” I think that is all, he said to himself. It is perfectly clear and I do not think there are any holes in it. The two posts will be destroyed and the bridge will be blown according to Golz’s orders and that is all of my responsibility. All of this business of Pablo is something with which I should never have been saddled and it will be solved one way or another. ” (18: 226)
Pit against the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, in For Whom the Bell Tolls Hemingway critiques warfare from the political abstractions and distant generals to the individual lives it destroys. Since the novel captures the many actions that take place in a distant village under three days, every shade of character and dynamics is keenly put into focus.
Robert Jordan has been living in Spain for 12 years when the war breaks out. He has joined the volunteer brigades, and arrives deep in the mountain wilderness of Spain with orders to recruit and employ the services of irregular militia hiding out there in the vicinity of a small bridge that will be key to an impending offensive. Robert only has 3 days to plan the demolition of the strategically important bridge. Blowing it off is easy for him, but his task also requires that he wins the hearts and minds of the locals in order to secure their loyalty and have them as an effective force to carry out the mission.
What a business. You go along your whole life and they seem as though they mean something and they always end up not meaning anything . . . on a lousy show like this, co-ordinating two chicken-crut guerilla bands to help you blow a bridge under impossible conditions, to abort a counter-offensive that will probably already be started, you run into a girl like this Maria. (13:167)
Most of the novel deals with Robert Jordan’s relationships with members of the colorful guerilla group, including the girl Maria with whom he falls in love. Pablo is the band’s military leader who spends much time in alcoholic stupor. His comrades fear that he will sabotage the mission. His woman is Pilar, a tough and savvy woman who is steeped in gypsy lore and superstition. A fine warrior, she’s also loyal and big-hearted. She later takes Pablo’s role and commands fighters to form allegiance with El Sordo. She also takes care of Maria, who was rescued and carried away from the train that the guerilla had blown up. Her entire family fell victims to the war. While Robert’s thoughts make up a big part of the narrative, it’s Pilar’s account of many events and anecdotes that reflect the cruelty and inhumanity of the war.
Do you believe in the possibility of a man seeing ahead what is to happen to him? (19:250)
The writing of For Whom the Bell Tolls is simple and sparse, but not without flaws. The overly frequent uses of “thee” and “thou”, as well as “obscenity” and “muck” can be frustrating. Over 300 pages cover a mere three days during which time nobody has anything to do—other than swearing at one another and fighting one another in the mouth. I have to force myself to continue reader because I want to see what happens to the old man Anselmo, for whom Robert has formed an emotional attachment, and how the bridge will be blown off. Although the end resolves many tensions with which Robert Jordan, a foreigner and for the most part an outsider to the civil war (what exactly is his business, really?) struggles throughout the novel, Hemingway just takes too along to encapsulate his new ability to love while living through the image of the beating heart. The book is over-written and too long–makes an ordinary point at the expense of a numbing plot. For Hemingway’s long-winded prose my brain tolls.
471 pp. Quality Paperback Book Club edition. [
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