1941 Near Miss: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

From the Dust Jacket:

Into this great new novel­­‑nearly twice as long as “A Farewell to Arms”-Ernest Hemingway has poured the fullness of his experience, the perfection of his art. A novel of wartime Spain, in which a young American and a Spanish girl live a lifetime of love and courage in four momentous days, it speaks with final and unforgettable power about the truth-the truth of war and life in our time.

With Robert Jordan already behind enemy lines on his dangerous mission-to join forces with a band of Spanish men and women hidden in the mountains, and blow up a bridge that is essential to the great attack-the story begins in the midst of the action. It moves forward with rushing swiftness and a compelling sense of reality to the moment when he must blow up the bridge-the bridge on which the whole future of the human race can turn.

Before this crucial action Robert Jordan enters into the life of the men and women whose destiny he shares, who, living at the edge of danger, come vibrantly alive, intimately known. There is Pilar, a great woman who has lived long and fully, brave, barbarously outspoken, yet warm-hearted; and Pablo, her husband, a strong man at the start of the movement but now dangerously undependable. And there is Maria, a tawny, lovely Spanish girl who escaped the fascists to find healing in her love for Robert Jordan. Their story becomes one of the most tender, passionately moving love stories ever written.

In these superbly real men and women-sharing days of heightened excitement, deeper and richer experiences than most lifetimes hold-Hemingway seems to have embraced all human experience, the conflict of life itself, not only martial but spiritual and emotional. All that he has written before, including some of the greatest novels of our generation-points toward the achievement of this work of art, a novel that carries the rare, perfected shine of enduring greatness.

My Thoughts:

The ostensibly simple plot of For Whom the Bell Tolls-an American explosives expert teams up with Spanish guerrillas in the mountains to blow up a bridge-while compelling, serves more in the book as a vehicle to explore a number of other themes. The protagonist Robert Jordan thinks several times that he has loved more in the four days of the novel than many people love in their whole lives, but this does not hold true only for love. Hemingway uses the tensions and stresses and the sense of impending doom among the characters to provide a condensed look at many aspects of life and humanity over the course of four days: love, war, death, religion, politics, courage, fear. The characters are complex and nuanced, providing different aspects that play off each other, sometimes in conflict, and sometimes in congruence. It is a long and at times laborious novel, intercut often by long trains of thought and mental monologues, exploring the characters’ motivations and fears and ideologies as the action moves slowly forward, tension building slowly throughout most of the novel until it erupts in brief violence.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is drawn in part from Hemingway’s time in Spain as a reporter during the Spanish Civil War, and his previous experiences in World War I, which inspired A Farewell to Arms, but also important to the novel seems to be Hemingway’s father’s suicide a decade before, with a number of thoughts by Robert Jordan focused on death and suicide, often in the context of his own father’s suicide in the novel. This struggle by Robert Jordan to come to terms not only with his father’s suicide, but also to try to determine his own thoughts and inclinations toward suicide, seems even more insightful into the mind of Hemingway himself when viewed through the lens of his later suicide.

Central to the novel emotionally is the relationship between Robert Jordan, and a Spanish girl, Maria, who was previously rescued from the fascists in an earlier attack on a train before the novel begins. The four days they spend together are described as being more full of love than many people experience in a lifetime, and Hemingway seems to suggest that it is not the environment or the tension of the coming attack on the bridge that make them feel that way, but that the two of them were able to find some love that is real and true and full despite that. Although there are still characters who argue the opposite: that their relationship is merely a physical fling like all the others that occur in wartime, not a lasting love, but a brief physical pleasure. In fact, though Robert Jordan often expresses what the reader takes to be the primary thoughts on all these subjects, the wider cast of characters often provide counter examples and differing modes of thought which keeps the novel from feeling too overbearing or dogmatic.

One place I found difficult in drawing me into the story was the language itself. Obscenities are replaced in the text with “obscenity” or “unprintable” and often use what appear to be literal translations of Spanish phrases that often read haltingly and awkwardly. I could see several potential reasons for this, whether trying to express the difficulty of understanding a language or a culture without being born into it, or whether trying to express some beauty or complexity in the Spanish language that does not translate to English, or many other possibilities. However, I felt it was often distracting, although by the end of the novel it had become markedly less so.

The other issue I had was the shift of perspective to other characters, especially near the end of the novel. While there were times throughout when the reader was given insight into what other characters were thinking, it was almost always in the presence of Robert Jordan, and I thought the novel worked very well in its focus on Jordan being inserted into this group of people, and seeing what he thought and the things he caused other characters to think about. As the novel draws to a close, we are given a number of chapters dealing with other characters in other locations, whether an assault on a distant hill that is only heard by Jordan and the guerrilla group he is with, or a lengthy explanation of a messenger sent by Jordan to his commander. And while these pieces of the story give a broader context of the situation, I felt they were often distracting and detrimental to the primary focus of the story on Jordan and his experiences over the course of the four days leading to the assault on the bridge.

In the end, though, these are smaller stylistic choices that I did not agree with, but the novel as a whole I found compelling and often thought-provoking, whether looking at the atrocities of war, or the rapture of love, or the brooding contemplations of death. It is a lengthy book, but also one full of ideas and characters that reminded me more of real people than many I’ve read in books before. Not my favorite of all the Hemingway novels I’ve read, but still well worth reading, and I’m glad I finally read it.

Favorite passage:

I think that after the war there will have to be some great penance done for the killing. If we no longer have religion after the war then I think there must be done some form of civic penance organized that all may be cleansed from the killing or else we will never have a true and human basis for living. The killing is necessary, I know, but still the doing of it is very bad for a man and I think that, after all this is over and we have won the war, there must be a penance of some kind for the cleansing of us all.

Why you should read it:

A fascinating look, not only at war, but at the human psyche, exploring different thoughts and reactions and contemplations on war and life over the course of four days. Though lengthy, and at times a bit bloated, it is filled with insights and ideas about some of the things that make us human, and remains a classic for a reason.

Currently reading: In This Our Life by Ellen Glasgow


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