“At noon of Sunday, the 6th of July, the fiesta exploded. There is no other way to describe it.”
So asserts narrator Jake Barnes at the beginning of chapter fifteen of Ernest Hemingway’s first serious novel, The Sun Also Rises. And yet, for the next seventy-two pages, Barnes goes on and on, describing that very event with great authority. The result is arguably the finest fictional treatment of the Catholic festival of San Fermin, in Pamplona, Spain—a seven-day spree of parties, parades and, famously, bullfighting.
Not only is this late and relatively short section of the novel rich and entertaining, but it contains the principal climax, and thus is essential to the overall piece. But discerning readers will note that the action playing out during that fictional week in Pamplona also has its own recognizable trajectory; and when analyzed exclusively, it becomes apparent that Hemingway’s plotting even imbues it with the stand-alone qualities of a novella.
John Gardner, in his landmark instructional book, The Art of Fiction, lists what he feels are some identifying features of the novella form, the most obvious being that a novella is “shorter than a novel … and both longer and more episodic than a short story.” Delving a bit deeper into this notion, however, he adds that it “usually has a series of climaxes, each more intense than the last, though it may be built—and perhaps in fact ought to be built—of one continuous action.”
While it may be pointless to argue that Hemingway could have, or should have, crafted a novella out of the San Fermin scene, it is at least intriguing to consider the sub-plot set in Pamplona as satisfying many, if not all, of the form requirements Gardner discusses in The Art of Fiction. Using Gardner’s criteria, one discovers that this section (which comprises the entirety of chapters fifteen through eighteen of The Sun Also Rises) does indeed play out episodically, with an ascending line of action punctuated by ever-intensifying climaxes.
The first of these “episodes” is relatively low-tension and heavy on exposition. It begins with Jake’s comment likening the start of the fiesta to an explosion, and it carries on through the first climax, the initial running of the bulls—the conclusion of which, neatly, is signaled by a “pop” of an explosive rocket. Much of this opening episode seems intended to prepare readers and ground them in the milieu of Pamplona and its annual fiesta.
For example, Hemingway provides significant descriptions of both sacred and profane elements of the festival, including the fireworks, the religious procession from church to church, and the exuberant riau-riau dancers. Hemingway does insert a bit of foreshadowing into this episode, though. In one instance, his narrator muses how “it seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta.” And, toward the close, readers see the first clues of the bankrupt, Scottish drunkard Mike Campbell’s growing hostility toward Robert Cohn, a Jewish writer who had recently had a brief affair with Campbell’s fiancée, Lady Brett Ashley.
In episode two, the enmity directed at Robert Cohn grows in scope after his brazen prediction that he might actually be “bored” at the opening bullfight. Now it is not only Campbell who dislikes Cohn, but Jake Barnes and Barnes’ friend, Bill Gorton, do as well. Gorton is merely sore about the boredom comment, though. For Barnes, it is more complicated. As it happens, he has deep feelings for the Brett Ashley too—feelings the hard-drinking noblewoman reciprocates, but only up to a certain point. Like Campbell, his resentment over the affair with Cohn will only intensify.
This portion also introduces the major complication of the fiesta “novella”—that of Pedro Romero, the young, dashing, and eminently talented matador who catches the roving eye of Lady Brett during his initial bullfight. But Romero is no rogue. Rather, Hemingway renders him a sympathetic character of integrity—an implication that is amplified when the local hotel proprietor, Montoya, expresses to fellow aficionado Jake Barnes his hope that the young matador does not become corrupted by foreign profiteers or predatory women.
Unfortunately, for everyone concerned, Lady Brett is in town. And now her growing and very obvious attraction to Romero ignites Mike Campbell’s anger. But rather than confronting the situation directly, Campbell chooses the closest and easiest target, Robert Cohn, and this second episode climaxes with a near-physical confrontation between the two men.
Episode three is brief but potent. In a private moment with Jake Barnes, Brett confesses that she is in love with Pedro Romero and is hell-bent on wooing him, regardless of the potential consequences. Jake advises against this course at first; but in the end, he orchestrates a rendezvous between Brett and Romero at the café. He leaves them in flirtatious conversation at the table, and when he returns sometime later, they are no longer there. Of course, the “climax” of this particular section, the consummation of their mutual desire, is implied rather than explicitly presented.
The fourth and final episode of the “novella” comprises only seven pages, and all of it is climactic. Jake Barnes joins Bill and Mike outside of a bar, where the two of them had just had an altercation with a group of “damned English swine”—likely people to whom the profligate Mike Campbell owed money. Bill convinces them to leave with him. But shortly after they settle down at the Café Suizo, more trouble arrives if the form of an enraged Robert Cohn, who grills Barnes on the mysterious whereabouts of Brett Ashley. Barnes lies to him, denying that he knows anything about it. The drunken and equally incensed Mike Campbell tells Cohn to go to hell, adding that Brett has “gone off with the bullfighter chap. They’re on their honeymoon.”
Pushed to the limit of his tolerance, the lovesick Cohn turns on Jake Barnes now and calls him a “damned pimp” for having arranged the rendezvous. Barnes stands up as swings at Cohn; but Cohn—a former college boxing champion—knocks Barnes out and pushes Campbell to the ground before stalking off in search of Brett and Romero. Not long after, a tearful, penitent Robert Cohn begs Jake Barnes’ forgiveness. Barnes grudgingly relents, saying it was “all right,” but it’s clear that whatever friendship the two had once enjoyed is now terminated.
After this ultimate climax of the “wonderful nightmare” of the San Fermin festival, a rather lengthy dénouement unfolds, which includes the second-hand account of Robert Cohn’s jealous attack on Pedro Romero in his hotel room, and Cohn’s subsequent departure from Pamplona. The closing bullfights of the fiesta also play out, featuring the injured Romero and Belmonte, a matador in decline.
And lastly, the “novella” concludes, at the end of chapter eighteen, with the despondency of both Mike and Jake over having lost Brett Ashley—although in the final analysis, this notion is moot, since neither of them had ever truly “possessed” the free-spirited woman in the first place. The narrator and Mike are seated in the dining room of the Hotel Montoya, along with Bill Gorton. Despite the lingering gloom, they try to make the best of things. But the pall of regret cannot be ignored. In the closing sentence of chapter eighteen—and the last line of this hypothetical novella—Ernest Hemingway provides a telling glimpse of the narrator’s assessment of the situation:
“The three of us sat at the table,…” Jake Barnes observes, “…and it seemed as though about six people were missing.”