Civil war in Spain, love in the woods, and death everywhere. It's Ernest Hemingway's 'For Whom the Bell Tolls.' In this lesson, we'll explore the acclaimed novel about an American in the Spanish Civil War.
War in Spain
Between World War I and World War II, Europe wasn't exactly a bastion of peacefulness. In fact, from 1936 to 1939, Spain was ravaged by a brutal civil war. On one side, there were the Nationalists. These were fascists. They received support from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.
On the other side were the Republicans. These aren't your Grand Old Party Republicans. Quite the opposite. These are Soviet Union-backed leftists. They were also supported by anarchists, which further suggests that these aren't the Republicans you're thinking of.
And then there's Ernest Hemingway. The American author worked as a journalist in Spain during this time. He used his experience to write one of his most well-regarded novels, 1940's For Whom the Bell Tolls.
How many times can you ask the question: Is it an Ernest Hemingway classic or an awesome Metallica song, and the answer is 'yes' and 'yes'? Well, we're not talking 80s metal here, we're talking Papa Hemingway.
Let's jump in. It's the spring of 1937. Our protagonist (and Hemingway stand-in) is Robert Jordan. He's an American explosives expert who volunteers for the Republican side. His goal? Blow up a fascist-controlled bridge.
He's in the mountains with some guerrilleros, or guerilla fighters, led by Pablo. Pablo is a hothead, and he doesn't like the bridge plan. Robert knows that will be trouble. Pablo's lady-friend, Pilar, is much more agreeable, as a person and to Robert.
In their camp is a woman named Maria. The fascists murdered her parents and raped her, so the camp is sheltering her. Maria and Robert have an immediate love connection and, almost immediately after Robert shows in the camp, they're sleeping together. And yeah, even when I read this book as a teenager (who knew literally nothing about anything), the idea that a woman who'd just been raped by fascists would jump in bed with a random American dude seemed weird. But that's what happens.
Over a few days, there's much debate about the bridge operation. Pablo is openly against it. Pilar is for it. The guerrilleros are divided. Some say Robert should kill Pablo, which may not be a bad idea.
Then Robert, Pilar and Maria set out to consult with El Sordo, who leads another group of guerrilleros. El Sordo is worried that the bridge must be blown up in daylight, which makes it kind of a suicide mission. On the way back to their camp, Robert and Maria make love again and they both feel the earth move. So, it's not just a Carole King song.
Back at the camp, Pablo is still antagonizing Robert. Just when everyone agrees he must be killed, Pablo says, 'No, wait. I'll help blow up the bridge.' It's kind of like when an entire tribe on Survivor agrees that one guy has to go, then he catches fish for them all. Only instead of getting voted off, Pablo was going to get murdered.
Later, there are sounds of fighting, and it becomes clear that the fascists are attacking El Sordo's group. Robert knows it would be suicide to try to help. El Sordo's men fight in vain, then get bombed to death by fascist planes. Then beheaded.
Robert worries that the fascists are on to them. He writes to the Republican command to cancel the plan, but his message doesn't arrive in time. When Pablo stakes off with a bunch of the explosives, Robert decides he must go forward with the explosives he still has. Then Pablo comes back and says he's sorry - only he threw away the explosives and now has a few men and horses in their place. You can't blow up a bridge with horses, Pablo!
So Robert and the guerrilleros go bomb the bridge. Many of them die in the firefight with the fascists or in the explosion. While he's retreating with Pablo, Pilar and Maria, Robert's horse gets shot, and it falls on his leg. He knows he's doomed. He thinks about suicide, but decides to try to kill some fascists with what little time he has left. And that's it!
So what's it all about? First and foremost, 'there's no such thing as a good war.' Wars are awful. You could say that the Republicans are fighting the good fight, but their side can be just as messed up as the fascists. Look at Pablo or the leaders whose plan involves sacrificing good men and women. And for what? A bridge.
You could apply this same logic to the war that began immediately after the Spanish Civil War. Sure, the Allies in World War II claimed the moral high ground, but they committed atrocities all the same. Hitler had the Holocaust, but the Americans had Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
As much as death is pervasive, the novel is also concerned with the value of life. Note that Robert could have saved a lot of drama by just killing Pablo when he recognized him as a threat. But he doesn't. The act of killing a person weighs heavily on those who already have blood on their hands.
And then there's love. Robert and Maria share an instantaneous and deep love. The brutality and hopelessness of the war may make Robert question what he's doing, but his love for Maria gives him the will to go on. Well, until a horse falls on him.
We can't talk of Hemingway without addressing his style. As with so many of his works, Hemingway's style in For Whom the Bell Tolls is unadorned with flowery language. It's direct and simple to the point of near-absurdity. Some people love this. Some people hate it. But that's how he wrote. It's often said that his background in journalism caused this direct way of writing. No matter the reason behind it, the effect of his style is to immerse the reader in the experience.
A good example is the final paragraph of the novel. You might expect such a powerful work to wind down with grand emotional statements, philosophical meanderings on life and war - some culmination of the big ideas of the novel. But no, Hemingway gives us a matter-of-fact description of his dying protagonist trying to take out a fascist lieutenant:
'Lieutenant Berrendo, watching the trail, came riding up, his thin face serious and grave. His submachine gun lay across his saddle in the crook of his left arm. Robert Jordan lay behind the tree, holding onto himself very carefully and delicately to keep his hands steady. He was waiting until the officer reached the sunlit place where the first trees of the pine forest joined the green slope of the meadow. He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.'
Oh, and before we go, about that title? It's from a John Donne poem that states, 'Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.' What's that mean? On one level, it means we're all connected. The bells toll when someone dies or for a funeral. But don't ask who died. When one dies, a part of each of us dies. It's just way cooler to say 'never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.'
In summary, For Whom the Bell Tolls is Ernest Hemingway's novel about the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. It follows Robert Jordan, an American fighting for the leftist Republicans against the Fascist Nationalists. His goal is to blow up a bridge. Along the way, he finds love with Maria. There's also a great deal of death, brutality and, yes, one blown up bridge.
After completing this lesson, you should be able to:
- Discuss the plot of Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls
- Recall the themes of the novel
- Describe the style Hemingway used in For Whom the Bell Tolls