Summary of Carmen

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Carmen book summary

Literary Classic

  • Novella
  • Romanticism

What It’s About

An Inadvertent Success

In societies where men control most aspects of life by default, many people see a woman’s control of her sexuality as a threat to the established order. While Prosper Mérimée was a chauvinist who was comfortable with male dominance in 19th century France, he inadvertently created a compelling and complex female character. Carmen controls her environment, goes where she wants with whom she wants. She even chooses, in the end, to die free rather than live under a man’s rule. In trying to create a vamp or femme fatale, Mérimée also wrote about a fascinating proto-feminist heroine who remains fresh more than 150 years later.

Take-Aways

  • Carmen epitomizes the femme fatale, who dooms and ruins righteous men.
  • While on a research trip, the narrator meets the bandit José Navarro in the Andalusian mountains, only to see him again in a prison cell awaiting execution a few months later. José tells him his life story, how he fell in love with the gypsy Carmen, forfeited his military career and joined a gang of smugglers. When Carmen lost interest in him and sought out other men, he chose to kill her rather than let her free.
  • Prosper Mérimée created Carmen in 1845. But Georges Bizet’s opera, which premiered in 1875, made her world-famous.
  • The folkloric, magic and passionate elements in the storyline make the novella a typical example of Romanticism.
  • The narrator’s background story adds a realistic, authentic veneer to the story.
  • The novella was first published in a travel journal, supporting reader’s impression that the story was based on real experiences.
  • Mérimée included an anthropological essay on gypsy culture and people in the first book edition.
  • Today, many of Mérimée’s statements appear racist and misogynistic.
  • Over time, however, Carmen liberated herself from that spell and became a feminist icon to many.
  • “‘You mean to kill me, I see that well,’ said she. ‘It is fate. But you’ll never make me give in.’”
 

Summary

The Odd Stranger

In Andalusia, in the fall of 1830, the narrator rides across Spain to carry out historical and geographical research. Together with his guide Antonio, he explores the country. One day, tired, thirsty and sunburned, he reaches a high plain with a refreshing stream running through it. Following the stream to its bubbling spring, he happens upon a slumbering fellow with a strong build and a savage expression on his face. The narrator approaches him and offers him a cigar, which seems to revive the man tremendously. An impromptu meal breaks the ice further, and when the stranger asks the narrator at his departure where he plans on spending the night, it turns out that they are headed for the same place: the Venta del Cuervo. They set out together, but the stranger’s anxiety and his guide’s obvious unease confirm the narrator’s suspicion that the fellow is a smuggler or even a brigand. The longer he observes him, the more obvious it seems that he is the wanted highwayman José. Finally, the travelers reach the inn, which turns out to be a wretched dive. The innkeeper, an old woman dressed in dirty rags, happily greets their fellow traveler as Don José.

A Sleepless Night

The narrator persuades Don José to play him something on the mandolin that is hanging up on a wall, and Don José obliges. The sad tune from the Basque country makes the singer descend into a sullen, sentimental gloom. Antonio asks his master to come to the stable with him to look after the horse which he claims is unwell. Clearly, he wants to speak with the narrator in private. The maneuver rouses Don José’s suspicions, and in order to allay the man’s mistrust, the narrator refuses Antonio’s request. Instead, Don José follows him to the stable only to return alone shortly after. Apparently, he says wryly, Antonio likes the horse so much he plans to spend the night scrubbing it with his jacket to make it sweat.

Last Minute Rescue

To escape the bugs, the narrator leaves the house in the middle of the night and lays down on a wooden bench. Just before falling asleep he happens to see Antonio, who is trying to sneak away to the next military post: The stranger, the guide whispers, is the most noted and feared bandit in all of Andalusia. He is going to come back with a few lancers before daybreak, if only to collect the 200 ducats bounty placed on his head. Besides, Antonio continues, Navarro threatened to kill him in case he betrayed him to his master, the “good gentleman.” Yet, bandit or not, the narrator objects to sending his new friend to his doom, as he’d done him no harm. He goes back to the inn and wakes up the sleeping bandit. When José learns that Antonio is already on his way to the military post, he quickly gathers his belongings, mounts his fierce horse and gallops away. While the narrator is still questioning the morality of his action, torn between the principle of law and the rules of hospitality, he sees half a dozen horsemen riding up to him. He and the innkeeper affirm to the men that Navarro fled more than two hours previously.

