The novella was written in 1829 as an even, progressive narration. It starts with an exposition where the author provides the reader with the locale of the work – Corsican maquis and the main character – Mateo Falcone. Prosper Mérimée introduces the author-narrator, who met the proud Corsican two years after the incident in order to reveal the character of the latter in full.
The author describes Mateo Falcone as a man who doesn’t look his age. He still shoots straight and has the reputation of a good friend and a dangerous enemy. Even if the tragedy that happened in the life of the hero has affected him, it is not visible to others: he still doesn’t have white hair; his eyes have not lost their sharpness. Mateo Falcone, a father who killed his ten-year-old son for treachery, is a true Corsican who prizes his honor above everything. He managed to find the strength to live on just because he did not sacrifice his internal principles and punished the traitor that appeared in his family.
The opening of the story involves the meeting of the ten-year-old son of Mateo Falcone – Fortunato with a bandit escaping from the soldiers – Gianetto Sanpiero. During this meeting the boy, not without difficulty, agrees to help the wounded. The unwillingness of the child to provide the guest with the aid without consideration reveals his character and his further tragic fate. During the meeting of Fortunato with his uncle Sergeant Teodoro Gamba their dialogue just rewords the conversation of the boy with Giannetto Sanpiero. First, Fortunato does not want to help a relative to catch a fugitive (situation parallel to that, where the boy refuses to help the bandit), then he defends himself against threats directed at him on behalf of his father, and afterwards the boy gives in to temptation and sells his help for a breast silver watch, which costs definitely more than one five-pound coin given to him by Gianetto.
The artistic image of Fortunato contains features of Mateo Falcone – fearlessness, ancient lineage consciousness, cunning and resourcefulness (an episode when the boy hid the bandit in a haystack, and covered it with a cat and kittens). The propensity for betrayal, haggling and corruption are his personal traits. They are conditioned both by a young age and by new trends that have come to the Corsican society. They are still almost imperceptible, but can be already observed in the children’s rivalry (the son of Fortunato’s uncle, who is younger than him, has a watch, but the boy does not) and in the proposals of Gianetto and Teodoro (it is interesting that both the bandit and the servant of justice act in the same way when they want to gain purpose). The nature of the boy’s mother Giuseppa combines the traits of her husband and her son. She struggles, but still accepts her husband’s decision to get rid of the traitor, even if this is the wanted son who they have been waiting after three daughters for so long. As Fortunato she loves material things: having recognized in Gianetto the kidnapper of a milch goat, she gets happy with his capture, while Matteo sympathizes with the hungry bandit.
The climax of the novella, represented in the scene where Gianetto Sanpiero is rendered up by Fortunato, turns into a denouement gradually. First we can see the reaction of Mateo Falcone on what happened in his house, then Gianetto sum ups the situation by spitting on the threshold of the “traitor home”, then we see Fortunato who is afraid of the father’s anger and decides to improve the situation with a bowl of milk. Afterwards the narrative focuses on the image of the bandit who rejects the filling gift, turns his face to the soldier who has arrested him, calls him his friend and asks for water. Mateo Falcone remains silent while viewing the happenings. He does not help Gianetto, since he hasn’t take responsibility for his fate, but he doesn’t intend to tolerate a traitor in his family either. While the soldiers tie up the arrested man and put him on a litter, Mateo Falcone does nothing and doesn’t express any feelings. Perhaps he collects his thoughts, or waits the witnesses of the future murder to disappear. A true Corsican does not justify himself to Gianetto, but he also does not help his relative Teodoro Gamba. The only fact that he does not say goodbye to the latter betrays traces of his inner emotions.
Mateo Falcone remains silent until the tragic ending. He withstands the persuasion of his wife, appealing to his fatherly feeling (the persuasion is also not too intrusive, as Giuseppe understands the essence of what is happening and partly agrees with it), and he doesn’t let to soften his heart upon his son’s tearful prayers to forgive him. All he can do for his child is to give him the opportunity to pray before the death so that he can die a Christian. Having recited two prayers, Fortunato asks his father not to kill him. Like all children, he says that “he will improve”, and, like an adult, he tries to find a reasonable solution to improve the situation (to ask uncle Corporal to pardon Gianetto). But Mateo Falcone remains steadfast to the last. He gives his son time for two more prayers, one of which is litany. It turns out to be long and hard for both participants of the unfolding tragedy. After the prayer Mateo Falcone shoots at Fortunato. The father kills the boy in a ravine with tender ground, where it is easy to dig a grave. Such forethought indicates that the decision taken by the protagonist is final and irrevocable.
Giuseppa, like a real Corsican woman, is reconciled to the decision of her husband, who has every right to control the life of his family members. The heroine understands that the dishonor brought upon their name can only be washed out in blood. She tries to save her son’s life, but she has no arguments against Mateo’s terrible words: “I’m his father!” Realizing that the tragic outcome is inevitable, Giuseppa falls on his knees before the icon of the Mother of God and begins to pray. Having heard the sound of a shot she runs up to the ravine in the hope of seeing another ending, but faces the “rendered justice”. Mateo Falcone immediately gives his wife instructions on how to live on: to serve a memorial service for Fortunato and to invite one of the sons-in-law to the house.
The novella “Mateo Falcone” is a story about the Corsican temper: proud and severe, reverencing the law of hospitality (even towards the fugitives) and demanding its execution from all people without any exceptions and regardless of age. A society, where each of its members has committed murder at least once in his life, shall have its own immutable law. And Fortunato broke it. Mateo had no choice but to punish the lawbreaker.