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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 972

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“The bullfight is not a sport,” Hemingway observes in the opening of the second chapter of Death in the Afternoon; rather, “it is a tragedy.” The contest is never equal, since it is predestined that the man will eventually triumph over the bull, and the magnificent creature will end up dead. This tragedy is “well ordered” and “strongly disciplined by ritual.” The person who truly appreciates the bullfight will be “one who has this sense of the tragedy and ritual of the fight so that the minor aspects are not important except as they relate to the whole.” What this aficionado seeks is “honesty and what is true, not tricked, emotion and always classicism.” Coming early in Hemingway’s commentary, these dicta signal to the reader the kind of work Death in the Afternoon really is: a modern-day poetics, patterned after the Aristotelian model, in which the Greek philosopher carefully examines the parts that make up tragic drama to show how they relate to the whole of the performance. Whether Hemingway consciously adopted this Aristotelian mode is open to debate; there can be little doubt, however, that his examination of the bullfight has strong parallels with Aristotle’s dissection of the elements of Greek tragic drama.

Like Aristotle, Hemingway insists that the perfect form of the art he describes is achieved when all the parts work in harmony to support the final end: the graceful killing of the bull, which leaves the spectators with an experience of catharsis: “when [an artistically executed bullfight] is over, and the death administered to the animal that has made it possible,” it leaves the spectator “as changed and as sad as any major emotion will leave you.”

What Hemingway has seen in postwar Spain does not always measure up to that standard, and hence he calls many of these performances examples of “decadent art.” The art form decays, he notes, “through a magnification of certain of its aspects.” He writes of the modern bullfight with mourning for a great art gone to seed: The bulls are no longer the magnificent specimens they were in years past, the men who kill them have become poseurs rather than skilled craftsmen at their trade. Too much emphasis is given now to dexterity and flair with the parts of the fight— the capework, the passes close to the horns of the bull, the placing of the banderillas to slow the bull’s charge—rather than to development of competency in all areas. No one bullfighter possesses every quality that would mark him as the consummate artist in his field.

Hemingway himself makes frequent comparisons between bullfighting and other art forms, notably tragic drama. Often he does so to provide readers unfamiliar with the bullfight a basis for understanding what he is trying to explain about the ritual in the ring; just as frequently, however, his intent is to highlight the artistic nature of the fight. As he does in other works, Hemingway uses the artist as an example of the hero figure who is bent on accomplishing his work deftly in the face of many distractions and difficulties. “What is needed in bullfighting to-day,” he mandates, “is a complete bullfighter who is at the same time an artist to save it from the specialists.” The “essence of the greatest emotional appeal” in the sport is “the feeling of immortality that the bullfighter feels” as he accomplishes his task. “He is performing a work of art and he is playing with death.” In Hemingway’s view, the same statement could be made about many other men who must face death in the course of doing their duty. In Death in the Afternoon, the bullfighters provide real-life examples for Hemingway’s discussion of that figure who recurs in all of his works, the “Hemingway hero.” In fact, in this work Hemingway gives the reader a list of the qualities such a hero must have: courage, serenity, skill, the will to go on after being wounded, the ability to kill dispassionately if necessary, and above all, luck. The life of the Hemingway hero must be a constant example of the timeworn cliche “grace under pressure.”

The style of Death in the Afternoon is a mixture of what might be described as clinical expository prose and clipped, familiar dialogue. At times, Hemingway addresses the reader directly in the second-person pronoun, attempting to create a feeling of intimacy. Not willing to abandon the form which had won acclaim for him, Hemingway invents a fictional character whom he calls “the old lady”; her role in the text is to ask the author questions about bullfighting and about literature, so that Hemingway has an excuse to offer opinions about the contemporary scene. She provides him with a contrived opportunity to insert “one of those homilies on life and death that delight an author so to write”: “A Natural History of the Dead,” a brief excursus in which Hemingway destroys all the romantic notions readers may have about death in battle. With the old lady, Hemingway can be distinctly ironic, as when he discusses the prolific Faulkner. At times Hemingway offers stinging commentary, as when he speaks of those who say they “would pay to go to a bullfight if they could see the man gored”; these “should have been at the ring, in the infirmary, and later in the hospital” when the matador Gitanillo was fatally wounded, and they “would have had their money’s worth” to hear the delirious bullfighter’s screams when the pain became unbearable. No gruesome detail is spared, because Hemingway wants his readers to understand that this is no schoolboy’s contest: The bullfight is life’s struggle in miniature, with man confronting death face-to-face, having only his wits and intelligence to overcome the brute forces of nature bent on destroying him.


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