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For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Front cover For Whom the bell TollsWritten in 1940, Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls is a 500+ page diary of the four days leading up to an assault on Segovia in the Spanish Civil War.  The hero of the novel is Robert Jordan, an American professor whose Communist sympathies have led him to volunteer to fight for the Republic, a revolutionary government that is fighting the fascists for control of Spain.  Written in a close third perspective, the novel follows Robert Jordan — who is alternately known as Ingles and Roberto  — as he meets up with a band of guerilla fighters hiding in the mountains ahead of the fascist lines, and lays the groundwork for a major Republican assault.  His job is relatively simple — he is a trained dynamiter that must ensure that a strategic bridge is blown up as the attack begins.

But the simple task is not easy.  When Robert Jordan meets up with the guerillas, he discovers that their leader Pablo has been ousted in favor of his mujer Pilar.  Pablo becomes a metaphorical stick of dynamite in the group, as he drinks and insults his companions, and Robert Jordan wonders whether or not it would be better to kill him before the attack begins.  His mind is further distracted from the task at hand when he meets Maria, a young woman who has survived a gang rape by the fascists that executed her parents.  Drawn instantly to her, he falls in love and enters a whirlwind relationship with her that is intensified by the dangers of the upcoming battle.  Knowing well that his chances of survival are slim, he engages Maria as his common-law wife within hours of meeting her.

In the mountains in the days before the attack, the relationships between the characters are intensified, as there is little to distract them from each other or the coming danger.  As Robert Jordan balances the needs of his mission with his own introspection and his feelings for Maria, we are treated to Hemingway’s understanding of the complexity of the emotional state of soldiers at war.  Robert Jordan fights through his fear, while also revelling in the camaraderie of strangers thrown together for a common and dangerous purpose.

I have been all my life in these hills since I have been here. Anselmo is my oldest friend.  I know him better than I know Charles, than I know Chub, than I know Guy, than I know Mike, and I know them well. Agustín, with his vile mouth, is my brother, and I never had a brother. Maria is my true love and my wife. I never had a true love. I never had a wife. She is also my sister, and I never had a sister, and my daughter, and I never will have a daughter. I hate to leave a thing that is so good. He finished tying his rope-soled shoes.

Hemingway also delves briefly at points in the novel into the mind of Anselmo, Robert’s Jordan’s guide and the viejo of the group in order to give us a sense of Robert Jordan from the outside perspective. Anselmo fights with his moral understanding that killing is wrong, even though he knows that it is necessary to protect himself and the lives of his companions.  Through the parallel views of Robert Jordan and Anselmo, we get a deeper portrait of the psychology that allows an ordinary person to destroy human life.

All that I am sorry for is the killing. But surely there will be an opportunity to atone for that because for a sin of that sort that so many bear, certainly some just relief will be devised. I would like to talk with the Inglés about it but, being young, it is possible that he might not understand. He mentioned the killing before. Or was it I that mentioned it? He must have killed much, but he shows no signs of liking it. In those who like it there is always a rottenness.

Although the novel could easily be a relentless barrage of the human cost of political upheaval, there is an enjoyable bravado that Hemingway employs in his characters that really gets the reader on their side.  Robert Jordan knows that his task is nearly impossible to survive, but he still wonders if he has a future back home in Montana, while Pilar revels in the base sexuality of the  love affair between Robert Jordan and Maria.  Agustin can’t utter a sentence without profanity (though, charmingly, these words are represented as ‘unprintable’ and ‘obscentiy’, which leads to charming phrases such as ‘I obscenity in the milk of your mother’). Even Maria, whose backstory paints a truly damaged woman, shows the world her courage through her willingness to love Robert Jordan. Pablo is the closest thing to a villain that the novel has, but his true crime is only cowardice, as he allows his fear to drive him into inaction and then, later, sabotage.

He was seeing the expanding wedges of threes, silver and thundering in the sky that were coming over the far shoulder of the mountain where the first sun was striking.  He watched them come shining and beautiful in the sun. He saw the twin circles of light where the sun shone on the propellers as they came.

One of the most memorable chapters of the novel is when Pilar tells Robert Jordan about the Republican victory in her home town, so that he will understand what Pablo was before he lost his nerve.  The chapter stands out in the brutality of the Republicans, who punish the Fascists and Fascist sympathizers.  Forced to walk a gauntlet, the losers march to their deaths, while the Republican winners are equally horrified and enthusiastic about meting out revenge.  Hemingway’s moral is clear — even the idealistic Republics use the same behavior as the Fascists, making it clear that idealism doesn’t protect anyone from their own culpability in the violence of war.

Pablo is very intelligent but very brutal. He had this of the village well planned and well ordered. Listen. After the assault was successful, and the last four guards had surrendered, and he had shot them against the wall, and we had drunk coffee at the café that always opened earliest in the morning by the corner from which the early bus left, he proceeded to the organization of the plaza. Carts were piled exactly as for a capea except that the side toward the river was not enclosed. That was left open.

Although war is shown as a terrible thing, Hemingway also shows us  moments of beauty in it, both in the emotional human connections and the aesthetic appreciation of war machinery.  The battles seem quaint to the modern reader, as the guerillas learn to use their maquinas — the automatic machine guns — and escape from battle on horses.    When the sleek planes of the Fascists fly overhead, the guerillas are almost certain that they are dead. As with all war stories, the stakes are as high as is possible; through every moment of the novel, each character knows that they risk their own death.  For many of the characters, it is even worse — they risk surviving and remembering the killing that they did in the name of idealism.

His eyes, watching the planes coming, were very proud. He saw the red wing markings now and he watched their steady, stately roaring advance. This was how it could be. These were our planes. They had come, crated on ships, from the Black Sea through the Straits of Marmora, through the Dardanelles, through the Mediterranean and to here, unloaded lovingly at Alicante, assembled ably, tested and found perfect and now flown in lovely hammering precision, the V’s tight and pure as they came now high and silver in the morning sun to blast those ridges across there and blow them roaring high so that we can go through.

Mostly, Hemingway leaves us with the solid understanding that there is no escaping the war when it takes place in your country — a lesson that is all too real when we compare the death tolls of Americans and Iraqis.  At some points of the novel, the similarities are eerie between the two conflicts, which gives For Whom the Bell Tolls a particular modern relevance.  Yet, at no point do the characters of For Whom the Bell Tolls question their idealism; for whatever reason they are drawn into the war, they are committed to seeing the fighting through, no matter the human cost.  Does that echo the voices of our soldiers today?  I am not so sure.

The title is based on a John Donne poem, which I will leave you with:

No man is anIland,intire of itselfe; every man is a peece of the

Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie
were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne
were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in
Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the
bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publish Date: October 21, 1940
  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • ISBN: 0684803356
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: classics, fiction
Subjects: communism, facism, love, spanish civil war, war

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  1. I read this as a teenager. Thank you for bringing back some wonderful memories.

    On a different note, am stopping by to welcome you to the Cherished Blogfest. Thankyou for joining. Please put up the Blogfest badge on the sidebar (with a link to one of the announcement posts from the co-hosts), so your audience is familiar with the blogfest and considers joining!

    Need any help, email me at atozstories at gmail dot com.

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