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The Opera Carmen and Gender Roles

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    Carmen is a depictive work that represents the social and gender issues that were present in nineteenth century France and Spain. It introduces readers to numerous aspects of life including treatment of women, prejudices towards individuals and groups, social structures, and accepted social behavior. Carmen, as both a novel and opera, is a literary work that was written not only to entertain but also to reflect nineteenth century society. Carmen, as a literary work, has experienced many changes throughout its existence. The French author Prosper Merimme originally wrote Carmen.

    Merimme was known mostly for his long stories and ability to write in an objective and psychological style, a trait rarely found during the age of Romanticist literature (Encyclopedia). Along with others, he is considered a leading figure in French literature during the nineteenth century (Wright 188). The story of Carmen first appeared on October first 1845 in La Revue des Deux Mondes, a bi-weekly travel journal that often depicted wild stories set in exotic lands (McClary 1). The Novel is told from a French perspective and incorporates many of Merimme’s intrinsic notions of French superiority typical of the time period.

    The narrator is a French traveler who embarks upon Spain and there encounters numerous individuals and adventures. Once in Spain the noble Frenchman encounters a savage he calls Don Jose and a fortune telling gypsy named Carmen. After a brief encounter with the alluring and dangerous Carmen, the Frenchman leaves to pursue further adventures. In the end, the narrator returns to find Don Jose in prison for the murder of Carmen. Even within this first version of Carmen, the plot is “lined with questions of control and mastery(McClary 3). ” The novel itself is a depictive literary work that deals with the long-standing battle between the sexes.

    From the very beginning women are marked as enemies and, indeed, all threats and conflicts within the work are attributed to the lead female character, Carmen (5). At the conclusion of the novel the only possible theory that can be deduced is that masculinity is dominate over femininity and that women “constitute the greatest threat to the bond that exists between the men” (7). Aside from the extraordinary bond that exists between the males and the distance that exists between the sexes, there are also other important issues that deal with sexual inequality.

    Carmen, as the dominant female character, has many predominantly male characteristics. This gives her an integrity and honor that is both feared and hated by those around her (9). Women often insult and quarrel with her and men feel inadequate when around her. Carmen is the most forceful of all characters and often uses her sexuality, her most threatening aspect, to get what she wants. As a character Carmen surpasses Don Jose in the realm of the sexual and the narrator in the realm of language (13). The novel also introduces many new aspects into the literature of the nineteenth century.

    It pioneers issues of sexuality and dominance and deals with many social and racial topics that exist in European society. Finally it explores nineteenth century Spain and is an exceptional example of the French dominant character that was often associated with the formation of a unified, dominate French nation. Later in the nineteenth century Carmen, the highly successful and provocative novel, was transformed into an opera. The composer approached was Georges Bizet and after numerous set backs he completed the opera that eventually became an international classic.

    Bizet collaborated with librettists Ludovic Halevy and Henri Meilhac to create the opera that reflected the general plot of the novel written by Merimme in the mid eighteen hundreds. The opera was premiered in the French Opera- Comique despite its very serious and provocative content. It was originally meant for the serious opera house but due to its continual use of spoken dialogue, a defining characteristic of comic opera and forbidden in the serious opera house, it was preformed at the comic opera house.

    The Opera stretched the accepted boundaries of established behavior in the opera house and even went as far as to show a death on stage, an unacceptable visual display that was always implied but never enacted. For the musical interpretation the rich narrative was removed and a dramatic change was made in the form of an additional new female character, Micaela. Micaela is a perfect foil to Carmen. As her counterpart, she is a passive character who represents typically accepted feminine characteristics of the time, such as fear and obedience.

    To facilitate musical form Carmen the novel was changed to incorporate a new story line. Carmen, the opera, incorporates Don Jose as the main character. Here he is represented as a soldier, a well-respected position in society, as opposed to a barbaric savage. As he is outside his post, Micaela, who has willingly followed the request of Jose’s mother to meet him and marry him, confronts Jose. Jose greets Micaela with great joy and sees her as an ideal mate. Carmen soon appears on the stage and is followed by fellow workers and male admirers. The working girls soon excite the men, who all focus attention mostly on Carmen.

