Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The bullfighting episodes in The Sun Also Rises are rich in symbolic possibilities. The multiple possible interpretations of these passages speak to the depth and complexity of the text. For example, nearly every episode involving bulls or bullfighting parallels an episode that either has occurred, or will soon occur, among Jake and his friends. The killing of the steer by the bull at the start of the fiesta, for instance, may prefigure Mike’s assault on Cohn. Alternatively, we can read this incident as prefiguring Brett’s destruction of Cohn and his values. Furthermore, the bullfighting episodes nearly always function from two symbolic viewpoints: Jake’s perspective and the perspective of postwar society. For instance, we can interpret the figure of Belmonte from the point of view of Jake and his friends. Just as Cohn, Mike, and Jake all once commanded Brett’s affection, so too did Belmonte once command the affection of the crowd, which now discards him for Romero.
In a larger context, Belmonte can symbolize the entire Lost Generation, whose moment seems to have passed. On still another level, Hemingway uses bullfighting to develop the theme of the destructiveness of sex. The language Hemingway employs to describe Romero’s bullfighting is almost always sexual, and his killing of the bull takes the form of a seduction. This symbolic equation of sex and violence further links sexuality to danger and destruction. It is important to note that the distinctions between these interpretations are not hard and fast. Rather, levels of meaning in The Sun Also Rises flow together and complement one another.