Form and Content

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...

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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.