“The Capital of the World,” one of Ernest Hemingway’s lesser-known short stories, shows the author revisiting one of his best-known literary subjects: bullfighting. Written in 1936, the story depicts a young and idealistic waiter named Paco who has left the primitive village of his birth for the romance and glamour of Madrid, Spain.
Paco works at the Pension Luarca, a hotel that houses many figures from the bullfighting world: three matadors, two picadors, and one middle-aged but capable banderillero. For Paco, these men are the only guests who “exist” at the hotel, because he is so infatuated with the romance and beauty he sees in bullfighting. Hemingway, however, takes care to let the reader know about the faults and failings of the matadors: one is a coward, one is secretly sick, and one was never able to capture the “fancy” of the public.
Besides the bullfighters, Hemingway sketches the characters of the other guests and workers at the Pension Luarca. The guests in the dining room also include two priests and an auctioneer, who all drink heavily. In addition, the other workers at the hotel include Paco’s two sisters, who work as chambermaids, two other waiters, and a dishwasher named Enrique.
Enrique is the other main character in the story, and his cynicism and bitterness serve as a foil for Paco’s starry-eyed optimism and romantic nature. The story ends with a game between Paco and Enrique that goes terribly wrong. Paco insists that he would not be afraid of a bull in the ring, and, to prove him wrong, Enrique challenges Paco to a pretend “bullfight” with a chair that has two knives tied to it for horns. Enrique charges Paco with the chair on top of his head, Paco miscalculates his footing, and one of the knives stabs him.
This short story was originally titled “The Horns of the Bull,” and it is from one of these knife “horns” that Paco comes to a sad end. Hemingway does critique Paco’s innocence and idealism through these events, but there is also a sense that Paco’s death is a random act of fate. Even Paco, as his blood drains from his body, cannot believe “what ha[s] happened to him.” The narrator confirms that the young man died before his time, and still “full of illusions” about what life in Madrid is really like.