Go back to the Faulkner page for more texts and other resources.

The Bulls and Steers Imagery Association in Ernest Hemingway's

The imagery associated with bulls and steers is confusing, since it is clearly supportive of bulls over steers. Bulls are associated with passion

The Bulls and Steers Imagery Association in Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises"

Mahmood Azizi,
English Department of the University of Mazandaran
[email protected]

The imagery of bulls and steers pervades Hemmingway?s novel, The Sun Also Rises. Bullfighting is a major plot concern and is very important to the characters. The narrator physically resembles a steer due to the nature of his injury. Mike identifies Cohn as a steer in conversation because of his inability to control Brett sexually. Brett falls for a bullfighter, who is a symbol of virility and passion. However, there is a deeper level to the bull-steer dichotomy than their respective sexual traits. The imagery associated with bulls and steers is more illustrative than their possession or lack of testicles. In their roles and in the images associated with them, bulls are glorious, exciting and dangerous. Steers are humble, impotent and safe. Hemmingway?s treatment of these associations favors an ethic of weakness prevailing over strength. Despite the seeming advantages to being a bull and the explicit statements in their favor, steers are the true heroes in Hemmingway?s novel.
The imagery associated with bulls and steers is confusing, since it is clearly supportive of bulls over steers. Bulls are associated with passion. Those who identify with bulls through their enthusiasm for bullfighting are called "aficionado" from the Spanish word for passion (131). Those who lack aficion are valueless while a true aficionado is a "buen hombre" (132). The bulls are "beautiful," muscular, aggressive and "dangerous" (139, 141). Because of their physical prowess and their sexual potency, bulls are capable of ascending to the heights of glory. They arouse passions in the crowds who gather to watch them run and fight. In sharp contrast, the steers are weak and emasculate. The steers at the unloading of the bulls back away with their "heads sunken" in deference to the superior power of the bulls (139). When the bulls enter the ring they "tear in at the steers and the steers run around like old maids trying to quiet them down" (133). Jake and his companions witness a bull gore a steer upon unloading, prompting Cohn to observe "it?s no life being a steer" (141). Mike?s supreme insult to Cohn is to compare him to a steer. Clearly, this treatment shows how inferior steers are to bulls. Steers lack not only testicles, but also the ability to inspire passion. No one goes to the bullfight to watch the steers. Steers are cut off from the heights of glory to which the bulls ascend. The diction is clearly on the side of the bulls. The bulls are the more attractive and "noble" of the two images. However, I feel that Hemmingway prefers the less dazzling, but more stable, life of the steers.
Hemmingway?s preference for steers is shown in the implicit and explicit critiques of bulls. One such critique is implicit in Robert Cohn?s actions. When he trades the steer?s role for that of the bull, unhappiness and pain result. Jake, Mike and Pedro are physically injured and Cohn is emotionally mortified. The bull which gores the steer is described as being "just like a boxer" (139). We know that Cohn, too is a boxer. When he turns his boxing abilities against his former companions, he dies as far as the novel is concerned. Like a spent bull, he must leave the ring after the fight never to return. By contrast, Jake, the steer whom Cohn gores, remains in the ring. In addition to this implicit critique, the waiter at the caf? explicitly criticizes the violent and transitory nature of the bull. The man killed by the bull is described as "badly cogido" (197). The word comes from the Spanish verb coger, which means to grab or to take. Cogido, the participle, means to have been tossed, taken, or colloquially to have been fucked. The man, Vicente, is not only the victim of the bull?s violence, but of his own aficion. The waiter points out the absurdity of a death "all for sport, all for pleasure" (197). To trade a life for "morning fun" is ridiculous (198). For him bulls are "brute animals" which cause such foolish death (197). The temporary thrill of passion extinguishes itself in a moment through the agency of the object and symbol of passion itself. These critiques indicate that Hemmingway is rejecting the traditional image of a glorious hero for that of a pragmatic, ordinary hero. Passion is rejected in favor of moderation, since the characters who, like steers, resist the least are the most successful.
Hemmingway?s portrayal of steers is based on a reversal of the perceived power structure. The bulls are clearly superior to the steers in their physical strength. The steers are dispassionate and weak. However, in their weakness lies their strength. The weak, emasculate steers are required to pacify and abjure against the violence of the bulls. The steers control the bulls by corralling them and subduing their inordinate passion. Furthermore, despite their abuse at the hands of the bulls, the steers have a much greater chance of survival than the bulls. No matter how well a bull performs, it cannot win the bullfight. The steers live with less passion, but they live longer. This paradox in which weakness is strength makes the steers the true victors in the struggle. In the novel, both the literal steers and the figurative steers, like Jake, serve to ameliorate the dangerous tensions around them. This is not to say that they solve the problems that afflict the bulls. They merely serve to protect the bulls from themselves for a time. At times this amelioration requires submitting to the bulls? horns. At other times it consists of building the herd. The primary concern of the steer is not passion, but stability. In the ring, the steers submit to the bull?s horns in order to calm them and form a herd. The herd is safe because the individual bulls are not threatened. Jake explains that "they only want to kill when they?re alone" (141). Jake tries to ensure the stability of his circle of companions throughout the novel not because it is best for them individually, but because they are safe when they are together. In order to prevent infighting, Jake submits to Cohn?s fists as an attempt to prevent Cohn from turning on Brett and Romero. It is important that the bulls of the group not fight. This high prioritization of the herd also leads Jake to accept Cohn?s handshake after having been beaten by that same hand. The power of the steer is to pacify the bull, not to confront it.
Through the inversion of imagery, the critique of passion and the paradox of strength in weakness, Hemmingway shows his preference for the steers as the true heroes of the novel. The ordinary and metered way in which the life of a steer is lived is shown to be the more successful approach to the world. While bulls experience a short-lived glory, steers enjoy long term stability. These two types need each other to check their natural tendencies. Without the bulls, the steers would stagnate. Without the steers, the bulls would self-destruct. The novel is a story about passion and how it must be pacified by the pedantic voice of normalcy. The way of the steer rescues the way of the bull from its conclusion in self-annihilation. In turn, the aficion of the bulls gives meaning and purpose to the life of the steer.

Authors | Quotes | Digests | Submit | Interact | Store

Copyright © Classics Network. Contact Us