Reunion in Córdoba

In Córdoba, the narrator spends time in a Dominican convent, where he searches for a certain manuscript that could be crucial for his archeological studies of the area. One evening, at the bank of the river Guadalquivir, smoking a cigar at dusk, he meets a young woman wearing a bunch of jasmine flowers in her hair, which exhale a beguiling perfume. The two have a polite conversation, and when she admits she likes smoking herself, they have a smoke together. He tries to guess by her dialect where she’s from, until she volunteers the information herself: She’s a gypsy, the notorious, ill-reputed witch Carmen. The narrator muses, “Last week I ate my supper with a highway robber. To-day I’ll go and eat ices with a servant of the devil,” and invites her to a place that sells ice cream.

“There was something strange and wild about her beauty. Her face astonished you, at first sight, but nobody could forget it.”

The other guests stare open-mouthed at the unequal couple, but Carmen’s menacing beauty captivates the narrator. Together they go to the girl’s squalid dwelling, where, with much esoteric fuss, she sets out to foretell the narrator’s future, only to be abruptly interrupted: A man disguised in a cloak enters the room and begins a loud and passionate argument with Carmen. The angry fellow turns out to be none other than Don José, who, upon recognizing the narrator, violently pushes Carmen away. But the girl gets extraordinarily agitated, and in a language the latter doesn’t understand – but which is accompanied by unmistakable gestures – seems to suggest that she wants her recent guest’s throat cut. Don José ignores her and shows his friend the way to his inn. While undressing the narrator discovers to his great dismay that his watch is missing – an item Carmen had been conspicuously fascinated with.

The Promise

After several months of travel in Andalusia, errands force the narrator to make yet another stop in Córdoba. In the Dominican convent he is welcomed with great joy and amazement, since the monks had thought him a dead man. His splendid watch was found, so they assumed that the owner had perished in a robbery. But the thief, one of the monks continues, has been caught and is under lock and key. Since he is of noble origin, he won’t be hanged, but rather enjoy the privilege of being garroted. Reluctantly the narrator agrees to visit the prisoner: As he suspected, it is Don José. The narrator bears no grudge against him, taking a bundle of cigars to give to his friend and asking if there’s anything he can do for him. Don José declines favors of money or influence, but asks him to have a mass said for his soul, after he’s gone. Slowly the prisoner opens up to his visitor and begins to tell his life story.

A Sultry Beginning

His full name is Don José Lizzarrabengoa. His family wanted him to join the ranks of the clergy, but he didn’t enjoy studying and instead became addicted to playing real tennis. After a winning match he got into a violent fight with another lad, which forced him to leave the area. On his way he enlisted in the Almanza Cavalry Regiment and quickly moved up the military career ladder to become a corporal. The military then moved him to the rather dull post of guarding a tobacco factory just outside the ramparts of Seville. The post had a special catch or charm, as the case may be: No man was allowed in the building without a special permit, because in the muggy heat the exclusively female workers, particularly the young women, would work lightly clothed. One afternoon, while the soldiers greet the workers returning from their lunch break, a woman among them steps in front of Don José: It’s Carmen dressed in a short skirt, silk stockings full of holes and red shoes with flame-colored ribbons. She has a bunch of acacia flowers in her blouse and one blossom in the corner of her mouth. She sways her hips in a provocative fashion and publicly taunts him in such a way that he turns flaming red.

“But she, like all women and cats, who won’t come if you call them, and do come if you don’t call them, stopped short in front of me, and spoke to me.”

Carmen both repels and fascinates Don José. Later a porter runs from the factory for help from the soldiers. When Don José enters, he finds her, among great turmoil, in even greater trouble: Apparently, following a heated argument, she cut a deep X into a fellow worker’s face, leaving the woman bleeding profusely and calling for a priest to give her the last rights. Don José must now take Carmen to prison. On the way she drops her mantilla to show off her face and tries every trick in the book to coax him into letting her go. At first he has none of it, but when she starts to speak in his native Basque tongue, he wavers. She claims that the other girls were mistreating and mocking her for being from the Basque country. As José should know then, and shall certainly learn later, this is a bold-faced lie – but at that moment he feels dazed and filled with anger that the Spanish should taint his Basque honor. He lets Carmen escape. However, his superiors don’t believe his made-up story about a petite woman overpowering a corporal like him, and he faces punishment – demotion and one-month’s imprisonment.

