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.


Throughout the novel, many of the characters refer to their need to bathe, or find themselves near water. These comments may initially come across as offhanded or unremarkable, but they actually reflect an inherent desire to wash away the darkness that plagues their bleak lives. In literature, water frequently serves as a symbol of purification and signifies a character’s metaphorical rebirth. As a result of the novel’s hopeless tone, however, the traditionally uplifting significance of water disappears and transforms into a reminder of how helpless the characters are to change their situation. The fact that bathing is a topic that reappears numerous times throughout the novel suggests that despite their best effort to rid themselves of their struggles, the characters never reach a state of purity. Many of these references occur after particularly tense moments, such as when Brett returns to Paris after her affair with Cohn in San Sebastian. Jake also attempts to take a bath after Cohn apologizes for attacking him but is unable to do so, and this failure signifies the impossibility of repairing the social damage that occurred during the fiesta. The second key reference to water in the novel occurs during Jake and Bill’s fishing trip, an event which offers them a brief reprieve from the misery of their daily lives. In this scenario, the water in which they swim does seem to have some purifying effect as both men begin to feel more at peace during their time in Burguete. They quickly lose this feeling upon rejoining the group in Pamplona, however, and this change emphasizes the impermanent nature of happiness.

Bull Ears

In the aftermath of two separate bull fights, Romero cuts the ear off of his dead bull and gives it to Brett as a gift. This practice is a traditional element of bullfighting, and the cut ear serves as a kind of trophy for the matadors who are most successful in the arena. Giving these symbols of victory to Brett signifies Romero’s devotion to her and highlights the pride he takes in his strong performance. When Brett receives the bull ears, however, she shows little emotion, even going so far as to shove one in the back of a drawer to be forgotten about. This rather dismissive reaction foreshadows the eventual failure of Brett and Romero’s relationship. Instead of embracing Romero as a meaningful part of her life, Brett seems to treat her experiences with him as transactional. She values him for what he can give her which, in this case, is a bull ear symbolizing the strength associated with traditional masculinity. Jake, Mike, and Cohn are all more insecure as a result of the war, so Romero initially appears to be an ideal candidate for a woman searching for adventure and excitement. In the end, his heroic façade fails to hold Brett’s attention and she abandons him the same way she did his bull ear.