44 pages 1 hour read

Prosper Merimee


Fiction | Novella | Adult | Published in 1840

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Summary and Study Guide


Carmen (1845) is a novella by French author Prosper Mérimée that was adapted into an opera of the same name in 1875 by the composer Georges Bizet. The narrative centers on the tempestuous and ruinous relationship between infamous Spanish-Basque bandit Don José and Carmen, a free-spirited Romani woman. It explores themes such as Passion as an Overwhelming Force, Exoticism and Racial Prejudice, and Power Imbalances in Relationships and Society. Mérimée was a pioneer of the new “nouvelle” or novella form of short story, and a prominent figure of the French Romantic movement.

The first three chapters of Carmen were originally published in serialized form, with the fourth chapter added to the full volume publication two years later. This guide uses the 2021 updated edition of the Project Gutenberg 2006 e-book as translated into English by Mary Loyd (1859-1936). In-text citations refer to chapter number and paragraph number excluding footnotes.

Content Warning: This guide describes and discusses the novella’s racist and inaccurate portrayal of Romani people and culture, which was based on common prejudices of the author’s time. This guide critically examines the novella’s attitude toward Roma. It uses eponyms widely accepted by Romani people and organizations instead of the pejorative terms and racist slurs often applied by Mérimée, which are only replicated in direct quotes.

The novella also includes other instances of racism and exoticism, as well as depictions of domestic violence against women that culminate in murder.

Plot Summary

In the first two chapters, an unnamed narrator travels through South Spain researching the site of an ancient battlefield. He crosses paths with the bandit Don José, with whom he forms a friendly bond. They pass the night together in a small Romani inn. During the night the narrator discovers that his own guide plans to alert the authorities to Don José’s presence at the inn, in the hopes of collecting the bounty on his head. Once the guide leaves to fetch the soldiers, the narrator wakes Don José and warns him, allowing the bandit to escape.

Several days later in Cordova, the narrator meets a beautiful Roma woman named Carmen and is invited to her home so that she can read his fortune. They are interrupted by the arrival of Don José. He argues with Carmen as she appears to urge him to murder the narrator. Recognizing the narrator from their earlier encounter, Don José escorts him to safety, only for the narrator to discover that Carmen has pickpocketed his expensive pocket watch. The narrator returns to the city after several further weeks of travel and research. He learns that he has been presumed dead since his watch was found in the possession of Don José, who has been sentenced to death for multiple homicides. The narrator visits Don José, and agrees to carry out his last wishes by paying for Mass to be said for him and Carmen, and delivering a necklace to his mother. During these visits, Don José relates the story of his tumultuous affair with Carmen.

Don José was born into Basque nobility, but had to leave his home after attacking another young man in an argument over tennis. He meets Carmen while working as a soldier guarding the factory where she works, and arrests her when she slashes another woman’s face open for insulting her. Recognizing Don José’s accent, Carmen pretends that she too is Basque and was fighting to defend their national honor, persuading Don José to allow her to escape. Carmen and Don José meet again after he is punished for releasing her, and they sleep together before Carmen sends him away. He helps her to sneak a gang of smugglers into the city; they argue, reconcile, and Carmen leaves him again, before Don José catches her with a lieutenant whom he kills in a jealous rage.

Carmen helps him flee the city. They join up with a band of smugglers with whom they pass several happy months as lovers before it is revealed that Carmen is married to Garcia el Tuerto, and has just orchestrated her husband’s release from prison. Garcia joins the smugglers and proves himself a brute by murdering one of their group, a young man who is wounded by pursuing soldiers. Carmen works as an informant and becomes mistress to a wealthy English soldier so that she can lure him into the group’s clutches for them to rob. She tells Don José that the ambush would be the perfect opportunity to see her husband killed. Don José instead challenges Garcia to a knife fight and murders him, after which he and Carmen live as though married.

Don José is badly wounded by soldiers and most of his gang are killed, prompting him to rethink his and Carmen’s lifestyle. He proposes they move to the New World to live honestly. Carmen refuses. During the time she spends nursing Don José back to health, she becomes enamored with a picador named Lucas. Don José is jealous and they argue bitterly, eventually reconciling with only a lingering resentment. It is at this point that they first met the narrator. Don José strikes Carmen during an argument, after which she is shaken and distant. When she suddenly regains her former warmth toward him, Don José is suspicious. His fears prove well-founded when he catches her flirting with Lucas at a bullfight.

Don José waits for Carmen to return home late that night, then leads her out to an inn. He tells her all is forgiven if she agrees to move to America with him to start a new honest life, but that if she refuses he’ll kill her. Giving her time to think, he pays a local hermitage to say mass for her soul. He returns to hear her answer, half-hoping she’d taken the opportunity to flee. Instead she refuses him, telling him that she no longer loves him and will never again live with him, preferring to die rather than sacrifice her freedom. Don José is anguished then incensed, and stabs her to death. He buries her body in the woods and gives himself in to the authorities.

The final chapter is a summary of the narrator/Mérimée’s racist and inaccurate knowledge of Roma and Romani culture. He presents offensive stereotypes and prejudiced accounts of racial characteristics as fact, and presents a brief but dubiously accurate account of Romanes, the Romani language. He tells of visiting Roma in Vosge where a Romani family cared for an unrelated Romani man with terminal illness despite their own crushing poverty. He also tells of a Romani woman who stole a silk scarf and coins sewn into it on the pretext of using it to cast a curse, and another man who conned bacon from a gullible woman who wanted a charm to keep her stove from smoking.