In Love with a Gypsy

Before the incident Don José was on track to eventually becoming an officer. Now, brooding in his cell, he curses himself for jeopardizing a splendid career for a feckless gypsy. Still, he can’t stop thinking of the alluring Carmen and her stockings full of holes. None of the women he sees from the barred window even remotely compare to her. A jailer brings José a gift from “a cousin.” It’s a delicious alcala roll – a local specialty – which to his great amazement contains a gold piece and file to saw through iron bars. He knows that Carmen sent him the gift, and the gesture touches him. Still, his military code of honor keeps him from escaping. After his release from prison José is detached to sentry duty as a private soldier, an outrageous humiliation. To add insult to injury, he is posted as sentry at the colonel’s house, who has organized a big party with a group of merry gypsy musicians complete with a guitar and tambourine to perform. And who is part of that jolly troupe? Carmen, of course. With a flippant comment, she takes note of his demotion when she enters the house, leaving José behind in agony. He knows that he’s fallen in love with her, yet he’s forced to stand by and watch her dance as the guests make suggestive and flirtatious remarks to her. Upon leaving, his beloved whispers him a message so that he can come and find her.

A Dangerous Attraction

As soon as he is off duty José goes to meet Carmen. They go for a walk together, and Carmen buys all sorts of delicacies as if preparing a feast. Back in her chamber they celebrate together. At the time of roll-call José wants to return to the barracks, but Carmen talks him into staying for the night. The next morning, however, she seems to be pressed to get rid of him as quickly as possible. And she warns him that it would be better to forget to her. Even though she has taken a slight fancy to him, she says, they have no future together. She would only prove his downfall. After that they don’t see each other for weeks.

“Do you know, my son, I really believe I love you a little; but that can’t last! The dog and the wolf can’t agree for long.” (Carmen)

Their next encounter proves fateful for the soldier: While guarding a breach in the city wall, Carmen sweet-talks him into allowing a gang of smugglers she is leading to pass. Her bait is another night with her. But she doesn’t keep her promise. Carmen feels put off by having become part of a bargain and says that she doesn’t care for him anymore. Don José storms off, only for Carmen to pick him up in a church that night: Now that she is pursuing him, she fancies him again. But not for long. After that second night of love she begins to stand him up again. Finally, José catches sight of her turning into her quarters with a lieutenant from his regiment. He confronts them, and after a confused scuffle, Don José stabs the lieutenant with a sword. Don José is injured, too, escaping with Carmen to a hideout. She nurses him back to health and provides him with civilian clothes.

A Smuggling Career

In order to escape arrest and execution, José follows Carmen’s advice and sets off to the coast to become a smuggler. He secretly dreams of experiencing romantic and bold adventures with his beloved, thereby winning her over for good. And indeed, as a smuggler José comes into his own. He enjoys his new life, especially because he gets to see Carmen quite often. She, however, never speaks of being a couple in front of their fellow smugglers, warning her lover to keep his mouth shut about it at all costs. One day there is talk that Carmen’s husband will join the gang soon. José is appalled to hear that his Carmen is married. He learns that the one-eyed Garcia is a hideous, cruel and sly brute, whom Carmen has finally helped to escape from the galleys. One night, a smuggling operation goes wrong when a number of horsemen open fire at the gang. One of the smugglers is wounded, and José wants to help his comrade, but Garcia brutally shoots the man in the face, so that the rest of them aren’t held back.

“But Carmen’s temper was like the weather in our country. The storm is never so close, in our mountains, as when the sun is at its brightest.”

Carmen contrives another smuggling operation in Gibraltar, and the gang makes off with great loot from two traveling English lords. Yet after a good while there’s still no word from Carmen. The gang sends José, disguised as an orange seller, to look for her. After he’s spent several days of wandering the streets aimlessly, she calls down from a window above his head, dressed in the finest garb, artfully playing the role as a mistress of a rich English lord. José is hopping mad when he is called into the Englishman’s house to deliver oranges. But Carmen calls it just “gypsy business,” assuring him that it’s just an act to get her hands on her victim’s money.

Tragic Finale

Carmen tells José to go back. On the street from Gibraltar to Ronda, she instructs him, he should waylay the Englishman with the gang, ambush and kill him. She even suggests he let Garcia go ahead, so he bites the dust, too, but José refuses to do so because of his Navarrese honor. The whole brutal plan revolts him. Back with the gang he plays cards with Garcia and provokes a fight with him, killing him by thrusting his knife deep into his throat. José now thinks that he has Carmen all to himself. But she doesn’t seem to be giving him any credit for killing her hateful husband. Instead, she talks about the inevitability of fate and says that she and José are destined to die together. For some months they get along fine. Once, when a gunshot severely wounds him, she nurses him diligently and tenderly back to life. But soon the free-spirited gypsy grows tired of José’s constant jealousy. She refuses to go to America with him to build an honest life together. Instead, she begins to flirt with Lucas, a bullfighter, whom she sees secretly. When José gets wind of it he rides with her to a lonely hermitage and forces her to choose: a new life with him or death. Carmen admits that she doesn’t love him anymore, and even hates herself for ever having done so. She tosses away the ring that José once gave her. In sorrow and maddened with rage he pulls out his knife and strikes her twice, looking into her black eyes staring at him as she dies.

