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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1003

Death in the Afternoon records Ernest Hemingway’s ten-year love affair with the bullfight: It is the product of more than a decade of observing these contests, talking about them, mingling with participants and spectators, and reading about the sport. Hemingway first conceived the idea for such a book in 1921,...

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Death in the Afternoon records Ernest Hemingway’s ten-year love affair with the bullfight: It is the product of more than a decade of observing these contests, talking about them, mingling with participants and spectators, and reading about the sport. Hemingway first conceived the idea for such a book in 1921, and it remained with him while he composed his first two novels. He finally began work on the book in earnest in 1931, pausing only occasionally to engage in big-game hunting expeditions, and for an illness that left him unable to concentrate hard enough to do any serious writing for several weeks. He finished the manuscript in 1932 and sent it to his publisher, Max Perkins, with a substantial collection of photographs intended for use as illustrations; many of these found their way into the final product, which contains one hundred pages of snapshots. He also included a detailed glossary of terms associated with bullfighting—technical jargon and foreign words and phrases that the average English-speaking reader could not be expected to know.

Because the text was pieced together from observations jotted down over the years, one finds some inconsistencies in Hemingway’s judgments of the various bullfighters about whom he writes. Nevertheless, Death in the Afternoon remains one of the finest analyses of the Spanish bullfight written in English—or perhaps in any language.

At its most elemental level, Hemingway’s text is an anatomy of the bullfight. He renders a careful assessment of the three parts of the spectacle, detailing events in each stage so the reader can understand why certain actions are taken by the picadors, the banderilleros, and the matador to prepare the bull for the kill and why the bullfighter kills in the various fashions considered acceptable within the rules of the sport. He offers his readers advice on where to sit to have the best view of the action, and he explains why the crowd behaves as it does, what constitutes the prefight ritual, and how each part of the fight is designed to place the matador and the bull on equal terms so that the man may inflict his opponent with a mortal wound with grace and skill, lending dignity to both principals in this tragedy.

Throughout his discussion, Hemingway provides vivid descriptions of the various participants, both those in the ring and those in the crowd. He includes witty asides about those who make their lives as leeches on the bullfighters—the managers, the promoters, even the prostitutes who populate the cafes and clubs where bullfighters and their entourages congregate before and after their afternoon’s encounter with death on the hoof. Hemingway gives the animals equal time, lavishing great praise on the fine breeding stocks of the various ranchers who supply the sport with the main attraction and bemoaning the trend toward breeding smaller bulls with smaller horns to reduce the chance of injury or death for the bullfighter. At times, he seems to wax nostalgic for days when the bulls were stronger and their horns longer and sharper, so that bullfighters were forced to be braver than they are at the period of this book’s composition, the decade after World War I.

Hemingway says that his aim for Death in the Afternoon is a modest one: “to tell honestly the things I have found true” about the sport. He is careful to explain terminology so that the reader is not lost in a sea of unfamiliar phrases; one imagines that, with this book in hand, one could observe a bullfight and make some sense of the various movements of the human participants as they move the bull into position for the final kill. Hemingway also gives numerous detailed anecdotes about the bullfighters he has seen or heard about, so that the reader comes away with a sense of the kind of man who would risk his life twice in an afternoon on the chance of winning shouts of “!Ole!” from approving fans, knowing that he is more likely to have chair cushions thrown at him or to be pelted with rotten fruit for a poor performance.

As one might expect with any of Hemingway’s nonfiction works, the author employs several asides in which he discusses the writer’s craft. The act of writing about bullfighting leads him to discuss the nature of writing itself, and along the way the reader is treated to Hemingway’s observations about modern literature and his assessments of several of his contemporaries, including William Faulkner. In a text that might otherwise be devoid of dialogue (which is his acknowledged forte), Hemingway manages to introduce some by inventing an old lady with whom he converses about the various aspects of the bullfight. Much of this commentary is ironic, as is a good part of his discussion of modern bullfighters and others associated with staging these afternoon shows. Behind the ironic stance, however, Hemingway exposes a genuine love for Spain and its people. That feeling comes through especially clearly in his concluding chapter, a rhapsody of reminiscences of his experiences in Spain, most of which he has been unable to include in this book because he has limited his focus to a discussion of the sport for which Spain is most famous. “It is not enough of a book,” he laments in his concluding paragraph; but as he observes elsewhere in the text,If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader . . . will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.

Hemingway has attempted to do exactly that in his account of Spain. He insists that the bullfight is “a Spanish institution” which “has not existed because of the foreigners and tourists, but always in spite of them.” Thus, the bullfight becomes a kind of metaphor for the country and its culture. Through an analysis of its most distinctive institution, Hemingway tries to capture the essence of Spain itself.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 231

Castillo Puche, José. Hemingway in Spain. Translated by Helen R. Lane. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974. Enlightening account of the time that Hemingway spent in Spain during the last years of his life.

Eastman, Max. “Bull in the Afternoon.” In Art and the Life of Action. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1934. Scathing review of Death in the Afternoon that describes Hemingway’s literary style as one of “wearing false hair on his chest.” Hemingway and Eastman came to blows over this review.

Griffin, Peter. Along with Youth. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Chapter 1 discusses early influences on Hemingway’s writing and argues that Death in the Afternoon is Hemingway’s version of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Dangerous Summer. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960. In many ways a rewriting of Death in the Afternoon. It concerns the 1959 bullfighting season and parallels the earlier book almost exactly in form and structure. Hemingway reexamines some of the ideas about bullfighting that he discussed in his earlier book.

Hotchner, A. E. Hemingway and His World. New York: Vendome Press, 1989. Recounts all of the events in Hemingway’s life that went into the making of Death in the Afternoon and gives a sampling of the critical reaction to the book. Lavishly illustrated with photographs of the places in Spain that Hemingway visited and of Hemingway as a young man.

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