In The Sun Also Rises, bullfighting comes to represent the brutality and violence of war. From the fireworks of the fiesta exploding like mortar shells to the actual strategy and bloodshed of the fights, Hemingway uses bullfighting as a way to mine the characters' experiences in the war. This comparison is set up in Chapter 10:
"Oh, forget about it," Robert Cohn said. "Let's bet on something else. Can you bet on bull-fights?"
"You could," Bill said, "but you don't need to."
"It would be like betting on the war," I said. “You don’t need any economic interest.”
Through this simile, Jake asserts to Robert that betting on bullfighting is much the same as betting on the war—referring, of course, to World War I. As is the case with much of Hemingway’s minimalist prose, there are multiple subtexts to this statement. On one level, betting on war would be in especially poor taste because it would involve betting on the very lives of the soldiers fighting. To have economic interest invested in a wager on a war would be to have economic interest in death itself. It would be much the same with bullfighting, which sees no small amount of bloodshed as bulls are killed. The sport can even lead to the death of bullfighters and, in some cases, civilians, as the reader will soon witness in Chapter 17.
On another level, Jake may simply be referring to the sheer entertainment value and captivating quality of bullfighting. Whereas some people need to gamble on sporting events to fully invest themselves in the outcome, the events of the bullfight—with its rituals and sacred significance—is engaging enough on its own.
In The Sun Also Rises, bullfighting is not just bullfighting. Over the course of the novel, Hemingway makes it increasingly clear that bullfighting represents many inevitable parts of the human condition—from the violence of war to male sexuality. In Chapter 13, he uses a simile to make such comparisons:
"My God, isn't he beautiful?" Brett said. We were looking right down on him.
"Look how he knows how to use his horns," I said. "He's got a left and a right just like a boxer."
Jake establishes himself early on as an aficionado, or expert, in the world of bullfighting. He demonstrates his impressive knowledge throughout the novel, and this simile comparing the bull’s movements to a boxer’s movements ultimately conveys the intricacies of bullfighting in terms that Brett—and the reader—may find more relatable. On a deeper level, the simile furthers the implication that bullfighting represents something much more human than simply ritual blood sport. Like boxing, bullfighting becomes a potent reflection of its participants and spectators. This simile is just one in a consistent strain of references to boxing and its significance throughout the novel, from Robert’s experience boxing at Princeton to the nighttime fighting scene in Paris to the ill-fated brawl between Mike, Jake, and Robert.
In Chapter 13, Mike excoriates Robert for still being in love with Brett despite their engagement and her obvious disinterest. As he lashes out, he compares Cohn to a steer:
Why do you follow Brett around like a poor bloody steer? Don't you know you're not wanted? I know when I'm not wanted. Why don't you know when you're not wanted? You came down to San Sebastián where you weren't wanted, and followed Brett around like a bloody steer. Do you think that's right?
Steers are castrated oxen used to temper the aggression of the bulls in the rituals leading up to a bullfight. By wielding this simile, Mike launches a direct assault on Robert’s masculinity and sexual potency. He implies that Robert is fundamentally unfit to be a proper lover for Brett and incapable of being worthy of her affection.
As the elegance of both bulls and bullfighters—and the extreme athleticism of the sport—is a central concern in The Sun Also Rises, this is quite a brutal accusation. It is especially fraught because both Mike and Robert are in the midst of witnessing Brett fall for the dashing, talented young bullfighter Romero and are therefore painfully aware of their own inadequacies.
Some of the most vivid narration in The Sun Also Rises comes about at the bullfights in Pamplona. In Chapter 18, as Romero faces a bull, Hemingway uses similes to compare Romero's cape and his graceful movements to nonviolent, lullingly peaceful things:
The dampened, mud-weighted cape swung open and full as a sail fills[...]
It was all so slow and so controlled. It was as though he were rocking the bull to sleep.
By using such similes, Hemingway highlights the ease with which Romero is able to conduct himself in the ring. Although his cape is dirty and heavy with mud, it appears to Jake as a sail full of wind on a sailboat—an undeniably pleasant and peaceful image. In turn, Romero himself comes to seem "so slow and so controlled" that it's as if Jake has completely overlooked the violence of the young man's profession. Indeed, he thinks that Romero's struggle with the bull is as graceful as simply "rocking" the raging animal to sleep.
Romero’s prominence in the story, and his presence as a new love interest for Brett, is in no small part related to his prodigious bull fighting. The more graceful the bullfighter, the better. In addition, by noting that Romero moves in these ways, Jake—as the narrator—demonstrates for the reader that he is indeed an aficionado of the sport.