Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon is a personal examination of bullfighting in Spain during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Hemingway began visiting Spain in the summer of 1923 and quickly became involved in the world of bullfighting. He stayed in the same hotels, ate in the same restaurants, and drank in the same bars as the matadors. He followed them as they performed in different cities. Eventually, he began making annual trips to Pamplona, where bullfights were held in connection with the religious festival of San Fermín. Pamplona became the setting for the climactic scenes of The Sun Also Rises (1926).
Drawing on this background, Hemingway attempts in Death in the Afternoon to celebrate “the modern Spanish bullfight” and to explain it “both emotionally and practically” for an audience of Americans. Hemingway assumes that his readers may be disgusted by the idea of bullfighting, but he wants them to give him the opportunity to show them what it is all about before they arrive at a judgment.
Death in the Afternoon is more than a book about bullfighting, however. The book is as much a book about Hemingway as it is a book about bullfighting. It is filled with his perceptions, his experiences, and his way of looking at life. So much of the information given in the book is autobiographical that it must be read in order to understand the life of Hemingway.
Chapter 1 begins with a narration of Hemingway’s own early experience with bullfighting. He reports that he first went to the bullfights because of the influence of Gertrude Stein. Before going, Hemingway says that he expected to be horrified by the killing of the horses in the ring during the bullfight. He went, however, because it served a goal of his writing. He was trying to learn how to “put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion you experienced.”
With this goal in mind, Hemingway went to Spain to study the bullfights, but once there he found them to be so complicated and so compelling that he began to study bullfighting for its own sake.
The rest of chapter 1 is an interesting mixture of essay and personal observation. Hemingway deals with the question of the morality of bullfighting by writing on the difference between people who identify psychologically with animals (and thus who think the bullfights are barbaric because bulls and frequently horses are killed) and people who identify with humans (and become upset only when the matador performs poorly or is injured). He deals with the question of the aesthetics of bullfighting by writing about how the enjoyment of the art of bullfighting increases in the same way that a person develops an ear for music or a sensitive palate for wine. The basic thread of the narrative is always bullfighting, but Hemingway cannot keep himself from engaging in asides, telling anecdotes, and making lengthy commentaries on other subjects. In this book on bullfighting, Hemingway is creating a persona that developed over the years into the voice of “Papa” Hemingway. In letters that Hemingway wrote before Death in the Afternoon he often apologizes for the advice that he gives to family and friends, calling himself a Dutch uncle. At the time of the writing of Death in the Afternoon, he begins to stop apologizing. His tone throughout the book is one of a kindly, knowledgeable guide who knows what is best for the reader.
Hemingway was not an old man when he wrote Death in the...
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