The novella by a French dramatist Prosper Mérimée was written in 1845. It became world-famous mostly thanks to the opera of the same name by Georges Bizet. The passionate love story of the proud Basque Don José Navarro and the freedom-loving Spanish gypsy Carmen is revealed before the reader by the author-narrator. Being an archaeologist by profession, he travelled through Spain in order to find the location of the ancient city of Munda, known since the time of Julius Caesar.
The novella comprises four parts. It is preceded by a quote of the late Greek poet Palladas from Alexandria, which explains the evil essence of a woman who becomes better only in two life situations – love and death. Carmen, as the most vivid representative of the feminine gender, confirms this literary wisdom expressed many centuries ago: an inveterate swindler and harlot who incites her lovers and husbands to commit crimes, she behaves nobly in love and sticks to her views even on pain of death. Being completely devoted to her Roma, ready to do anything for his sake (bribe, sell her body, steal and kill), a gypsy can selflessly care for the wounded when he needs help, and easily quit him when she feels any constraint of her freedom.
The main drama of Carmen lies in her high sensuality. As a representative of the nomadic tribe, devoid of roots, affections and even faith, the gypsy follows the momentary flushes of her feelings: if she loves, then she loves now; if she does not want something, then she never will. Carmen didn’t use to limit herself in any way, and anyone who tries to adjust her life to a strictly defined framework becomes her enemy. The death of a girl is tragic, but it seems natural to Carmen: she submits obediently to the will of her husband, who has the right to kill her, but does not agree to act contrary to her inner convictions.
The tragic love story is framed by the usual narration about an ordinary voyage of exploration through Spain. During the trip the narrator first gets to know the smuggler and robber Don Jose (the first chapter), then the beautiful snide gipsy Carmen (the second chapter) and only afterwards he discovered how the fate put these heroes together and what was the end (the third chapter). The last fourth part of the novella is a cultural and ethnographic reference on the origin, peculiarities of the character and life of the Spanish Gypsies, their linguistic community and distinctions from the nomadic peoples of other European countries. Being put in the center of the slow story, the love story of Don José and Carmen takes on an additional intensity: it is heightened by the quiet, passionless life of a person engaged in law-abiding research.
Though “Carmen” refers to the psychological novels, it is deprived of the detailed descriptions of emotions or lengthy dialogues of the characters. The author conveys the inner feelings of the characters through external expressiveness (appearance, clothes, gestures and behavior) and the actions that speak for themselves: the attack of Carmen on the worker of the cigar factory in Sevilla, the numerous Gipsy’s love affairs aimed at robbing the rich, the murder of the lieutenant by Don José and his scuffles with the cavalry, the “duel” between Don Jose and Carmen’s husband Garcia el Tuerto (One-eyed man), the murder of Carmen by Don Jose.
The artistic image of Carmen is based on the principle of contrast: the girl is attractive due to a bizarre convergence of beauty and ugliness. Being very poor she always wears bright, loud clothing; her character combines both ignoble and beautiful traits. Unlike the constant image of Carmen which was fully formed long before the beginning of the narration, the image of Don José is depicted in dynamics. In the beginning the reader hears about the honest cavalry life of the hero, then gets acquainted with the process of his gradual moral fall caused by passionate love for the gypsy. The external abominable behavior of the smuggler is combined with his internal nobility: Don José can be grateful for help (to the narrator), he is ready to help the wounded comrade (unlike Garcia, who kills the “burden” out of hand), he doesn’t feel himself free to shoot in the back of even the most notorious bandit and rival in love affairs (Carmen’s husband).
The social fall of Don José does not change his nature. It is caused by the invincible life circumstances such as the desire to be around his beloved woman and the inability to continue the former way of life. The hot-tempered nature, that spurred the hero on to commit a homicide for revenge, left him no choice but to become a smuggler. At the same time, until the very end, Don José believed and hoped that it was still possible to get everything right. Several times he urged Carmen to abandon everything and go to the New World in order to lead a sincere life there, but his hopes never came true. Having grown up among the bandits the gypsy couldn’t imagine other life than the one she led in Spain, and she didn’t want to commit herself to the unloved person.
The realistic beginning of the novella is highlighted by its social focus, which explains the appearance of smugglers, robbers and murderers in Spain. Mérimée reveals the social differentiation of society without specifying its causes. But taking into account that the top military positions are occupied by rich people, it is not necessary to talk about the latter. The reader himself can understand everything without explanation. For the same reason, the author avoids value judgments even on the most dramatic issue of the novella, such as the murder of Carmen. He deliberately finishes his work with the story about gypsies. The reader should himself feel for the fate of a particular gypsy in accordance with his personal insight into the events. It is enough that in the novella the murderer asks to serve the mass for his soul and the soul of the woman he killed, and also to pass his silver icon pendant to his mother.
The novella by Mérimée is devoid of picturesque descriptions of nature and everyday details. It is set in two time aspects: the present (the meeting of the narrator with Don José and Carmen) and the past (the story of Don Jose about his life and what happened after the first meeting with the narrator). The main locale of the work is Cordova, the additional locale is Gibraltar. The only timeless story is about the gypsies. Nobody knows when they appeared in Spain and settled over the whole Europe.