In Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon, is there any significance to who sits where in the bullfighting arena?

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In Ernest Hemingway’s 1932 nonfiction book about bullfighting in Spain, Death in the Afternoon, the late American author, who was entranced by the mechanics balletic movement of the activity, and by the displays of courage he witnessed on the part of the matadors, produced a passionate study of every aspect of bullfighting.  Death in the Afternoon is not solely about bullfighting, per se; on the contrary, it has been widely praised for the insights it provided into Hemingway’s own psyche.  As a nonfiction account, one need not struggle to interpret the meaning of phrases and how they may or may not relate to the author’s own life.  Additionally, copious references to famous friends and acquaintances abound, for example, the brief reference early in Chapter One to a conversation about bullfighting with Gertrude Stein, and to her “and Alice Toklas sitting in the first row of the wooden barreras (barrier) at the bull ring at Valencia . . .” This recollection of conversations involving Stein, in particular, is important insofar as it was she who introduced Hemingway to the world of bullfighting, and it was Stein who convinced Hemingway to focus his talents on writing fiction rather than continue as a journalist.  In any event, that passage is useful for another reason: it mentions, if only in passing, that his esteemed colleagues were sitting in “the first row of the barreras at the bull ring . . .” Hemingway’s intense fascination with bullfighting did, in fact, extend to all aspects of the endeavor, including a lengthy discussion on the best places within the bullfighting arena to observe the action.  In Chapter Three, the author devotes considerable attention to the optimal places to sit depending, he qualifies his following instructions, upon “your temperament.”  Death in the Afternoon is a primer on bullfighting, in addition to being a passionate defense of a barbaric activity.  What follows is a large section of that chapter in which Hemingway discusses the importance of seating:

“If you are going to a bullfight for the first time the best place for you to sit depends on your temperament. From a box or from the first row in the gallery details of sound and smell and those details of sight that make for the perception of danger are lost or minimized, but you see the fight better as a spectacle and the chances are that, if it is a good bullfight, you will enjoy it more. If it is a bad bullfight, that is, not an artistic spectacle, you will be better off the closer you are since you can then, for lack of a whole to appreciate, learn and see all the details, the whys and the wherefores. The boxes and the gallery are for people who do not want to see things too closely for fear they may upset them, for people who want to see the bullfight as a spectacle or a pageant, and for experts who can see details even though a long way from them and want to be high enough up so they can see everything that happens in any part of the ring in order to be able to judge it as a whole.

“The barrera is the best seat if you want to see and hear what happens and to be so close to the bull that you will have the bullfighter's point of view. From the barrera the action is so near and so detailed that a bullfight that would be soporific from the boxes or the balcony is always interesting. It is from the barrera that you see danger and learn to appreciate it. There too you have an uninterrupted view of the ring. The only other seats, besides the first row in the gallery and the first row in the boxes, where you do not see people between you and the ring, are the sobrepuertas. These are the seats that are built over the doorways through which you enter the various sections of the ring. They are about halfway up to the sides of the bowl and from them you get a good view of the ring and a good perspective, yet you are not as distant as in the boxes or gallery. They cost about half as much as the barreras or the first row of gallery or boxes and they are very good seats.

 “The west walls of the bull ring building cast a shadow and those seats that are in the shade when the fight commences are called seats of the sombra or shade. Seats that are in the sun when the fight commences but that will be in the shadow as the afternoon advances are called of sol y sombra. Seats are priced according to their desirability and whether they are shaded or not. The cheapest seats are those which are nearest the roof on the far sunny side and have no shade at all at any time.  They are the andanadas del sol and on a hot day, close under the roof, they must reach temperatures that are unbelievable in a city like Valencia where it can be 104° Fahrenheit in the shade, but the better seats of the sol are good ones to buy on a cloudy day or in cold weather.

“At your first bullfight if you are alone, with no one to instruct you, sit in a delantera de grada or a sobrepuerta. If you cannot get these seats you can always get a seat in a box. They are the most expensive seats and the farthest from the ring, but they give a good panoramic view of the fight. If you

are going with some one who really knows bullfighting and want to learn to understand it and have no qualms about details a barrera is the best seat, contrabarrera the next best and sobrepuerta the next.

“If you are a woman and think you would like to see a bullfight and are afraid you might be badly affected by it do not sit any closer than the gallery the first time. You might enjoy the fight from there where you will see it as a spectacle and not care for it at all if you sat closer so that the details destroyed the effect of the whole. If you have plenty of money, want not to see but to have seen a bullfight and plan no matter whether you like it or not to leave after the first bull, buy a barrera seat so that some one who has never had enough money to sit in a barrera can make a quick rush from above and occupy your expensive seat as you go out taking your preconceived opinions with you.”

Note in these passages Hemingway’s careful attention to detail.  He is introducing his readers to bullfighting in a carefully calibrated manner intended to attract positive interest, including by presenting instructions on seating depending upon the individual viewer’s level of interest, knowledge of bullfighting, gender, and whether he or she is sitting alone or with others.  To answer the student’s question, then, it does matter, at least to Ernest Hemingway, where one sits to watch the bull and the matador face off.

Read the study guide:
Death in the Afternoon

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