“‘You are a devil,’ said I to her. ‘Yes,’ she replied.”

He has the hermit say a mass for her soul. Then he rides to Córdoba and gives himself up to the guards.

About the Text

Structure and Style

The novella Carmen is a mixture of travelogue, adventure story and romance. The narrator – an alter ego of Prosper Mérimée – creates the background story of a research expedition to Andalusia, giving the tale a realistic aura. In the first chapter he introduces a mysterious stranger, who is later revealed to be the disgraced former dragoon Don José. In the second chapter he meets the second protagonist, Carmen, only to be outsmarted by her as his new friend was before. Finally, Don José takes over as a narrator in the third chapter, telling how his fateful love seduced and ultimately destroyed him. The story has all the ingredients of classic melodrama spiced up with plenty of local color and sensational exoticism – swords and fortune-tellers, soldiers and smugglers, passions and picadors. The narrator describes this world seemingly objectively, as an erudite man, while Don José tells his own bitter, subjective tale. Yet in both cases, one can feel a great fascination, lack of understanding and unease with everything that’s strange, mysterious and, ultimately, female in nature.

Interpretation

  • Carmen epitomizes the cliché of the femme fatale – the ill-fated woman – a favorite myth of European Romanticism in the 19th century. Harking back to Eve, the first temptress of man, the femme fatale is erotic and alluring, but also depraved and corrupting to the unsuspecting, virtuous male, sending him to his doom.
  • The novella is misogynistic at its core, an attitude underlined by the Greek epigram Mérimée used as a prefix to his novella: “Every woman is as bitter as gall. But she has two good moments: one in bed, the other in death.”
  • Yet the author ironically subverts this epigram by allowing the reader to glimpse a female personality far smarter and more complex than her male counterpart: Carmen is a proud, self-confident and caring woman, who decides to die rather than lose her independence.
  • She turns the accepted sexual hierarchy upside down: Carmen must feel like a conqueror at all times to be able to love – a position that was then, and still is, considered outrageous. Even if the author didn’t condone the girl’s stance, he ended up creating a character, whether intentionally or unintentionally, who served as a feminist heroine for later generations.
  • Language is the secret to seduction: Aside from being beautiful, quick-witted and uninhibited, Carmen excels in the art of persuasion and temptation through language, for example when she talks to Don José in Basque to gain his trust. Correspondingly, her name says it all: The Latin term carmen can mean a song, dance, or magic spell.
  • The novella also echoes many a Romantic’s ideas about race and biological determinism: Gypsies are both stereotyped as naturally cunning, immoral and shifty, and romanticized as freedom-loving, untamed by civilization and unconditionally loyal to each other. In the story, Mérimée singles out Carmen’s beauty as being highly untypical for her race, and, in the pseudo-scholarly postscript, he explains the rarity of the relation between gypsies and non-gypsies by the unattractiveness of gypsy women, quoting Ovid: “The only chaste woman is the one who has not been asked.”

Historical Background

A Time of Change

In France, the first half of the 19th century was a time of considerable turmoil: In 1830, after three days of strikes, protests and fighting in what is known as the July Revolution, the increasingly reactionary King Charles X abdicated the throne and fled to England. The more liberal and constitutional “Citizen King” Louis Philippe followed in his wake, but by 1848 growing social problems in the country led to the February Revolution of 1848; the king had to abdicate. In December, Napoleon’s nephew, Charles-Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, was elected as President of the Republic. But the new constitution didn’t have much staying power: Three years later he staged a coup d’état and declared himself Emperor Napoléon III of the Second Empire.

The period also saw profound social changes: France was gradually moving from an agrarian to an industrial society, with everything that entailed: urbanization, the advent of railroads and commercialization of agriculture, the rise of the nation state, modern bureaucratic institutions, science and the bourgeoisie. In literature, this shift was reflected in the transition from Romanticism to Realism around the second part of the 19th century: The world of emotions, impulses, exoticism and the supernatural gave way to depictions of contemporary life and everyday problems experienced by ordinary people. However, these literary movements were not mutually exclusive. Each inspired and borrowed from the other, freely blending themes, settings, plots and styles.

