Stephen's Reviews > Death in the Afternoon

Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway
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Apr 07, 2010

really liked it

The bullfight was every bit as controversial an institution when Ernest Hemingway's now much neglected Death in the Afternoon was first published in 1932 as it is today. The difference is that It may be closer to extinction today than it was then. At the very beginning of the book Hemingway writes:

I suppose, from a modern moral point of view, that is, a Christian point of view, the whole bullfight is indefensible; there is much cruelty, there is always danger, either sought or unlooked for, and there is always death, and I should not try to defend it now, only to tell honestly the things I have found true about it. To do this I must be altogether frank, or try to be, and if those who read this decide with disgust that it is written by some one who lacks their, the readers', fineness of felling I can only plead that this may be true. But whoever reads this can only truly make such a judgment when he, or she, has seen the things that are spoken of and knows truly what their reactions to them would be.


True to his word, Hemingway does not explicitly undertake a defense of bullfighting in what follows. Rather, he reports honestly what he found true about it, including the cruelty. This reporting provides the reader with the best understanding of the corrida yet to be found anywhere in the English language known to me. If it is true that to understand all is to forgive all, then this surely is an eloquent, if implicit, defense of bullfighting.

The book inspired me to see for myself “the things that are spoken of” and withhold judgment until I had. I have now seen bullfights in Spain and Mexico, and I am hooked. I have answered in my own mind the moral questions raised by the spectacle to the extent that morality is relevant. I will continue to attend on every occasion that practically presents itself.

The book is worth reading because the subject of bullfighting is only a pretext for many fascinating and thought-provoking observations concerning the human dilemma. Hemingway explores in the concrete abstract propositions such as bravery, courage, honor, cowardice, art, and, believe it or not, love.

Regarding love:

All people talk of it, but those who have had it are all marked by it and I would not wish to speak of it further since of all things it is the most ridiculous to talk of and only fools go through it many times. I would sooner have the pox than to fall in love with another woman loving the one I have. . . .

All those who have really experienced it are marked, after it is gone, by a quality of deadness. I say this as a naturalist, not to be romantic.


This is true, is it not? Hemigway's explanation of the art and his assessment of the great matadors of his day provide a backdrop for his observations about life such as this. Whether they be true or not, they invariably cause one to set aside the book for moment and think.

The primary abstraction that Hemingway explores in the concrete, however, is death. A little short of halfway through the book, Hemingway places a little essay entitled "A Natural History of the Dead" consisting of a graphic description of dead bodies he had encountered during World War I in Europe. The message seems to be that there is nothing romantic about death itself. Death is the ultimate degradation. For Hemingway the important issue is how individuals face this ultimate degradation. The matador is the figure through whom Hemingway explores this issue.

Bullfighting is the only art I which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter's honor.


After setting the scene with a description of the style of the two masters of the art, Joselito and Belmonte, Hemingway discussed the "decadence" of the bullfight as practiced in his own time. He describes the courage and cowardice of various contemporary matadors, wonderful character sketches.

A great collection of vintage photographs are included as well as a glossary that is itself interesting reading, particularly for one learning Spanish as I am. The book is marred by only one thing. Hemingway writes it as if he is explaining the corrida to a hypothetical old woman. Most of the chapters close with a dialogue between the old woman and him. I find this device to be a bit contrived even though some of the best philosophical gems are found in these dialogues.

If you have read and enjoyed Hemingway's fiction—and there are only a few of us left around who have—you really ought to try this non-fiction work. I believe that reading Death in the Afternoon gives one a better understanding of and appreciation for the likes of For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farwell to Arms, and certainly The Sun Also Rises. But then again, I am a little old and out of fashion myself.


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Reading Progress

Started Reading
June 13, 1974 – Finished Reading
April 7, 2010 – Shelved

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Adriana (new)

Adriana Escobar Alvarez Morphy Well said. I will wait... until ...dawn to read it.


message 2: by Gail (new)

Gail An excellent review, Steve. I have seen a definite deterioration of Hemingway's work over the years. While I don't think his work is uniformly of the highest rank, certainly some of his work is amazing, and of course there remains his steady, if unacknowledged or ignored nowadays, influence on American literature.

Thanks for a fresh re-appreciation of this particular work. It's made me want to re-read it.


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