Afterthoughts on “The Rites of War and The Sun Also Rises” Inspired by For Whom the Bell Tolls

Alex Vernon


Greg Forter’s insightful chapter on The Sun Also Rises, in his book Gender, Race, and Mourning in American Modernism, employs René Girard’s conception of sacrificial violence to suggest that bullfighting in the novel becomes “Hemingway’s fantasmatic … way of imagining a society that knows how to displace, ritualize, and thereby regulate its own violence, rather than wreaking it devastatingly on the bodies of its members” (80). As Spain sat out the World War, one might reasonably see the bullfight as prophylactic—until Spanish society’s internal violence erupted with a vengeance in the civil war of the 1930s.   

If Death in the Afternoon is the bullfighting book that can’t keep out the war, For Whom the Bell Tolls is the war book that can’t keep out the corrida. Allen Josephs, the Hemingway scholar most expert on bullfighting, “strongly suspect[s] that Jordan's book [about Spain] was something like Death in the Afternoon” (315). In one of the novel’s episodes, a bullring even becomes part of a skirmish-field where Robert Jordan commandeers an armored car (239-42). Both sides in the Spanish Civil War routinely used bullrings as staging areas, training grounds, supply points, and prison yards. Most infamous was Jay Allen’s 1936 report of the Nationalist massacre of civilians in the Badajoz bullring, an event Douglas Edward LaPrade believes may have inspired Pilar’s story of the massacre-as-capea (37-38). Hemingway’s friend Luis Quintanilla enjoyed boasting about the honor of making the list of “the first twelve to be shot in the Burgos bullring in the manner of a spectacular bullfight” (Quintanilla 177). At least a couple nonfiction works about the unfolding war bear titles that further suggest the connection wasn’t far from people’s imagination: The Spanish Arena by William Foss and Cecil Gerahty (1939), and The Spanish Cockpit by Franz Borkenau (1937).

For Whom the Bell Tolls is blunter than The Sun Also Rises in terms of the war-corrida correlation.  “Hemingway’s first-person presentation in his post-World War I novels, with their focus on individuality, has been displaced by a collective voice” in For Whom the Bell Tolls (Solow 112), and the novel’s bullfighting references emphasize the barbarity of that collective. The tension between individual accomplishment and collective barbarity plays a subtler role in The Sun Also Rises.  

Fitting both Barbara Ehrenreich’s and Jan Mieszkowski’s frameworks—as briefed in “The Rites of War and The Sun Also Rises”—Pilar’s story, with the farming community driving its enemies to their deaths over the cliff like its ancestors hunting aurochs, discloses the ugly truth of the communal ecstasy and social responsibility undergirding all wars and sanctioned violence, in stark contrast to the idealized matador of the earlier novel. The two primary models on whom Hemingway based his Pedro Romero—Romero’s namesake and Cayetano Ordóñez— hailed from Ronda, the town generally accepted as the setting of Pilar’s story and the purported “birthplace” of the modern bullfighting practice “of toreo a pie (on foot, as opposed to rejoneo, in which the bullfighter performs on horseback)” (Mandel 368-69).

Then there’s Andrés’s memory of his village’s bullbaiting capea, in which, as the bull closed in on its chosen victim, the entire crowd “swarmed onto the bull with their knives and stabbed him” until “the bull settled and sunk dead under the weight of the killers” (365). Year after year Andrés, “the bulldog of Villaconejos” (365), would overtake the rest of the crowd, heroically throw himself atop the bull, and clutch its ear with his teeth, in a typological repetition of Pedro Romero’s formal, traditional, professional act of severing his kill’s ear (the gesture that harks back to the killer’s asserting dibs on the bull’s meat as well as his position as predator, not prey). Andrés does and doesn’t want to do it; his fellow villagers mock him and encourage him. His ambiguous motives are a less fanciful rewriting of Romero’s: “Never once did he look up. He made it stronger that way, and did it for himself, too, as well as for her. Because he did not look up to ask if it pleased her he did it all for himself inside, and it strengthened him, and yet he did it for her, too. But he did not do it for her at any loss to himself” (SAR 220). In this passage (initially written about Guerrita), Brett serves as the romanticized surrogate for the entire crowd and thus embodies the woman-as-war-motive figure so predominant in visual and rhetorical patriotic appeals (see for example Trout 75-76). For his capea, Andrés serves as the primary hunter, but as in total war, there are no innocent bystanders. Afterward, he feels the conflicting emotions common among veterans, “ashamed, empty-feeling, proud and happy” all at once (366). When Robert Jordan gives him a mission that will excuse him from the novel’s climactic battle, he feels the same “reprieve” he felt when a rainy day cancelled the capea (364).

Pilar’s story of her first lover, the bullfighter Finito, recollects the gap between warriors and aficionados, soldiers and civilians, when the latter demands from him “an appearance of gaiety and friendliness and merriment” (186) as he struggles to keep secret his coughing up of blood caused by his career of service to their spectatorship. When the club president pulls off the purple drape to reveal the mounted head of the bull Finito had killed, he rejects the crowd’s sanctimonious victory celebration, shouting

‘No!’ very loudly and a big blob of blood came out and he didn’t even put up the napkin and it slid down his chin and he was still looking at the bull and he said, ‘all season, yes. To make money, yes. To eat, yes. But I can’t eat. Hear me? My stomach’s bad. But now with the season finished! No! No! No!’ (188)

The dead bull is more Finito’s kindred soul and brother-in-arms than anyone in the assembly. The banquet cheering its death presumably serves its meat, all the while its immediate killer himself diminishes toward death, though ultimately the celebrants are the responsible agents in the ringside stirring of their vicarious bloodlust. It’s also true, however, as Anna Broadwell-Gulde writes, that Finito’s “negation” of the crowd’s imposed motives and role on him “is, somewhat ironically, also an affirmation of self” and his “personal and practical reasons for being a matador” (233). This scene seems a far cry from Pedro Romero’s achievement of selfhood in the bullring.

