The Portrayal of Spain in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises
Being a Hispanophile doesn’t mean having a favorable opinion of every aspect of Hispanic culture. It does, however, imply having curiosity about those cultural traditions that, at first glance, are unpleasant or somewhat difficult to comprehend. When I was younger, my approach to the topic of bullfighting was not to criticize it, primarily because it was an old part of Spanish culture, and who was I, an outsider, to criticize someone else’s culture? As Bob Dylan once sang, “don’t criticize what you can’t understand.” Of course, he was referring to people of older generations who criticized the changing times, whereas a criticism of bullfighting would be a reconsideration of an older tradition. Nonetheless, I still like to think that I’m more or less open to everything, although now in middle age I feel much freer to question aloud those aspects of once-revered traditions that are more difficult to defend.
It’s not that I haven’t tried to comprehend bullfighting. I attended a bullfight in Madrid in the spring of 1998 with some roommates, who are also Americans. It was something that I didn’t want to leave Spain without experiencing. In retrospect, it would’ve been better to go with some locals who could’ve educated me on the finer points of the spectacle. The problem was, I didn’t know any Spaniards who were aficionados. All of the ones I interacted with on a regular basis were critical of what some have called la fiesta nacional. We sat almost in the front row of the bullring in the neighborhood of Ventas, located in the eastern part of the city. Although this was over 20 years ago now, I still recall being impressed with the sights and sounds of the plaza, especially the colors, music, and pageantry. The actual bullfight, however, is something of a blur in my memory. I recall the different stages of the event, but after the first bull was killed a few feet from where we were, the shock of the blood and suffering was overwhelming, for me, at least. It was for my companions as well, as I recall, and most of us decided then and there that we didn’t have a need to attend another bullfight. (I have some photos from my first and only bullfight in 1998 that I was going to share here, but taking pictures of old, printed pictures with my poor quality phone doesn’t give me good quality images; I’ll have to scan them at some point and add them later.)
One of my roommates in Spain, Brian, also disliked this bullfight, but for different reasons altogether; he thought the toreros this day weren’t very good. (After it was over, I would learn that the bulls in this particular event were considered novillos, or younger, less fierce bulls, fought by novice bullfighters.) I have no specialized knowledge to tell what makes a bullfighter good or bad. Brian doesn’t claim to be an expert in bullfighting either, but he took more of an interest in this tradition than the rest of us. He had been to a bullfight before, and he had read about it in books like Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Most American tourists who visit Madrid have read about Hemingway’s hangouts in Madrid from the guidebooks. For some reason, if someone like Hemingway was known to frequent a location, it is enough for some tourists to justify a visit. For example, many of us have visited Botín, which is known as the world’s oldest restaurant, not far from la Plaza Mayor; this eatery was depicted in one of the last scenes of The Sun Also Rises. Humorously, there’s another restaurant in the same neighborhood that has a big sign out front the reads in English, “Hemingway never ate here.” (I haven’t been to Madrid in a few years to know if it’s still there, but I hope it is.) As long as I’ve known him, Brian has been an admirer of Hemingway, who is surely America’s most famous Hispanophile. Years after our adventures together in Spain, Brian and I visited the Hemingway house in Key West, Florida, which is an interesting attraction. I don’t think I would’ve visited if I wasn’t with Brian. I’m sure that Brian even had Hemingway in mind when he attended the festival of San Fermín in Pamplona, famous for its running of the bulls, which is depicted in some detail in The Sun Also Rises.
