Posted in Fiction

Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.  The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass.  There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I first read Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls 
during the summer before tenth grade.  This novel and The Sun Also Rises served as my introduction into “real” literature.  I say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek because I have greatly enjoyed many books over the years that might not fall into the category of “real” literature.  I’m not sure who really decides what is considered “real” literature.

That being said, however, Hemingway holds a special place in my reading life because it was the first time I actually noticed the words the author used and determined for myself (before I heard anything from my high school English teachers) that something about the way Hemingway put words together was truly remarkable.

For Whom The Bell Tolls covers a four-day period in the life of Robert Jordan, an American soldier fighting in the Spanish Civil War.  As he hides himself away in the Spanish mountains with a small band of guerrillas, he plots to follow his order to blow up a bridge.  From when I was a teenager, I remembered that the goal of destroying the bridge was the central plot-line in the novel.  I remembered Robert Jordan and Maria’s amorous activities on the pine-needled mountain floor where the “earth moved”.   I remembered Pilar taking over the leadership of the guerrillas from her “ruined” husband, Pablo.

I did not remember the story slowly widening it’s scope before the actuall destruction of the bridge.  In the beginning of the novel, the reader gets to know  Robert Jordan and the other guerrillas from Jordan’s perspective.  However, the closer the plot moves toward Jordan’s goal, the more the reader sees things from others’ points of view.  In a lesser skilled author, this would somehow seem choppy and out of place; but Hemingway skillfully uses this device to build the tension among the characters and the reader.

I did not remember the extent to which Robert Jordan talked to himself and even argued with himself.  This allowed the reader to see the humanity of a soldier on the inside as well as the steadfastness of a soldier on the outside.  In spite of his thought processes, Jordan proceeds with his orders.

Hemingway served as a newspaper correspondent during the Spanish Civil War.  While a commentary on war, I can’t describe this novel as an “anti-war” novel.  Though Hemingway portrays war with all of it’s tragedy and trauma, he paints a picture of a small band of people who are willing to give up everything for the possibility of a better way of life.

4 thoughts on “Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls

  1. I just recently finished this book! I had been wanting to read a Hemingway novel and this one seemed to be a good choice. I found it to be somewhat predictable in its tragic human story, but very compelling in the way that Hemingway chose to write it. I was especially amused by the way he seemed to be often using formal Spanish with English words. I was impressed by the way he seamlessly incorporated Spanish cultural references and even cussing while being kind enough to help us understand and editing much of the content so we could enjoy it… all the while not making us feel like he’s babying us through the process.
    The story itself was compelling, and the setting was interesting. It made me want to learn more about the Spanish Civil War, and was a necessary reminder that in a war like that, no one wins.

    I was glad to see your thoughts about this book. Keep up the good writing.


    1. Thank you very much for your comment, Ben! I, too, liked the way Hemingway depicted the conversation in the novel. In most of his novels, his ability to write conversation is amazing. Interesting that you read it at the same time. As I was reading it, I was curious what your thoughts would be. I don’t know much about the specific politics of the Spanish Civil War. While I was reading it and hind sight being 20/20, I was thinking “Fascist government” or “Socialist government” – doesn’t seem like much of a choice here. I guess I gave the guerrillas the benefit of the doubt that they at least “thought” things would be better under a socialist government at the time. I feel uneducated but I’m not even sure who technically won the Spanish Civil War or whether it just got overshadowed by or got morphed into World War II.

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