The scene opens in Madrid at a small residential hotel called the Pension Luarca in the Calle San Jeronimo. It is respectable but cheap, and is full, Hemingway tells us, of “second-rate” bullfighters. The protagonist, a young country boy named Paco whose sisters are also employed at the Luarca and who sent for him from a small village, has dreams of becoming a bullfighter himself and romanticizes the Luarca and its residents.
Hemingway presents us with character sketches of the Luarca’s bullfighting residents: three matadors, two picadors, and one banderillero. One of the matadors has become a coward because of being badly gored and consequently puts on a show of joviality to hide his insecurities. He makes passes at Paco’s oldest sister and she rebuffs him, laughing at his cowardice. A second matador is chronically ill and looks it, spending most of his time in his room though making appearances at meals. The third matador is a man who once drew crowds because of his courage in the ring, but whose style is now considered old fashioned and who has become, like the rest of his fellow residents, decidedly second-rate.
The first picador is gray-haired and drinks to excess every evening, staring at any woman in the room and treating everyone with contempt while the second is a large man who is too quarrelsome to work long for any one matador. The banderillero is middle aged but capable.
On one particular evening, the dining room of the Luarca is occupied by the gray-haired picador, an auctioneer, and two priests. Three waiters attend them: Ignacio, who is a tall waiter who is impatient to get to an Anarcho-Syndicalist political meeting, a middle-aged waiter who is in no particular hurry to do anything, and Paco. The tall waiter criticizes the drinking habits of the guests, and calls the bulls and the priests “the two curses of Spain.” He begins advocating class warfare while the second waiter gently suggests he “save it for the meeting” and urges him to leave early in order to attend. Paco, who overhears the conversation, absorbs the ideals of all the occupants of the room; he hopes to be a good Catholic, a revolutionary, a hard worker, and a bullfighter.
Presently, the auctioneer leaves and the picador begins staring at the two priests, who are having a conversation about how they have been waiting for two weeks to see someone named Basilio Alvarez who is presumably a resident of the Luarca. The picador leaves for the café, and soon afterward, the priests leave as well.
Paco and the middle-aged waiter clear the tables and repair to the kitchen, where they share a bottle of wine with Enrique, the boy who washes the dishes. The middle-aged waiter leaves, and Paco and Enrique begin to talk bullfighting and practice veronicas using napkins. Paco asserts that he would never be afraid in the ring and Enrique resolves to prove him wrong.
Meanwhile, most of the second-rate residents of the Luarca are drinking and talking at the Café Fornos while the middle-aged waiter is drinking at the Café Alvarez. Paco’s sisters are at the pictures and the landlady of the Luarca is sleeping upstairs.
Back at the Luarca, Enrique takes a chair and ties two kitchen knives onto the legs, then runs at Paco in a makeshift bullfight. Paco is first successful in evading the knives but then is stabbed. His femoral artery empties as he attempts to say his act of contrition and he dies. Hemingway ends the piece with a paragraph about how Paco died too young to have lost any of his illusions, ideals, and dreams.
On the surface, this story is the simple, tragic chronicle of a young and idealistic boy who dies before he is able to achieve his goals. Scholarship on this story has been limited, but most critics simply blame Paco for his own death. In this simplistic reading of the story, Paco is overconfident and lacks skill as a potential bullfighter; the tragedy is Paco’s but so is the blame.
However, a very different reading of the story is possible. Hemingway, as has been widely recognized by scholars and biographers, suffered from feelings of disillusionment and emptiness following his experiences in World War I and throughout his life. These feelings are described in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and other works. Given this tendency toward existential nihilism, or the belief that life is meaningless and that individuals must create their own value systems and live by them in order to make their lives authentic and worthwhile, the character of Paco and the tragedy of his early death can be viewed as a blessing in disguise. Instead of having his ideals and illusions crushed by reality and experience, Paco was able to die attempting to achieve his dream of becoming a bullfighter.
Hemingway spends most of the story describing the “second rate” members of the bullfighting profession who inhabit the Pension Luarca. These emotional and physical wrecks include among their ranks a cowardly bullfighter, an invalid bullfighter, a bullfighter whose name can no longer draw a crowd, an egotistical picador who has lost respect for everything but his own talent, and a quarrelsome picador who keeps picking fights with his own employers. Hemingway even throws in a busboy who has proven to himself, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he lacks the courage to face a bull. These characters nearly all lead depressing and unfulfilling lives; their heydays have come and gone and many of them have nothing to look forward to in their future.
There is only one exception to the general gloom at the Luarca, and that is Paco. He is the only character described as having any joy or wonder. Generally, this is referred to as a sense of the “romantic.” Paco is the only one with beliefs, ideals, and illusions, some of which he absorbs from those around him. As he is speaking to the two other waiters in the dining room, Paco thinks to himself, “He himself would like to be a good catholic, a revolutionary, and have a steady job like this, while, at the same time, being a bullfighter.” He adopts the beliefs and ideals of the Anarcho-Syndicalist, the priests, the middle-aged waiter, and the bullfighters who surround him.
In one sense, Paco’s malleability is one of his weaknesses, as is his idealism. It can be argued that Paco is merely a gullible, easily awed country boy who had overly-grand dreams for himself and met his end through overconfidence. On the other hand, there is a real sense of sympathy and even nostalgia in Hemingway’s description of Paco and his short existence. Paco’s dreams are not the dreams of a fool, merely the dreams of a youth. In the second to last paragraph of the story, Hemingway writes, Paco “died, as the Spanish phrase has it, full of illusions. He had not had time in his life to lose any of them, nor even, at the end, to complete an act of contrition.” Perhaps it is better for Paco, Hemingway implies, that he perished attempting to fulfill his dream of becoming a bullfighter than rotting away as a second-rate coward or has-been in a place like the Luarca. Given the reader’s knowledge of the type of deep depression and despair that overtook Hemingway at certain points in his life, this reading of the story must receive serious consideration.