A Reader's Guide to Pilar's Bullfighters: Untold Histories in 'For Whom the Bell Tolls.'

By Mandel, Miriam | The Hemingway Review, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

A Reader's Guide to Pilar's Bullfighters: Untold Histories in 'For Whom the Bell Tolls.'


Mandel, Miriam, The Hemingway Review


In For Whom the Bell Tolls, his most extended fictional foray into Spain and Spanish issues, Hemingway set himself the difficult task of refracting the action through the consciousness of a foreigner. To circumvent Robert Jordan's necessary limitations, Hemingway turned to secondary characters: political theory, for example, is presented to us by professionals like Karkov and Golz, and the complexity of Spanish society is suggested by the presence of such varied minor characters as a gypsy, a peasant, a mayor, a priest, and an aspiring bullfighter. By means of their embedded narratives - Karkov's military and political reports, Rafael's dramatic description of the blowing of the train, Joaquin's painful family history, Maria's and Pilar's stories of rape and murder - Hemingway is able to enlarge the novel beyond the tight restrictions he has imposed in terms of time (three days), place (Guadarrama Mountains), action (one military operation, one love affair), and protagonist (romantic outsider). Many of these second-level narratives mention contemporary personalities, including the military and political leaders of the Spanish conflict. Hemingway does not tell us who these people are, but not a few critics and biographers have resurrected them for us.

Just as access to the novel's political background enriches our reading of it, so can knowledge of the cultural figures who dominated pre-Civil War Spain help us understand the characters shaped by those figures. Spanish culture enters the novel through Pilar's stories, in which she mentions famous singers, dancers, musicians and, most importantly, bullfighters - the cultural icons of the peacetime Spain in which she grew up.(1) These figures are not explicated in the text because they would have been familiar to the Spaniards who comprise her intratextual audience. Distanced by place, however, those artists were unfamiliar to most of Hemingway's contemporary readers. And with the passage of more than half a century, during much of which Franco's Spain was inaccessible to Americans, their names have become doubly unfamiliar. The following short biographies should fill that gap, making some of that lost Spanish world accessible to Hemingway's English-speaking audiences.

Two of Pilar's narratives, her definition of the smell of death and her description of the party given in Finito's honor, are particularly rich in cultural references. When Pilar discusses the smell of death (Chapter Nineteen), she mentions not less than seven bullfighters. The most famous of them all is identified only by his first name (Jose, Joselito) and the place of his death (Talavera) - sufficient detail for Pilar's primary narratees to identify Jose Gomez Ortega, who for many years and by many critics was considered the best matador of the twentieth century.

JOSE GOMEZ ORTEGA

(1895 1920)

Born into a bullfighting family, this virtuoso showed great talent as a boy and had a large following years before his promotion to full matador de toros in 1912, by which time he was already ranked first among the nation's matadors. In 1913, Joselito appeared 80 times; it was an extraordinary season, both because of the number and the quality of his performances. He had to cancel some contracts in 1914, due to illness and some gorings, but even so fought in 75 corridas. In 1915, 1916, and 1917 he continued to dominate the ring, appearing in over 100 corridas each year, many of them mano a mano (the six bulls being fought by two instead of three matadors) with Belmonte and not a few solo fighting all six bulls by himself). Illness and wounds cut the 1918 season to 81 appearances (he had contracted for 105) and the 1919 season to 91 (one serious wound early in the season caused him to miss eighteen fights). His performances in the bullring were almost consistently magnificent; he mastered all aspects of bullfighting and fought with grace, gallantry, and art. Joselito and Juan Belmonte (the aging bullfighter in The Sun Also Rises) dominated the bullring, defining the 1910s as a golden age of bullfighting. …

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