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The Symbolism & Irony of the Short Story "The Undefeated"


Authors utilize symbols and irony to develop themes in their work. They are the building blocks of theme, so by deconstructing theme, these elements become more evident. To fully recognize and understand the use of symbols and irony in Ernest Hemingway's "The Undefeated," one should first identify the short story's possible themes.

One possible theme of "The Undefeated" is "society's tendency to build celebrity, only to unceremoniously destroy it." This theme easily applies to Manuel Garcia, the protagonist of "The Undefeated."

By keeping this theme in mind, it becomes easier to recognize symbolism and irony -- particularly verbal irony -- in Hemingway's "The Undefeated."

Beginning Verbal Irony
Irony sets the stage.

As Manuel visits Don Miguel Retana in order to secure a bullfight, he sees a bull's head stuffed and mounted on the wall. This is the bull that killed Manuel's brother -- "the promising one." The first verbal irony is found on the brass plate below the head. The bull's name, 'Mariposa,' comes before Manuel's brother's name. 'Mariposa" is also a feminine noun in Spanish and Manuel is doubly insulted by the verbal irony.

In the scene, Manuel states he is "a bullfighter." Retana replies, "Yes, while you're in there," implying that Manuel is nothing outside the ring and is on his way to becoming nothing in the ring. The verbal irony continues when Manuel states hopefully that, "They'd come to see me 'get it.' "

He then asks if Retana will provide a good 'picador' -- the bullfighter's assistant who uses a lance on the bull. However, in asking, Manuel realizes he "... was talking to a man who was no longer listening."

The verbal irony establishes Retana as the promoter and primary profiteer of the bullfights. With Manuel's celebrity waning, Retana has little interest in his abilities, let alone his well-being.

Building on Verbal Irony
Irony defines the conflict.

As Manuel waits in a cafe to meet Zurito, a picador he knows and trusts, the waiters question him -- without recognizing him -- about the bullfights. Besides the irony of lost recognition, the waiters ask if he is in the "Charlie Chaplins," a group that performs a burlesque of bullfighters by mirroring Chaplin's slapstick films. The irony of the waiters' question causes the coffee boy to look away, embarrassed.

When the waiters find out that Manuel is replacing a more popular bullfighter, they immediately focus their concern in that direction -- an ironic slight to Manuel.

The waiters continue, pointing out that bullfighters either "stand with" Retana the promoter and succeed or should just go out and shoot themselves.

The inherent irony of the waiters' questions and conversation accentuate the theme of celebrity destroyed. In fact, they're oblivious to Manuel: "They had forgotten about him. They were not interested in him." Newer celebrity has replaced the older, established celebrity.

Verbal Irony Intensfies Conflict
Irony and climax meet.

Verbal irony further emphasizes conflict during Manuel's bullfight and also continues to promote the thesis of "celebrity destroyed."

Before the bullfight, Manuel says to the picador, Zurito, "You ought to have seen me ..." Zurito replies with verbal irony and foreshadowing, "I don't want to see you ... It makes me nervous." Zurito continues with, "You got to quit ... No monkey business." Ironically, during their discussion, "monkey business" is happening with the "Charlie Chaplins" in the ring, which also foreshadows Manuel's fate.

Situational Irony
Irony also accompanies action.

In "The Undefeated," situational irony not only accentuates verbal irony, but also promotes the theme of "celebrity destroyed." In the beginning, Manuel attempts to negotiate with Retana. Retana undercuts Manuel, who points out that Villalta, a more current bullfighting "celebrity," receives much more. Retana replies, "You're not Villalta ..." This situation forces Manuel to admit his celebrity is waning. Newer celebrities have greater opportunities.

The greatest situational irony is the bullfight itself. Before Manuel begins, he must wait for the "Charlie Chaplins," who are met with a "... roar from the arena and then applause, prolonged applause, going on and on." The idea that the burlesque preceding the bullfight draws more spectator approval than the bullfight itself presents situational irony furthering the theme of celebrity lost.

During the bullfight, Manuel becomes as comic as the Chaplins. The initial applause is not for him, but for another, younger bullfighter. Eventually, during the bullfight, Manuel is knocked down and reduced to kicking at the bull's muzzle, "... like a man keeping a ball in the air." Although Manuel eventually kills the bull -- despite being severely wounded himself -- he is a laughingstock. The situation and events strip him of what little celebrity remains.

Symbols
Symbols add to effect.

Irony isn't as evident without the use of symbols, which accentuate verbal and situational irony.

Symbols used in "The Undefeated" include the coleta, the small pigtail matadors cultivate to show their status. At the beginning, Manuel's coleta is "pinned forward ... so that it would not show ... [giving] him a strange look." Zurito also vows to cut off Manuel's coleta if he doesn't agree to quit.

Another symbol, the "... substitute bullfight critic of El Heraldo ...," illustrates the disillusionment and disgust many have for older celebrities.

The swords Manuel uses during the bullfight symbolize his impotence in maintaining his celebrity. The swords bounce ineffectively off bone; they bend and have to be straightened over Manuel's knee. All the while, the spectators laugh.

Symbols augment verbal and situational irony to further strengthen the theme of celebrity destroyed by the society that helped create it.

About the Author

William Martin has earned degrees in English/language arts and education. His background includes teaching reading and writing, literature analysis, arts and culture, outdoor recreation, home repair and improvement. His first short story was published as a junior in high school; more years ago than he'd probably care to admit.

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