    She, however focuses her affections on the one uninterested gentleman, Don Jose. The factory girls make an exit, only to return momentarily once Carmen starts a fight with a fellow worker and slashes her across her cheek. Carmen is then taken into custody and is held by Jose while his superior leaves. Carmen, using her overwhelming sexuality, seduces Jose and gets in him to release her in exchange for a meeting at a future date. Jose, despite his worries releases Carmen and is himself imprisoned for a month’s time. After his release Jose seeks out Carmen and tells her of his feelings towards her.

    After a brief confrontation with a fellow officer, which leads to murder, Jose is forced to abandon his military career and join Carmen and her group of bandits. Soon conflicts arise between Carmen and Jose, and Jose leaves in order to visit his mother. Carmen, on the other hand, moves on with her life and takes on a new lover. Jose confronts Carmen, who refuses his approaches and returns to him his ring. The climax is reached at this final stage of the opera, during which Jose stabs Carmen out of love driven rage and then falls over her body in great despair (Bizet).

    The opera is an extreme variation from the original novel, yet like the original it reflects many aspects of nineteenth century society and deals with many of the same gender issues. Carmen is an intricate story that emerges from the culture of its time. As commented by Susan McClary, “ Carmen is actually one of a large number of fantasies involving race, class and gender that circulated in nineteenth century French culture( McClary 29). ” The story is set to a Spanish backdrop, one that the French viewed as possessing the same “inscrutable, luxuriant, and barbarous qualities” typically associated with the Middle East (30).

    As often done in literature of the time period, repressed desires and grievances were expressed through depictions of the Orientalistic culture. This expression is seen through the movements and speech of the exotic Carmen and her fellow workingwomen. In addition to expressing the exotic, Carmen also depicts the prejudices of the time. One such predominate prejudice was against the gypsy culture and foreign influences in general. The gypsies were marked with exotic characteristics and were often considered dangerous intruders against mainstream culture (34).

    As in Carmen, the gypsies were frequently looked upon as a lower class of individuals that could be easily mistreated and disregarded. Prejudices also resulted in response to threats to cultural issues of class and sex. At this era in France the working class began pushing for power and caused conflict with the upper class bourgeoisie. Associated with this social change were increased amounts of prostitution and smuggling (35), especially associated with the lower class that were also struggling for increased equality in nineteenth century France.

    Carmen and her organization of bandits are a perfect example of lower class citizens who found themselves in a class with relaxed expectations which ultimately lead to prostitution and smuggling. The classes of society soon split and developed unique regulations for accepted moral behavior. Carmen presents an escape from the restrictions of upper class society for many of the men she attracts, and is therefore a most sought after possession. Sexuality was also a dominant characteristic of society and of the novel. Women and minorities were treated as lower beings in the hierarchy of life.

    In fact, “the assumed dominance of the white, middle-class male guaranteed that all these relations- whether of race, class or gender- appeared to reflect the natural order of things (36). ” In both literature and real society “… courage was seen as a characteristic found in white men, whereas cowardice was associated with the feminine and with people of color (Blom 15). ” Women were often seen as domestic figures who withdrew from public visibility and abandoned sexual expression. At this time however women became more dominant and self-willed.

    They began to fight for rights and abandon the restrictions placed on them by society. This change was intertwined with the new social movement and frequently expressed itself in literature. In Carmen, the free spirited and rebellious Carmen depicts this new identity. Like real women of her time she abandons her preordained place in the gender hierarchy and expresses many uncharacteristically masculine traits. In contrast Micaela, a character who follows the rules set for her by the male dominated society, depicts the old domicile characteristic of females.

    Carmen, as a literary work deals with race, ethnicity, class and gender (42), all areas which experienced great change during nineteenth century France and Europe. Carmen, the main female character, is often a central figure in the introduction of many issues brought to light by the story. She is a representation of the effects of gender rules, prejudices in society, and accepted social behavior. One way in which gender issues are introduced is in Carmen’s ability to possess a job and dominance over her own sexuality. Unlike the accepted domestic feminine qualities of society, Carmen’s character reflects independence and security.

