The above video captures a mostly optimistic explanation of the events which take place during the annual San Fermin festival in Pamplona, Spain. The celebration occurs over the course of a week, and it includes the world famous Running of the Bulls each morning. And, while the San Fermin has been a key player in many bucket lists, it has also been famously reframed as a sobering tale of excess and human stupidity.
Few writers have been able to simultaneously capture and critique the attitudes of their time period the way that Ernest Hemingway did when he wrote The Sun Also Rises. His novel is told through the eyes of Jake Barnes, a young American journalist living in Paris following his service in World War 1. We experience his longing for meaning and sensibility in a culture reveling in strong drinks, sexual liberty, and hopeless romanticism. Along with a group of peers, and a lovely lost girl named Brett, Jake travels to Pamplona and attends the annual San Fermin festival. It is here that he witnesses his friends dive headlong into fleeting romances, alcohol abuse, and the bloody thrill of a bullfight.
The Sun Also Rises spends a majority of its narrative on negatively depicting celebration and social excess. We see the irony of partying in order to be happy only to find that it’s making people more miserable. Throughout the book, no one is satisfied enough to be where they are in the moment. Instead, there is a constant underlying need to get excited at every moment of the day and move as quickly as possible from one thrill to the next. Characters move from one bar to another, sometimes without even finishing their drinks. They jump to-and-fro from so many different forms of entertainment that they forget to be entertained. The result is a cast of deranged, exhausted, and emotionally driven characters with a complete lack of self-awareness or empathy for one another.
A powerful moment occurs as Jake interacts with a waiter following the Running of the Bulls. That morning, one of the tourists had been gored through the back.
The waiter: “‘A big horn wound. All for fun. Just for fun. What do you think of that?’
Jake: ‘I don’t know.’
The waiter: ‘That’s it. All for fun. Fun, you understand.’
Jake: ‘You’re not an aficionado?’
The waiter: ‘Me? What are bulls? Animals. Brute animals’” (Hemingway 200).
Moments later, they find out the man who was gored has been pronounced dead.
The waiter: “‘You hear? Muerto. Dead. He’s dead. With a horn through him. All for morning fun. Es muy flamenco’” (200).
This serves as a commentary on the way Jake and his peers have been behaving amongst themselves, but it also speaks to the broader human condition on display in the festival. They have all sacrificed their identity and personal dignity at the altar of the zeitgeist. Unfortunately, this self-defeating attitude is where many in our age of information and entertainment find themselves today: moving from one selfie or blog post to the next.
Despite Hemingway’s dower tone surrounding this portrayal of the Roaring 20s, there is a healthy alternative which he presents near the end of his novel. Following the wild events of the San Fermin, Jake takes a few days of time to himself in San Sebastian, mostly loitering in the area near a hotel. Within this period of solitude, we see a more well-adjusted character than at any other point in the novel. He does everything by himself with supreme enjoyment, and is recognizably more healthy in his psychology because of it. He swims, sleeps in, reads, converses with strangers, and lays about doing absolutely nothing for hours.
And it is here we are submerged into the oft-ignored and sometimes foreboding luxury many of us are afforded in the west: spare time. And by this I don’t mean found time or making up for lost time. I mean the time we rarely set aside for ourselves. And why would we remember to pause when busyness and productivity seem to naturally follow from one another? By no means is this a call for the continued laziness of those who fail to be productive already. But it speaks to the one who works and plays a bit too hard.
What Hemingway’s text is attempting to say in its final act is that the excitement we chase, much like the money we make or the food we eat, will only take our mental and emotional health so far before we must remember to blink, breath, digest, and let our hearts catch up to the life we’ve been living. And as we read of Jake’s solo vacation from a vacation, we find that, in his self-reflection he’s discovered the necessary tools to be there for his loved ones.
Following this respite from life, Jake is called upon to counsel Brett, whose fast-paced life has come to heartbreaking stop. As the two of them meet, and Brett revels in despondency and remorse, we see the juxtaposition self-care will often showcase. There is a not a single moment within the story where Brett takes any form of solitude or attempts to reflect in an edifying way on her surroundings. She is a woman on the go, and her spontaneous heart is in charge every step of the way. Jake has countered this lifestyle with consistent loneliness and intentional solace in order to truly find, understand, and enjoy who he is. Although the novel makes no direct mention of any emotional shift in Jake during his sabbatical, as we reads between the lines of his day-to-day swims and coffee breaks, we realize a more put together and sober-minded young man. When he faces Brett in her heartache, Jake can finally see the situation for what it is.
Through the eyes of Jake Barnes, Hemingway shows his reader the value of solace. He does not directly criticize the celebratory attitude of the San Fermin or those who choose to indulge in its festivities. The author himself enjoyed the running of the bulls, and it directly inspired his work. He writes of allowing ourselves to pause for a moment. We must breathe in and restrain our self-induced anxiety. Drawing on the virtue of self-control, we then find that personal and public life is truly a joy without having to be thoughtless and chaotic.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. 1926.