Development

Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen embodies this fluid transition between literary eras like no other: He projected the irrational, mysterious and folkloric onto the south of Spain, like his compatriot Alexandre Dumas, who is quoted as saying “Africa begins in the Pyrenees” (others attribute this to Mérimée himself), or Victor Hugo, who proclaimed that “Spain is still the Orient.” Mérimée juxtaposed the romanticized image of a backward, medieval society, where passion triumphs over reason, with the narrator’s enlightened and rational point of view. He was influenced by the French diplomat and writer Arthur de Gobineau, one of the first to champion the idea of an Aryan master race. Mérimée also studied the works of Henry Borrow, author of The Zincali: An Account of the Gypsies of Spain (1841), giving him the idea to make his heroine a gypsy.

Mérimée also used his own experiences as source material. In 1830, he traveled in Spain for six months, befriending the family Montijo, whose daughter Eugénie would marry Napoleon III in 1853 – an acquaintance that helped him retain all his political offices after the latter seized power. It was during this trip, he remembered 15 years later, that the Countess Manuela of Montijo told him the story which would inspire Carmen: “It was about that ruffian from Málaga who had killed his mistress, who consecrated herself exclusively to the public.” She also told him about a personal family scandal: Apparently her brother-in-law had frittered away large parts of the family fortune on account of Carmencita, an ordinary girl working in a Granada tobacco factory.

Like many of his contemporaries, Mérimée took a liking to the (in his view) wild and uncivilized Spanish peninsula. He went back a number of times, writing several travel pieces about his adventures. By publishing Carmen in the cultural travel journal Revue des Deux Mondes in 1845, he gave his novella the veneer of truth and authenticity, possibly reinforcing it by adding a fourth chapter to the story for the first book edition two years later. In it, he offers a seemingly neutral account of gypsy customs, physical types and language, which, with the benefit of hindsight, is a fascinating testimony to the racial prejudices, white superiority complex and misogyny of his days.

Reviews and Legacy

Despite this crafty mixture between romantic story and realistic travel report – or possibly because of it – the novella didn’t have the same popular success as his previous novella Colomba (1840). It didn’t become famous until Georges Bizet’s operatic version. While the opera bombed terribly on opening night in 1875, it has become one of the best-known and most frequently performed operas in the world (Bizet didn’t live to see it, though, dying three months after his bitter failure). The reason for the initially icy reception was similar in both cases: Readers and audiences weren’t ready for what they perceived as the story of a revolutionary, man-eating vamp that was disregarding and threatening the social, political and sexual order of their days. Over the years, however, Carmen changed aspects like a chameleon: The common prostitute and devilish seductress gradually turned into a passionate, free-spirited champion of sexual liberation and an early feminist heroine. Her significance as one of the first femme fatales in the fine arts cannot be overestimated. Among her famous successors are Frank Wedekind’s Lulu (1895) or, more recently, characters like the one played by Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1992). There have been at least 27 films based on the novella or opera, notably the 1984 French-Italian movie opera directed by Francesco Rosi with Julia Migenes in the title role and Plácido Domingo as Don José.

About the Author

Prosper Mérimée was born on September 28, 1803, in Paris. The son of painters, he developed a passion for literature and foreign languages early on. He studied law to become a royal administrator, but his interests soon took him elsewhere: He actively sought out literary circles, meeting, among others, Stendhal and Victor Hugo. Mérimée started his own literary career by publishing Théâtre de Clara Gazul, a purported commentary of theater and life by a Spanish actress. In 1827, he published a made-up collection of romantic Illyrian folk songs and poems under yet another pseudonym. He attained his literary breakthrough by adopting the novella, a new literary genre that suited his talents best: Between 1829 and 1847 he published 25 stories, including Mateo Falcone (1829), La Vénus d’Ille (1837), Colomba (1841) and, of course, Carmen (1847). Mérimée never married, but had several mistresses and frequented prostitutes. Some of his relationships with women gravely hurt his pride. In 1833, for example, a short liaison with the writer George Sand ended badly by her commenting to a girlfriend “I had Mérimée last night, and it wasn’t much.” The girlfriend then spread this gossip until much of literary Paris was chuckling about it. A year later, Mérimée was named Inspector-General of Historical Monuments, a position he kept until 1860. His diligent endeavor to list, restore and protect the architectural heritage of France allowed him to travel freely at the government’s expense, working on travel writing and conducting scholarly work for archeological and historical journals. After Napoleon III grabbed power, his friendship with the new emperor’s Spanish wife came in handy, and he was even promoted to Senator of the Empire in 1853. During his last years he dedicated most of his time to translating and promoting Russian literature in France. The fall of the Empire after the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, as well as the imperial family’s exile to England, threw Mérimée into deep despair. He died a few months later in Cannes, on September 23, 1870.


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