Was Hemingway a Bullfighting Aficionado?

We are first introduced to the term “Aficionado” in Chapter 13 of Ernest Hemingway’s, The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway uses the term when Jake Barnes, Hemingway’s fictionalized version of himself, along with the other characters of the novel, arrive in Pamplona, Spain to watch the Running of the Bulls and to take part in seven days of celebrations and bullfights.  An Aficionado is an ardent devotee, fan, or enthusiast. Many Americans are aficionados of sports such as football or NCAA basketball. But, it is difficult for us to understand the enthusiasm that the citizens of Spain approach the annual festivities involving men risking their lives being chased by bulls and the certain death of the bull-matador matches. Ernest Hemingway informs us that Jake is a true aficionado. First, thru the five days he spends fishing in Burguete, Spain, and then through his descriptions of the events and flamboyant personalities surrounding the bullfights. When Hemingway describes fishing or bullfighting, it is difficult to decide whether it is Jake Barnes speaking or a true characterization of the writer’s own feelings and ideals? The question I am asking in this essay is whether either Jake or Hemingway are aficionados of bullfighting?

When Jake arrives at the hotel for the top bullfighters in Spain, Montoya, the proprietor, calls Jake an aficionado. Montoya “always smiled as though bull-fighting were a very special secret between the two of us…as though there was something lewd about the secret to outsiders, but that it was something that we understood. It would not do to expose it to people who would not understand.” The narrator, who is assumed to be speaking as Hemingway, notes that “Aficion means passion. An aficionado is one who is passionate about the bullfights.” We are informed that only the best bullfighters were permitted to stay at Montoya’s hotel, and they came from all around the world to discuss the intricacies of the sport with him. Somehow, Jake is included in this group? He is greeted by Montoya as though he has been there before, and he discusses bullfighting with the best matadors in the world. At first, they were polite to Jake because he was an American. The narrator continues, “Somehow, it was taken for granted that an American could not have aficion. He might simulate it or confuse it with excitement, but he could not really have it.” However, when they saw that Jake had it, they put their hand on Jake’s shoulder and said, “Buen Hombre” (a very good man). Montoya, the narrator says, could forgive everything because Jake was an aficionado. This dialogue demonstrates that both Jake considered themselves more cultured than most Americans. After first reading this romantic and macho characterization of an aficionado, it seems to ring true. However, there are some important unanswered questions to consider. How much of a bullfighting aficionado is Jake or Hemingway? Both had other interests in their lives were consumed with  bullfighting as much as an aficionado’s life would be. Hemingway and his character, Jake, were journalists. It was, thus, their job to cover interesting spectacles wherever they were assigned to report. Does Montoya welcome Jake to stay at the hotel because he is an aficionado, or because he is a reporter who will give press coverage to the bullfights? I have often gone to foreign countries and patronized by locals who said that I was a true connoisseur of Italian Food or fine wine. I understood, during those visits, that the proprietors were just humoring me and encouraging me to spend more money on food, wine, or hotel accommodations.  However, Jake does accept the possibility that Montoya is only telling him what he wants to hear.

Hemingway attended bullfights and reportedly participated in the dangerous Running of the Bulls. He has written that the sport is interesting because it forces men to face death with grace and encourage. He wrote that bullfighting is the ultimate masculine activity, as the matador must move with a high degree of strength, courage, flair. Last, but not least, the matador must emerge from the match with honor and victory! However, Jake has demonstrated that he does not have many of the ideal masculine characteristics of the matador. The novel attempts to convey an extended metaphor comparing the battles that the men fought in World War I and the war-like maneuvers of the bullfights. Both Jake and Hemingway were wounded in the war, and both were rendered, at least for some time after their injuries, as being sexually impotent. Thus, both Jake and Hemingway experienced the frustrations of chasing women they love, but neither had the ability to consume sexual relationships with them. Hemingway fell in love with a nurse during the war, but she left him afterward. He later wrote a fictionalized version of this relationship in his excellent novel, A Farewell to Arms. Jake may have idealized bullfighters but fell short of their masculine qualities. Instead of a potent bull, he may be compared to a gelded steer, as he is relegated to trying to keep peace with the other men (the other competing bulls), who think they are fighting for the grand prize—Lady Brett Ashley. Instead of allowing the men to keep up any degree of mastery over her, she masterfully moves her cape and controls all of their movements. Jake and all the other major male characters constantly put their life on hold and charge ahead to meet her needs—getting absolutely nothing in return. Hemingway had four wives and scores of extra-marital relationships in his illustrious life. Therefore, he did not always perform, skillfully and with aficion, under pressure? Was he or Jake more of an aficionado of chasing women or of bullfighting?  Near the end of The Sun Also Rises, Montoya informs Jake that he and his American friends are no longer welcome to stay at his hotel because they have desecrated the sacred traditions and values of their sport. Apparently, the hotel manager is no longer able to forgive the crude and misguided activities of ex-aficionados!


Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education (1973) and in English Literature (2015). He earned a Doctorate in Education in 1987. He is married and has three wonderful adult  daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia. He is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com, an editor for the Correctional Educator Journal, and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic. Murray also serves a board member and volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write him at ellisonms2@vcu.edu or leave comments on the LitChatte.Com Blog. You can also leave your email on the sidebar on the right of this post to receive automatic postings of my Blog.

Murray Ellison at the Poe Museum

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