Death in the Afternoon: In the Footsteps of Hemingway

By Nasser Tufail

The day arrives and we both show up early at Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas, eager, but anxious, about our personal experience of Death in the Afternoon.

Death in the Afternoon
Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas in Madrid

The format of bullfights is fairly standard across all of Spain. The traditional corrida (bullfight) has three matadors (toreros) and each one fights two bulls, typically 4-5 years old and weighing between 500 – 600 Kg. These are the poor beasts that will face their Death in the Afternoon. The matador’s assistants include two picadors (lancers mounted on horseback), three banderilleros (sort of lessor matadors) and a mozo de espadas (sword page).

Each bullfight, which lasts from 20-25 minutes, has three distinct stages – ‘tercios’ or thirds. Matadors are dressed in ornately sequined and gold-embroidered uniforms, a short jacket/vest and knee-length, skintight pants made of silk or satin. The uniforms of the assistants are also flashy, though not as ornate.

Tercio de Varas

A procession of matadors accompanied by their cuadrillas enters the ring to a thunderous applause; they take their bows and move on.  After getting a symbolic authorization for the keys to the Puerta de Los Toriles (bull pen) from the presiding guest of honor in attendance, the first matador directs the gate to be opened, and out comes a charging bull running around, confused and angry.

The matador has a red capote (cape) and the banderilleros have a magenta and gold capote with which they ‘work’ the bull.

In this first stage, Tercio de Varas, the bull is confronted by the matador and banderilleros with their capes. The bull is taunted and dared and a series of passes are performed, some very close,- to warm up the crowd and work up the bull. The matadors and banderilleros are wearing bubble gum colored socks, the rationale for which I do not understand (bulls are colorblind, at least partially). Perhaps something to do with good luck, or just tradition?

  • Death in the Afternoon
  • Death in the Afternoon

Next, the two picadors (men on blindfolded horses) engage the bull and drive steel tipped lances into his back and neck muscles to weaken and ‘soften him up’. They twist and gouge the lance to tear the muscles and cause significant blood loss, thus diminishing the bull’s ability to easily lift his head.

Although the horses are surrounded by a protective, padded covering, they still do get injured some times. These mighty bulls have no trouble pushing and jerking the horse around.

One horse gets the wind blown out of him when the bull lunges at him and prods his belly with his horns, easily lifting the horse with the mounted picador off his feet and bringing both down flat.

Tercio de Banderillas

In the next stage, Tercio de Banderillas, more damage is done to the bull when the three banderilleros taunt and tease the animal with their capes, making him run around and causing him to lose more blood and tire out.

  • Death in the Afternoon
  • Death in the Afternoon

The banderilleros next proceed to stab the bull with brightly colored steel darts and plant these sharp barbed sticks into his shoulders to cause more blood loss and to further weaken him. Each of the three banderilleros carries one pair of these darts/sticks, and so the bull ends up being tortured with six of them as he is made to run around while bleeding from the inflicted wounds. By now, the agitated bull is really exhausted and dizzy.

Tercio de Muerte

In the final stage, Tercio de Muerte, the matador re-enters the ring alone with his red cape and a steel sword, whisking his cape in choreographed moves, provoking the wearied beast to make a series of close passes and setting him up for the final estocada (death blow).

For a moment, looking at the matador’s blood stained uniform, I think he has been gored. However, the uniform has got bloodied from close contact with the bleeding bull, and this is just part of the matador’s showmanship, confidently walking away with his back facing the bull, never mind that the bull barely has energy to even move.

  • Death in the Afternoon
  • Death in the Afternoon
  • Death in the Afternoon

The defenseless bull is next maneuvered into a position for a final fatal stab in between the shoulder blades and right through the aorta, lungs, spinal cord or heart (or, presumably, a combination of them).

Below is a gory picture I managed to capture as the matador’s sword goes through the bull. If the matador gets it right, the bull immediately falls and meets a prompt death. If the sword does not get inserted and lodged properly, the bull dies a longer, agonizing death as he runs around writhing in pain with the sword cutting up his insides, often spewing blood from the nose and/or the mouth.

This particular bull does not die swiftly. In fact, only two out of six bulls go down speedily to their deaths; the others require some extra ‘work’ – translated: more torment/suffering.

