Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Merimee's Colomba and the July Monarchy

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Merimee's Colomba and the July Monarchy

Article excerpt

Critics have generally considered the narratives of Prosper Merimee as models of the Romantic fantastic or as innovations in the genre of the French short story. And while much attention has been given to Merimee as recorder of the exotic Other, the political and cultural undercurrents of his fiction have been largely ignored. In fact, most consider Merimee to be entirely apolitical. Eric Gans contends that," `Tamango' est l'unique nouvelle de notre auteur a epouser ouvertement la critique humaniste d'un aspect de sa propre societe" (30). Yet, when considering Merimee's circle of friends and the important political positions he held (Merimee helped with the publication of the Republican newspaper Le National before 1830; he held the office of Inspecteur des monuments historiques for many years; he remained a close friend to the Empress Eugenie throughout the imperial reign of her husband; and he became a Senator during the Second Empire), it is difficult to imagine that his works could remain entirely devoid of French cultural or political influence. Gans is undoubtedly correct when arguing that Tamango is Merimee's only work dealing "overtly" with his own culture, but certainly, in his other works, commentary on his own society must appear on some level.

We have just begun to explore this other level of Merimee, to hint at his role as political observer of nineteenth-century France.(1) In a 1996 article on Merimee and Sand, David Mickelsen suggests that Carmen "contributed to the political and social shifts which would culminate in the elevation of [Merimee's] friend's daughter, Eugenie, to the imperial throne" (140). And more recently (1997), Scott Carpenter details the political underpinnings of one of Merimee's "historical" writings, suggesting that Les Faux Demetrius, while ostensibly dealing with the imperial house of Russia, is in fact an underhanded critique of Napoleon III's confiscation of power. If Merimee's works have generally been perceived as entirely apolitical, it is certainly because, as Carpenter points out, he was too closely connected to the center of power for us to believe he would actually criticize it or comment on it. However, given Merimee's background as a master of literary deception,(2) it is surprising that we have taken so many of his texts at face value without considering their political or cultural significance. In fact, many of Merimee's texts can be read as political or social palimpsests. Consider his Chronique du regne de Charles IX and Vision de Charles XI, two narratives which predict the downfall of kings whose names are just one numeral away from Charles X, king of France at the time Merimee published the narratives. Arsene Guillot, L'abbe Aubain and Le carosse du saint-sacrement display a noticeably anti-Catholic, anti-bourgeois theme. However, in this article, to show the extent to which contemporary politics colored Merimee's stories, I will analyze perhaps his most benign, pleasant and apolitical tale, Colomba. Indeed, I will show that Merimee wrote Colomba with more in mind than a simple portrayal of Corsican values--he wrote Colomba to embody the preeminent social tensions of France during the July Monarchy.

Colomba certainly may appear ill suited for a discussion of political or social overtones along side the likes of Carmen or Les Faux Demetrius. And yet, while it may indeed be the most benign of Merimee's stories, its happy ending also makes it his most unusual. This rupture from what readers expect from the sardonic Merimee suggests that there is more afoot than the romantic, almost trite narrative he relates. Colomba, ironically, is unusual for a merimeen tale because of its usual, conventional ending where good triumphs over evil and where the protagonist finds himself happily married to the beautiful heroine. Kathryn J. Crecelius remarks that Colomba represents "one of Merimee's rare happy endings" (227). Indeed, it is the only of Merimee's stories with a "happy" ending. …

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