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[436] For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway

” 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. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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9 Responses

  1. It’s been a while since I first read For Whom the Bell Tolls, but I remember it for the simplicity and power of the language Hemingway uses. It is war distilled of Hollywood melodrama, focused sharply on one man’s experience of the single task of blowing up a bridge. I found it a very interesting take on warfare, and enjoyed the elegant language. And I think all the “thees” and “thous” were meant to convey the feeling of listening to characters speaking in another language without actually using Spanish… although I can see how it might sound unnatural after a while. 🙂 I’m sorry you were less than impressed but I enjoyed reading your review – it’s always interesting to see how other readers can form a completely different impression of a book!

    • The language is very simple and lucid and I do have to give Hemingway the credit for the writing. I, however, had a hard time staying focused on his stories. I do think it’s an important book, it just won’t be on my re-read list.

  2. I will be passing this one up…if you say it’s over-written and just plain too long…I trust you! 😀

  3. I enjoy your blog very much; it’s a rare place on the web where one can find intelligent reviews of intelligent books.

    But, I’m afraid that I must agree with the previous commenter on this one, and say that “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is a book worth owning.

    [As for the “thees” and “thous,” I believe that Hemingway was trying to capture the formal v. informal distinction (usted v. tu) that exists in the Spanish language, but is absent from English.]

    It addresses many of the great themes: love, war, loyalty, courage, brutality, kindness, duty. And it’s filled with writing that only a true artist could have given us. Consider, for example, Hemingway’s description of what it feels like to be bombed: “Then, through the hammer of the gun, there was the whistle of the air splitting apart and then in the red black roar the earth rolled under his knees and then waved up to hit him in the face and then dirt and bits of rock were falling all over and Ignacio was lying on him and the gun was lying on him.”

    And then, of course, there’s the description of Robert’s time with Maria: “For him it was a dark passage which led to nowhere, then to nowhere, then again to nowhere, once again to nowhere, always and forever to nowhere, heavy on the elbows in the earth to nowhere, dark, never any end to nowhere, hung on all time always to unknowing nowhere, this time and again for always to nowhere, now not to be borne once again always and to nowhere, now beyond all bearing up, up, up and into nowhere, suddenly, scaldingly, holdingly all nowhere gone and time absolutely still and they were both there, time having stopped and he felt the earth move out and away from under them.”

    These are just a couple of the moments in the book where Hemingway succeeds in relating the indescribable.

    • I rather the book focuses on Pilar and the relationship between Robert and Maria, and thus shrinking it down a little bit. For the most part Pilar’s reflections speak for Pablo, who has perpetrated so much atrocity against the fascists that the guerilla force actually thinks he will sabotage the mission.

  4. My son started reading this one not too long ago. I’ll have to ask him what he thinks about it or see if I can coax him into doing a guest review on my blog.

  5. […] [436] For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway […]

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