    This is seen clearly during the scene of the opera in which numerous males approach Carmen and offer her favors. They are however refused and instead told by her that they may perhaps never have a chance to become her lovers (Bizet 12). Another way in which the opera introduces gender issues is through Carmen’s masculine personality. Unlike the other women, Carmen is rebellious and even goes as far as to start a fight with a fellow worker (22). As in society, in literature of the time “… a person with a masculine biology who demonstrated feminine characteristics- and vise-versa- was seen as an anomaly (Blom 15). Within this piece of literature Carmen is an anomaly of the accepted feminine traits from the early nineteenth century and represents the characteristics associated with the feminist movement that gained importance during the mid eighteen hundreds. However, even with her independence Carmen is still forced to bend to the will of her lovers and other males, just as really women had to bend to the restrictions of the male dominated society despite their growing freedom. The opera further explores the issues dominate of the time by examining accepted social behavior and cultural discrimination.

    Carmen and her fellow workers flirt with the gentlemen and smoke in a very provocative manner uncustomary for females (Bizet 10). In fact, fellow females often harass Carmen and even potential lovers often frown upon her behavior. Finally prejudices are discussed through the inappropriate way in which gypsies and the working class is treated. The workers are haggled by what are considered upper class gentlemen simply because they are of lower social status and of a different background. This situation reflects the growing class distinctions developing in France and the negative manner in which different cultures were treated.

    Micaela, a passive female character that represents typically accepted behavior for women, is also used in the opera to reflect the issues present in society. In contrast to Carmen, Micaela represents characteristics considered appropriate for females of the era. When confronted with a situation Micaela is defenseless and represents the “…cowardice associated with the feminine…(Blom 15). This behavior is most evidently seen when soldiers confront Micaela in an attempt to harass her in a sexual manner. She is barely able to escape the advances and does so in a very passive fashion (Bizet 6).

    Micaela also reflects the obedient characteristics associated with the feminine sex. As a character she has very little self control and mostly follows requests and demands put to her by other characters and society (19). Micaela’s behavior reflects the behavior expected of women in France at that era. The male characters of this opera also reflect social expectations of French culture. At this time “… the military was conceived as a masculine arena. Men were understood to be strong and courageous, women as weak and fearful, in need of protection (Blom 15)”.

    Men were given dominance over women and often treated women as objects, as seen by Don Jose’s belief that Carmen belongs to him and him alone. In addition, masculinity also reflected social rank within society. The military provided men with a way to demonstrate courage and with social status and respect. In fact, the more dangerous the occupation the more respect a man earned. This is represented within the opera by the eagerness of the crowd to invite the matador to drink with them once he returns from his victory(Bizet 35). The idea of the dominance of masculinity is redominate within this story similar to the way in which it was predominate in nineteenth century society. Carmen, as both a novel and an opera, explores the many issues present in Europe in the eighteen hundreds. The literary work utilizes characters and situations in order to explore issues such as gender, social behavior and expectations, social structure, and cultural prejudices. It is a work that reflects society and introduces its positive and negative qualities. Carmen has become a dominant work in modern times and serves as a great representation of French culture in the nineteenth century.

    Works Cited

    Blom, Ida, Karen Hagemann, and Catherine Hall, eds. Gender Nations: Nationalisms and Gender order in the long nineteenth century. Oxford: Berg, 2000. Bizet, Gerorges. Bizet’s Carmen. New York: Dover, 1970. Electric Library Presents Encyclopedia. com. Columbia: Columbia University, 2000. < http://www. encyclopedia. com/articles/08350. html>. McClary, Susan. Gerorges Bizet Carmen. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1992. Wright, Charles H. C. The background of Modern French Literature. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1926.

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    Frequently Asked Questions

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    How is Carmen a femme fatale?
    Carmen is the ultimate femme fatale, quite literally – her allure results in death. Men fall at her feet. Her command of them is total. Their inability to resist her makes her despise them.
    What are the roles played by male and female?
    For example, girls and women are generally expected to dress in typically feminine ways and be polite, accommodating, and nurturing. Men are generally expected to be strong, aggressive, and bold. Every society, ethnic group, and culture has gender role expectations, but they can be very different from group to group.

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