the conventions of hospitality and loyalty, which trump any other rules or government regulations.
The novella opens with a framing narrative. The narrator remembers once meeting the rugged Corsican outdoorsman and landowner Mateo Falcone. Although the narrator encountered Mateo two years after he had undergone a traumatic event, there was no sign in his outward demeanor or appearance that he had been affected in any way. Mateo’s story shows that he has never lost his honor – by clinging to this, he had the internal strength to do what was necessary when the moment came to choose between honor and family.
Two years earlier, in early fall, Mateo and his wife, Giuseppa left the house to tend to a flock of sheep, leaving behind their ten-year-old son, Fortunato. He is their fourth child, a much-longed-for boy who was born after three girls who are now married and out of the house.
After the sound of gunfire, a disheveled and injured man comes to the door – Fortunato sees the man is the wanted bandit Gianetto Sanpiero, who is being pursued by government troops after conducting several raids in the area. Recognizing the house as Mateo’s, Gianetto asks Fortunato to help him hide from the soldiers.
In an exchange that demonstrates the flawed nature of Fortunato’s character (at least in terms of Corsican ideals), Fortunato resists helping Gianetto until the criminal offers the boy a five-franc coin. Then, using his wiles, Fortunato camouflages Gianetto under some hay, putting a cat with her litter of kittens on top to disguise the area further.
Soon after, the soldiers tracking Gianetto come to the house, led by Sergeant Tiodoro Gamba, Fortunato’s distant cousin. Tiodoro asks whether Fortunato has seen anyone come through; he immediately sees through Fortunato’s excuse about being asleep. When he threatens the boy to get answers, Fortunato refuses to reveal any information, reluctant once again to help someone who has come for assistance. Instead, he shouts, “My father is Mateo Falcone!” over and over. The soldiers look around, but even after they poke the haystacks with bayonets, they discover nothing.
Finally, Tiodoro finds Fortunato’s weak spot – the same one Gianetto had used earlier. Tiodoro points out that his young son has a watch while Fortunato doesn’t, and then offers the boy a fine silver watch worth at least ten écus. Jealous of this watch-owning boy, Fortunato, again, allows himself to be bought. He points to the hay, where the soldiers uncover Gianetto and arrest him.
Matteo and Giuseppa come back just at the moment when the soldiers are tying up Gianetto. While Tiodoro explains what has happened, and Gianetto curses, spitting on the threshold of the “traitor home,” Matteo’s face remains silent and blank. He doesn’t help Gianetto, because he isn’t the one who was responsible for his safety as a guest. However, he also doesn’t say good-bye to Tiodoro.
Realizing that he has made a mistake, Fortunato tries to fix things by offering Gianette a bowl of milk. However, the criminal turns away from the boy and, instead, addresses the soldier who has arrested him as friend, asking him for water. Fortunato has done the worst thing possible – he has acted as a traitor.
Realizing what is about to happen, Giuseppa tries to intervene with Mateo, asking him to listen to his familial feelings. However, when Mateo responds saying, “I am his father,” she acquiesces. Knowing that Mateo has the right to make decisions about the lives of his family members, and partly agreeing with his decision, she kneels in front of the Madonna icon in the house and starts to pray.
Mateo orders Fortunato to follow him into a ravine near the house. There, he tells the boy to pray. After two prayers, Fortunato begs his father not to kill him, pleading that he will learn and behave better from now on, offering to go to Tiodoro to beg for Gianetto’s pardon. Mateo refuses to accept a traitor in his house. His only concession is to allow the boy to pray before death so he will die like a Christian. Mateo allows Fortunato time for two more prayers, then shoots and kills his son. The ground of the ravine is soft, allowing for easy grave digging.
Giuseppa hears a gunshot and runs out of the house, half-hoping to see two people coming back. However, Mateo returns alone and tells her what they will do next: have a memorial service for Fortunato and invite one of the sons-in-law to the house.