When Robert Jordan discovers that the young Nationalist soldier he has reluctantly killed comes from Navarra, he reflects that he’s “probably seen him run through the streets ahead of the bulls at the Feria in Pamplona… . You never kill anyone you want to kill in a war” (302). This attitude likens him to Pedro Romero, who kills his “best friends” the bulls “so they don’t kill” him (SAR 189-90). In the later novel’s final scene, Jordan lies dying but is determined to make a show of it. Another Navarrese soldier, Lieutenant Paco Berrendo, moves in for the kill as Jordan waits to deliver a recibiendo of sorts. Ryan Hediger rightly draws our attention to Robert Jordan’s horse in their mutual death scene, connecting both deaths to Hemingway’s reflections on the war dead in Death in the Afternoon’s “A Natural History of the Dead” (150-54).

It is perhaps too tenuous to see in the three days of For Whom the Bell Tolls a structure loosely designed after the three acts of the bullfight. “The Rites of War and The Sun Also Rises” does, however, make a structural argument, overlaying the crew’s foray to Pamplona and Jake Barnes’s ringside studied observation of the combat taking place below him atop his war experience. It also attempts to ground Jake’s narrative to the Great War veterans’ history more solidly than a perfunctory gesturing to the lost generation.  Steven Trout has convincingly demonstrated that back in the 1920s the evolving postwar discourse for American veterans eschewed contemplation of the war’s meaning and results by instead focusing on narratives of masculinity. As Jake does. The scholarly thread that analyzes the bullfight in terms of his imperiled masculinity lands his narrative squarely in this history. The American Legion’s efforts to construct a community based on a particular idea of a shared experience, for example, had nothing to do with lost generation disillusion and everything to do with masculine virtues:

Even when arguing against a new American intervention into European affairs, the legion maintained its internal vision of the Great War as the original Good War—“Good” not in terms of progressive international outcomes but in terms of the masculine toughness, courage, and comradeship that the conflict had supposedly fostered. (68)

It is not art for art’s sake nor tauromachy for tauromachy’s sake but “duty for duty’s sake” (71), with as if by happenstance, the war supplying the necessary manliness for winning the girl and marital domesticity—the very things Jake most likely will never enjoy. Brett’s presence complicates the beautiful girl as the symbolic and literal why we went to war scenario; we might also read into the group’s dynamics a rejoinder to the promise of easy reintegration for veterans.

Jake’s tale is a veteran’s tale, and whether our curiosity leads us to the hyper-masculine corrida, to a manhood-restoring disability rehabilitation program which Jake could hardly avail himself of (see Linker on such programs), or to the odd new emphasis on muscularity in postwar combat illustrations (see Trout on the work of Harvey Dunn, 169-70), such contexts are some of the means through which we can fruitfully complicate his story as well as the more encompassing veterans’ tale, however polyphonic. For Whom the Bell Tolls, on the other hand, written while Nazi Germany conquered much of Europe, is among other things a prewar story about a different sort of reintegration—the dust-to-dust sort—as the novel prepares its readers for the coming savagery and the potential, even the necessity, of becoming sacrificial prey.


Broadwell-Gulde, Anna. “Pilar’s Turn Inward: Storytelling in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Teaching Hemingway and War. Ed. Alex Vernon. Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 2015. 224-37.  Print.

Forter, Greg. Gender, Race, and Mourning in American Modernism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.  Print.

Hediger, Ryan. “‘Shot…Crippled and Gotten Away’: Animals and War Trauma in Hemingway.” Teaching Hemingway and War.  Ed. Alex Vernon. Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 2015. 143-56.  Print.

Hemingway, Ernest. Death in the Afternoon. New York: Touchstone, 1996. Print.

----. For Whom the Bell Tolls. New York: Scribner, 1995. Print.

----. The Sun Also Rises. The Hemingway Library Edition. New York: Scribner, 2014. Print.

Josephs, Allen. On Hemingway and Spain: Essays and Reviews, 1979-2013. Wickford, RI: New Street Communications, 2014. Print.

LaPrade, Douglas Edward. Hemingway and Franco. Valencia: Publicacions de la Universitat de València, 2007. Print.

Linker, Beth. War’s Waste: Rehabilitation in World War I America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2011. Print.

Mandel, Miriam B. Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon: The Complete Annotations. Lanham, Maryland:  Scarecrow Press, 2002. Print.

Mieszkowski, Jan. “Watching War.” PMLA 124.5 (October 2009): 1648-61. Print.

Quintanilla, Paul. Waiting at the Shore: Art, Revolution, War, and Exile in the Life of the Spanish Artist Luis Quintanilla. Raleigh, NC: Lulu Press, 2003. Print.

Solow, Michael K. “A Clash of Certainties: For Whom the Bell Tolls and the Inner War of Ernest Hemingway.” The Hemingway Review 29.1 (Fall 2009). 103-22. Print.

Trout, Steven. On the Battlefield of Memory: The First World War and American Remembrance, 1919-1941. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2010. Print.




Alex Vernon 10/28/2015

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