For Whom the Bell Tolls_Book Image
What I think
  • Plot
  • Settings
  • Characters
  • Writing

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I always enjoy reading Hemmingway – much is made of his economical style of writing and I think it is very beautiful. I feel that Hemmingway recognises the futility of trying to express everything that is felt and meant in words. For me, Hemmingway uses the gap between signifier and signified with true mastery, so that while you read what his characters say and feel, you know that what they are feeling is more than what you’ve read. This ability to convey the sensation of something falling out of his words, beyond the text, is what makes Hemmingway great.

For Whom the Bell Tolls has a simple plot – Robert Jordan is sent on a mission to blow up a bridge as part of an attack by the socialists in the Spanish Civil War, and the story covers the three or four days he spends with a guerilla group behind enemy lines as they plan and execute the attack. But Hemmingway aimed squarely at truth, and truth is hard, unforgiving and complex. Really the story is about what Robert Jordan learns about life in that time. He becomes good friends with the old hunter Anselmo, finds love with the beautiful Maria, learns a lot from the courageous Pilar and the clever and treacherous Pablo. Robert Jordan is a very well realised character – he has the idealism of youth which has led him, an American, to fight in Spain; yet he has learned enough of men to be cynical. While his is unswerving in his determination to do his duty, he strongly suspects his mission to be futile and suicidal. The novel is a lot about how he justifies his actions to himself in his mind. The main dramatic tension in the novel is between Jordan and his ‘illusioned’ followers, and the ousted guerilla leader Pablo, who is clever enough to recognise the nature of the mission and does not wish to carry it out. Jordan puts honour and duty before life; Pablo puts enjoyment of life before all. But this does not make him happy – he spends much of the novel drunk, in an escape from the hard truths of life.

The characters are not very sympathetic to Pablo – he has fallen from the murderous purity of purpose he had in younger life. Now he puts his own life before the revolution. Seeing how incompetently the revolution is conducted, it is hard to blame him. Yet all the characters do blame him – perhaps because they fear the loss of their illusions, as this will mean they have to examine the purpose of their lives (and deaths). Robert Jordan must search his own soul for this reason – he is both disillusioned and utterly set on his duty. He is held out as a good and strong man. As a reader I certainly liked him, and sympathised with his predicament. He finds solace in trying to live for now, experiencing the love of Maria over a few days as a lifetime of love. He considers his views of the afterlife and feels that he and his grandfather, as warriors, would be “acutely embarrassed by the presence of his father”, who committed suicide. He has deep regrets that he will die when he is only just beginning to understand life. It is extremely poignant.

While Hemmingway always strives to create true characters, as a man born in an age of nationalism he is certainly inclined to attribute aspects of personality to a kind of national, or even racial, character. Robert Jordan notes the move from great hospitality to violent brutality of the Spanish people. He considers them egotistical and unreliable, extremely brave at times yet also inclined to lack of discipline. The Spanish are not considered so unreliable, however, as gypsies – while he likes the gypsy Rafael he considers him “worthless” as a soldier. Indeed, Rafael is shown deserting his guardpost to hunt hares, putting everyone else at risk. Perhaps in the early-to-mid twentieth century there was such a thing as national character, but in my lifetime I have experienced little of it. I feel Hemmingway veers from truth in this respect, attributing personal traits to prejudiced views of nations and races.

Judgement is something very much on show in this novel. Robert Jordan judges the characters of the people he meets very exactly. I feel that this is a characteristic of Hemmingway’s writing – he tries to show the truth of a person, a whole rounded personality rather than a public front or shallow sketch. However, this display is never without a shade of judgement – I feel that there is never a neutral portrayal of negative traits. It is clear, ideologically, that Hemmingway holds out virtues to be physical courage, mental coolness, direct and honest talk, and the ability to back up words with action. He wants people to appear as they are. He is merciless in exposing pretension or duplicity.

That is not to say, however, that he is heartless – Robert Jordan finds love unlooked for in the beautiful, wounded Maria, and he is very compassionate in his treatment of her. Pilar is a beautifully drawn character – she is an ugly gypsy yet attractive for her great strength of character and strange way of thinking. Even the most negatively drawn characters, Pablo and the communist witch-hunting commissar M, have in the past been better men. Pablo redeems himself of his betrayal in the end with action – but in doing so commits murder of his compatriots. His ideology is clearly expressed: “They are not of our band”. This can be extrapolated out to many of his actions – his fervent beginning as a revolutionary with murder of the fascists in his town, and his ultimate betrayal of the revolution (and Robert Jordan) to save his band/himself. His view was always them and us – at the moment he shrinks it down to them and me when he betrays his band he finds himself “unbearably lonely”. Pablo needs something to identify with, but not something too much bigger than himself. Robert Jordan has lost his identity as an American – he is now the Ingles – and no longer identifies very much with the revolution. He has identified himself with the idea of duty above all – so that he can lose his life in pursuit of it.