  • Death in the Afternoon
  • Death in the Afternoon

The sword page with a smaller sword/knife is called to plunge it into the back of the head of the bulls that do not die, ensuring a fast and ‘honorable death’, to loosely quote Mr. Hemingway, who claimed to have seen over 1,500 bulls killed in the ‘field of honor’!

Once dead, the bull gets dragged behind horses out of the bull ring to be served up on the menu of nearby restaurants the same evening.

A few minutes after the sounds of “Olé! Olé!” and “muy bien” have died down and the first bull is out of the ring, another hapless bull enters the arena and the sadistic cycle of punishment and torture starts again, until all six bulls have met their painful deaths by the end of the gory spectacle.

Final Thoughts

I love Spain, a country that has made some glorious contributions to the Western culture, but the atrocious spectacle of tormenting bulls to their excruciating death for entertainment is not one of them! Although I would be remiss not to recognize the display of style, technique, artistry, showmanship, gallantry, and chutzpah of the nimble matadors and banderilleros.

Equally, it may be argued that bullfighting is a demonstration of cowardice, sadism and brutality perpetuated against a lone, confused, terrified, psychologically tormented and eventually wounded beast who is ultimately put to his humiliating and miserable death. And all that ‘tormenting-for-entertainment’ in front of an unapologetic crowd lusting for blood who celebrates the slow torture and ultimate death of the bull with much elation and applause. Regrettably, I too ‘once’ made up that crowd, but never again!

So far, about morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” [Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon]

No, I did not ‘feel good after’, Mr. Hemingway!

Recorte, a better option to Death in the Afternoon

If one really gets their kicks watching the capriciousness of bulls, I can recommend a pastime called Recorte. This art of leaping over thundering bulls probably requires as much skill as a momentous leap of faith! A gutsy daredevil recortador dodging the staccato sprints of a 500+ Kg charging bull, using every trick in the ‘bovine parkour’ playbook moments before a possible head-on collision disaster – leaps, summersaults, twists, flips, dives, dodges and even pole-vault.

Death in the Afternoon or Recorte

It’s a non-lethal alternative, at least for the animal (bulls are never harmed intentionally), to the premeditated murder in Corrida de Toros. Here is a short video clip to get a sense of the sport’s exhilaration and the foreboding aspect of it:

Much has been said of Hemingway, perhaps part apologue, part verity: raconteur, man’s man, hunter, rough and tumble fighter, misogynist, seasoned full-time inveterate womanizer, chauvinistic self-absorbed pig, an arrogant bully and a boor with thundering moods, a man given to testing his virility on woman after woman, often finding himself in love with two women at the same time! He may not have been a role model, but you can’t say that this hard-living enigmatic personality did not live a full life, at full throttle.

There were other writers of his era, equally gifted (William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, etc.), but I don’t believe anyone so dominated the imagination of his time as Hemingway did – a multifarious enigma as well as a cultural icon.

Even with all his passion for bullfighting and glorification of the sport, Hemingway conceded this much: “It is a tragedy, and it symbolizes the struggle between man and the beasts…. Bullfighting is not a sport. It was never supposed to be. It is a tragedy. A very great tragedy. The tragedy is the death of the bull.”

Sadly, the very women, drink, money, ambition and seductions of fame that Hemingway so coveted, ultimately destroyed him. The (probable) narcissistic personality disorder in his later years, coupled with a convoluted web of mental illness, brain damage, shock treatments, diabetes, physical illnesses, sexual impotence and fetishism (he developed an obsession with cross-dressing) finally drove him to take his life by his own hand with a shotgun.


Click here for more of Nasser Tufail’s musings: Dorchester, the Fascinating County Town of Dorset – Unexpected Serendipity

Nasser Tufail

Nasser Tufail grew up in Pakistan and after finishing his secondary education at a boarding school, moved to the USA where he completed his undergraduate and graduate studies. After working in aviation and IT for such companies as Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and IBM, he ventured out on his own and founded two IT companies involved in Business Intelligence/analytics and Supply Chain Execution. He sold his stake in the businesses and took early retirement to travel and see the enchanting world. He has lived in 6 countries and travelled extensively to scores of others in Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America. He currently resides with his lovely wife and best friend, Selma, on the Costa del Sol in Spain.

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  1. I am sad and pained for the bulls but equally to find a few facts about my favourite writer which are not easy to ignore

    • Socrates is known to have said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”. I think by writing like this – as honestly as possible – we can examine the way life is lived and hopefully learn to be more inclusive and empathetic. I’m glad you liked it, Mahwash.

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