I love bad bitches, that's my fuckin' problem
- Prosper Mérimé-... er, A$AP Rocky
Mérimée loves bad bitches. Namely Carmen, Colomba, and the statuesque Venus d'Ille - the heroine-antagonist-exotics of his best stories in this collection. More generally, Mérimée is fascinated in his fiction by the clash between the civil and the savage. A champion of the ruffian hero, Mérimée's stories notably take place outside of his native France, in Spain, Italy, the sea: places which to him are still imbued with mystery and mysticism. Mérimée was an early exponent of the short-story as a true literary form, and though some of his stories are a bit uneven (notably, his most famous "Carmen"), they are exemplary of the form which has become almost universal to literary authors, and went began the tradition later perfected by Guy de Maupassant.
While I would argue that "Colomba" is the better-crafted story, albeit much longer, Mérimée's "Carmen" has lasted the test of time, notably immortalized by Bizet into an opera by the same name. "Carmen" nonetheless is a captivating illustration of love, crime, violence, and the Mériméan clash between civility and savagery. As a strong influence on Lolita
, notably in the strange blur between love and Machiavellian seduction-deceit, and also in the tale-told-from-prison frame, "Carmen" is both provocative and unreliable in narration. The story follows a traveller from France, a sort of literary stand-in for Mérimée on his travels in Spain, when he happens upon a ruffian, Don José, and helps him escape the authorities. He later finds him again, as the lover of a beautiful gypsy, Carmen. They separate again, and the next time they meet, Don José is in prison, having murdered his love.
Though the story is quite good, Carmen is more famous and more memorable than her titular tale. The story serves more to romanticize and immortalize the exotic allure of the gypsies than it does to make a memorable story. Carmen has become symbolic of jealous love, an early adumbration of Tolstoy's "Kreuntzer Sonata." Don José's love for Carmen seems tenuous, we wonder how real the love can be, being one-sided as it is. It is not clear how Carmen feels about the Don, we hear about her mostly from his perspective, though it seems that her affection for him is largely sexual pragmatism. But that may be from a difference in view of love: while love is typically perceived in the Western-civilized tradition of love-of-my-life devotion, Carmen's love is like a bird, alighting only for odd moments on the men in her life, a love which is passionate and full, free of jealousy, pure, but which is short-lived.
'Yes, I have loved him—as I loved you—for an instant—less than I loved you, perhaps. But now I don't love anything, and I hate myself for ever having loved you.'
I cast myself at her feet, I seized her hands, I watered them with my tears, I reminded her of all the happy moments we had spent together, I offered to continue my brigand’s life, if that would please her. Everything, sir, everything—I offered her everything if she would only love me again.
She said: 'Love you again? That's not possible! Live with you? I will not do it!'
Carmen is a free spirit, but traditionally defined love is a shackle, a cage, which she feels suffocated by. She loves in the moment, but José demands eternity from her. Despite Carmen's deceptions and tricks, her crimes and abandonments, we sympathize with her, much moreso than with the Don. Carmen has a freedom which we all envy, but which we consciously let elude us. We are afraid of the kind of freedom and detachment which Carmen needs to live. Despite his rough exterior, José is far more civilized and chained to tradition than Carmen, and we see him at the end not as a hidalgo, but as a modern man, given up to his passions, but afraid to follow them to their fruition. While he represented as an early symbol of freedom, to the narrator on his travels, a kind of idealized and Romantic figure, he is reduced at the end to a prisoner. The prison is symbolic of his own imprisonment, he self-styled cage of his conventions and expectations, which withhold him from true happiness in the moment with Carmen. Though Carmen is murdered, it feels to us like a freer and more appropriate fate for her than marriage, which seems to us impossible.