Academic journal article The Hemingway Review

Tradition and the Individual Bullfighter: The Lost Legacy of the Matador in Hemingway's "The Capital of the World"

Academic journal article The Hemingway Review

Tradition and the Individual Bullfighter: The Lost Legacy of the Matador in Hemingway's "The Capital of the World"

Article excerpt

The few critical articles discussing "The Capital of the World" all theorize that the protagonist, Paco, deserves blame for his untimely death. Seen from a modernist perspective that values tradition and legacy, another possibility emerges. Paco dies because he lacks a mentor willing to teach him the craft of bullfighting. The story represents a fictional rendering of a dominant theme advanced in Death in the Afternoon: the ability and mystique of Spain's matadors is being compromised by a new generation too impatient and convinced of its own greatness to learn from its predecessors.


"THE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD" remains a largely neglected story in the Hemingway canon. So say the handful of critics who have, over the years, worked sporadically but diligently to bring the story to prominence alongside more commonly acknowledged Hemingway masterpieces. They lament that its more acclaimed siblings, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," also written in 1936, have overshadowed "The Capital of the World." They agree that its ending accounts for the story's failure to generate sustained critical interest. (1) The penultimate paragraph unfolds in a curiously un-Hemingway-like manner, closing the story not on a note of layered ambiguity, but with total resolution. An intrusive narrative voice eulogizes the boy Paco, informing readers that "[h]e died, as the Spanish phrase has it, full of illusions" (SS 51). This hardly captures the complicated, interwoven set of reasons for Paco's death when the pretend bullfight goes awry.

The ending can fool the reader into believing that "The Capital of the World" merely tells the story of an impoverished, ambitious boy who cannot separate an imaginary picture of himself as a daring matador from his actual status as a play-actor who places himself in a dangerous situation. The story's last paragraphs place all culpability on Paco for being a naive dreamer, too innocent to survive in an unforgiving, often brutal world lacking sympathy and second chances. The ending emphasizes his failures, his lack of insight, his absence of experience, his inability to grasp the permanence of death. Drawing on the ending, critics similarly load the burden of responsibility onto Paco in their readings. In Reid's opinion, "Paco dies because he fails to sense the literal danger of the bull" (39). "[T]he boy Paco is killed because of his own naivete," (301) Cooper says. Grebstein also blames Paco, bluntly asserting that "[t]he cause of Paco's death is his excess of courage and illusion" (23). He calls the stabbing a "punishment of inadequate craft" (23).

Paco does die in part for displaying inadequate craft, as Grebstein points out, but to fault Paco alone ignores several aspects of the story indicating that the boy's death results from a generational rift, one that threatens to do irreparable harm to Spanish culture and cannot possibly be attributed solely to Paco. If this is the case, then he dies because he has no one with experience to dispel his illusions about the bullfight and teach him a more adequate approach to craft.

"The Capital of the World" reprises Eliot's modernist call for a return to "a society with a living tradition" ("Reflections" 184), or Pound's call to "resuscitate the dead art/Of poetry; to maintain 'the sublime'/In the old sense" (Hugh Selwyn Mauberly" 61). Modernists believed that rather than cultivate a relationship between the present and the past, society had turned "sluggish" so that "tradition is ever lapsing into superstition, and the violent stimulus of novelty is required" to attract the public's attention (Eliot, "Reflections" 184). Hemingway and his fellow modernists, Eliot and Pound, felt culture's salvation required a renewed interest in and appreciation for the great artists and great works of the past. The past reveals the criteria for artistic greatness, a philosophy resulting in Pound's early experimentation with Browning-esque dramatic monologues, seemingly antiquated forms like the sestina, and translations of Chinese verse. …

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