For some time now, I’ve had The Sun Also Rises on my bookshelf. Now that I have a bit more free time and I have this blog that celebrates Hispanophilia, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to read through it finally. I didn’t know too much about this work prior to reading it, other than the fact that it took place in Spain and addressed the topic of bullfighting. Like a lot of the texts I read, I have some mixed emotions about this work now that I’ve finished it. In short, it’s the story of Jacob Barnes, an American expatriate living in Paris during the 1920s, where he works as a journalist. He is a veteran of World War I. He has a war injury that has left him impotent. Most of his social connections in Paris are expatriates from the United States or England who also have some connection to the literary world or the arts. Their social life consists primarily of getting drunk night after night, although they do play the occasional game of tennis or bridge. Jacob, often referred to as Jake, is in love with an English woman named Lady Brett Ashley, who is in the process of getting divorced; she has a reputation for being somewhat promiscuous. Brett also loves Jake, but she doesn’t allow herself to be with him, knowing that he needs something more stable and that she needs to experience the physical expression of love. Having somewhat recently experienced the horrors of the war, the whole group of people drifts through life without much desire to create a meaningful existence for themselves. They evade reality whenever possible and use racial slurs when referring to Jews and people of African descent. Perhaps the only character who is somewhat sympathetic for the reader is Jake, who is also the narrator. At least he is seen working, paying bills, and even praying from time to time, although he knows he’s a far from perfect Catholic. He feels rejuvenated when in nature, whether he’s fishing or swimming in the ocean. He appreciates spending time alone occasionally. The others seemingly avoid responsibility at all costs. These characters represent the so-called Lost Generation that Hemingway refers to in the epigraph that precedes the novel. One thing about the novel that makes his cast of characters a little more tolerable is the realization that the majority of them are based on real people, and that the protagonist/narrator has a lot in common with the author himself. Thus, all the partying and self-destruction that they engage in is not to romanticize their lifestyle, but rather to elicit sympathy and a feeling of melancholy.
The plot reaches its climax when Jake decides to visit Spain with his friends Bill and Robert for some fishing prior to going to Pamplona for the festival of San Fermín. Brett also decides to tag along with her newest fiancé Mike, but they will arrive a few days later. Robert ends up not accompanying Jake and Bill for the fishing part of the trip, as he stalks Brett, with whom he is obsessively in love. When the group meets up all together in Pamplona, an entire week of debauchery commences. Every day is spent getting wasted, sometimes with the locals, watching the running of the bulls, attending the bullfights, and fighting (sometimes literally) amongst themselves. Jake had a good reputation with the locals for being an avid bullfight aficionado and speaking Spanish competently. That reputation, however, is ruined irreparably when Jake facilitates a meeting between a young bullfighter named Pedro Romero and Brett, who has become obsessed with him, getting him into all sorts of trouble, including a fistfight with Robert, a former boxing champion in college. At the end of the festival, Brett and Pedro go off to Madrid together, while the others eventually go their separate ways. As is to be expected, Brett dumps Pedro after a few days and sends for Jake to meet her in Madrid to help her recover, financially and emotionally, from what has transpired. The two share some special moments in Madrid prior to the ending of the novel. Ultimately, while there’s still not a definitive closure for the characters, there’s a sense that they’ll learn something from their failings, at the very least.
I wish to move away from the question of whether or not the novel is, in my opinion, “good.” Hemingway’s fiction has been analyzed by many experts much more eloquent and insightful than me. I do, however, want to reflect briefly on Hemingway’s portrayal of Spain and bullfighting. My initial reaction was one of disappointment, as Spain is shown to be a place of constant parties, which is one of the country’s stereotypes. Sleep is rare, except for maybe an afternoon nap. Alcohol is consumed constantly. At one point in Chapter XV, Jake remarks that “it seemed that nothing could have any consequences” during la fiesta. Spain, then, is seen as a haven for those who don’t have a moral compass. However, the foreign characters are the worst embodiment of excessive indulgence in sensual pleasures. Spain didn’t corrupt these people; they were already corrupted. I may have not been to Pamplona, but I’ve been to Cádiz for carnaval, and I’ve seen firsthand the trouble that foreigners can get into when participating in a Spanish fiesta. And places like Ibiza are top destinations for foreigners looking to party. Sure, the Spaniards in the novel like to drink, too, but they are also generous and freely share what they have with the foreigners to make them feel welcome. Ultimately, Spaniards themselves have to decide if Hemingway’s depiction of them is valid or not. One clue to their opinion might come from a monument dedicated to Hemingway in Pamplona that reads: “Ernest Hemingway. Premio Nobel de Literatura. Amigo de este pueblo y admirador de sus fiestas que supo describir y propagar la ciudad de Pamplona. San Fermín. 1968.” Those who erected this monument, then, appreciated the attention that such a famous author paid to their relatively small city and its festival, even calling him their amigo. Of course, the festival of San Fermín has grown exponentially since Hemingway’s novel, bringing challenges and problems to the city of Pamplona, as well as economic opportunities and cultural pride. As I read the novel, in some ways I conceive of Hemingway as the stereotypical foreigner who goes to Spain looking for debauchery, but at the same time, he clearly demonstrated an understanding of the Spanish language and some of the finer points of Spanish culture; and he found peace in Spain’s natural beauty, which is more than I can say about others who return home from Spain only knowing how to order alcohol in Spanish.
