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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, 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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1234 words.)

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