Carmen is murdered by her ex-partner. She has this in common with more than two women a week in England and Wales who are killed by a current or former partner. What she also has in common with these women is that she does not deserve to die.
Your reaction to the previous sentence is probably (hopefully), ‘Of course she doesn’t’. But in seeing Carmen and Jose’s relationship as a doomed romance, or a violently passionate ‘can’t be with each other, can’t be without each other’ one, we can be guilty of falling into many of the pitfalls of tackling domestic abuse – that it is a problem of ‘anger management’; or something that is only caused by high levels of stress, alcohol or provocation; or that the specific toxic combination of two people is what drives a man to brutality and murder while in another ‘better’ relationship he would not resort to violence.
There is no typical victim of domestic abuse, but there is a stereotypical one – a meek, easily browbeaten, isolated woman. Carmen does not fit this image. She is confident, bright, apparently unfettered, and has a strong support network in Frasquita, Mercedes, Remendado and Dancairo. None of this protects her from what happens to her. She also mocks, criticises and challenges Jose, and – worst of all perhaps – leaves him. Is this provocation to murder?
Perhaps it is the fact that Carmen is neither easily intimidated or a saint which has meant that the narrative of the opera is often viewed as a story of two equally flawed protagonists careering towards a so-called ‘crime of passion’, rather than one in which Carmen is a victim of an escalating cycle of abuse. As the essay about Georges Bizet earlier in this programme says, it is usually seen that Carmen’s own ‘relentless appetite for love, or perhaps simply sex… leads inevitably to her death’.
While a sexually confident female lead is undeniably appealing (witness the enormous popularity of Bizet’s opera), to maintain that it is not Carmen’s own choices which lead to her death, but Jose’s, should not diminish her. This version of Carmen still asserts her right to love whoever, and live however, she chooses. The fact she does so while she is mortally afraid of Jose makes her an even stronger and braver character.
We have tussled with the connected ideas of fear and fate in the rehearsal room. Carmen foretells her death by reading it in a pack of playing cards - but that does not mean she accepts it, or that we should either (and it is clear that Mercedes and Frasquita take this fortune telling no more seriously than most people today take their star sign predictions in the back of magazines). The idea that Carmen’s murder by Jose is her ‘fate’ somehow diminishes his responsibility – and her autonomy - in a way we found troubling. In the final scene, she stands her ground not because she accepts death at Jose’s hands as her lot, nor because she is not afraid, but because it is only by convincing him once and for all that their relationship is over that she will be able to get on with her life. On the other hand, there is a horrible inevitability about her death. Once Jose has decided Carmen is ‘his’, he will not let her go. Tragically, it is often when people try to escape abusive relationships that they are most in danger.
Despite all of this, it is too easy to dismiss Jose as a monster. It is more frightening and truthful if he is an ordinary (if deeply flawed) human being, rather than an aberration. He can be ardent, even sweet. He wants to be a good son and a good citizen. He believes he loves Carmen. And yet he wants – and believes he has the right - to possess and control her, and when she refuses to be possessed and controlled, he kills her. To understand that this is the act of a weak man trying to erase the shame and humiliation of his life shouldn’t stop us from being angry and horrified by this most brutal, but sadly all too commonplace, of stories.
Robin Norton-Hale, July 2015
With thanks to the End Violence Against Women coalition for resources and advice, and BBC3’s drama-documentary ‘Murdered by my boyfriend’.
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