Some Spaniards in the novel, like Montoya, the owner of the hotel in Pamplona where Jake and his friends were staying, are passionate fans of bullfighting, and they express appreciation for the few foreigners, like Jake, who truly demonstrate a similar passion for this aspect of their culture. A simple gesture like a hand on Jake’s shoulder is enough to communicate the deep connection that Montoya shares with his foreign guest. Nevertheless, the passion for bullfighting culture isn’t exactly universal in the novel. One Spanish waiter in Chapter XVII expresses disapproval of the running of the bulls when he learns that someone has died from a cornada through the back, not understanding how someone could consider the experience fun. Although Hemingway was a passionate fan, I don’t think he would call these events “fun,” either. While many of us don’t understand bullfighting enough to find artistry or sport in this tradition, for those who do, what they experience is a way to contemplate life and death. And Hemingway’s characters occasionally do a good job of articulating what many of us feel after witnessing a bullfight. At one point in Chapter XV, Jake mentions the “disturbed emotional feeling that always comes after a bullfight.” A page or two later, Robert says “I can’t say that I like it [but] I think it’s a wonderful show.” And Brett mentions the desensitizing that one experiences as the bullfight goes on: “After a while you never notice anything disgusting”; one might argue that that’s not a good thing. In Chapter XVIII, at the end of the week, Bill described the whole experience as a “wonderful nightmare,” which might be a good way to summarize Hemingway’s take on bullfighting in general. And as I think about the few depictions of bullfighting in the Spanish works I’m familiar with, such as in the movies “Hable con ella” or “Blancanieves,” the tradition is usually shown as equally poetic and harrowing.
In my Spanish conversation classes, we have a unit in which bullfighting is debated. We read a brief article in which a Spanish journalist defends the practice. Nonetheless, students are generally not swayed by his arguments. This past semester, a student in my class originally from Barcelona educated his classmates (and me) on the somewhat recent prohibition of bullfighting in Cataluña. I admit that I have a hard time defending the practice, since I’m sensitive to things like animal cruelty. In the past two semesters that I’ve taught this unit, I have yet to have a student who openly supports it. The best I can do, as someone who wants to present both sides of an argument, is to point out contradictions (or inconsistencies of thought) in our own society on the topic of violence. So, I’ll ask my students about why bullfighting is thought of as barbaric, yet they themselves might consume large quantities of meat, use leather products, fervently watch or play American football (or boxing or mixed martial arts), go hunting, play super violent video games, watch sadistic films, support war in foreign countries, justify the killing of innocent people, or possess firearms. Many of them are able to articulate good responses that I can’t counter, but I hope that they at least see that American society, in many ways, is no less violent than or morally superior to Spain. Often, we try to reach a compromise on bullfighting, like proposing that the tradition could be continued if it didn’t result in the unnecessary suffering and death of the animal. Of course, many purists might scoff at that suggestion, but there are already deathless bullfights in places like Portugal – although animal rights advocates would still argue that these events are cruel, too – and it might bring more attention to the tradition at a time when support for bullfighting is at an all-time low. As for me, although I don’t think I’ll be attending another bullfight anytime soon, if ever, I’m still willing to learn more about it… in books! Ernest Hemingway’s representation of bullfighting is interesting, to say the least, but I think I’m at least as interested in learning what Spanish thinkers have written about it. As I find more depictions of bullfights in literature and film, I’ll try to share my thoughts on them here.
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