A Modern Look at a Classic Novel – For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

While many classic novels have explored the coming of age experience, or have attempted to unravel the mysteries of life’s crises and challenges, including the death experience, most follow a traditional storytelling format and wrap a lot of flowery words around the abstract concepts and colorful experiences that the characters are made to go through, taking the reader along on the same ride, and allowing them to gain the insights from the dilemma without ever having to deal with the heartache to gain it. Of course, in reality, going through that heartache is necessary to fully understand the weight and gravity of the insights, but literature has always been and will continue to be a fantastic way to relate and communicate some of these things using medium that is open and accessible to almost everyone.

            In the case of For Whom the Bell Tolls, there is no coming of age or rite of passage being discussed. Rather, the hero of the story, Robert Jordan, is pushed through some of life’s more esoteric emotions as he battles with his own will, and the wills of the comrades he finds in the hills of Spain during its Civil War in the 1920s in order to quell his fear, his demons, and to find a sense of peace in the midst of chaos; peace of mind, peace between allies, justification of killing for an idea, and peace with death. The story takes place over the course of just three days as Jordan is instructed to take a pack of dynamite into the hills, search out a band of guerillas from the stragglers who live within their caves, and carry out a mission to destroy a bridge that is critical to the success of the battle that is about to commence, taking the the country a step closer to freedom under the Republic and away from the tyranny of fascism.

            The three major themes of the novel are love, death and trust. Hemingway uses a blend of Spanish grammar (and even short sentences in Spanish) and the English language to convey to an English audience in the best way he could the cultural differences and nuances that one would be encountered with had they experienced the situation themselves. This can come across as a little odd to any reader who does not understand the purpose of the writing. Much of the dialogue is presented in what comes across as old English with pronouns such as thee, thy and thou being used extensively in an apparently broken form of the language. For example, where an English speaker would say, ‘Have a nice day’, Hemingway directly translates what a Spanish speaker might say directly, capturing the cultural essence of the dialogue. ‘Que tengas un buen dia’, which would be the equivalent, does not translate grammatically. Word for word and thought for thought, the translation would be, ‘That you will have a good day’. Sentences like this appear extensively throughout the book and can be confusing, but the tone is changed by their inclusion. They help the reader tool the mind into the Spanish way of thinking and set the cultural backdrop for the rest of the story, and for the three major themes. Much of Robert Jordan’s internal monologues and ramblings ping back and forth between thinking in Spanish and in English, and it is interesting to note the way the mood and emotion of the writing changes with the shift. The false Spanish-English combination has a more romantic tone while the English ramblings are angrier, harsh and deliberate.

            Before delving into how the three major themes are expressed and elucidated, it is necessary to introduce and discuss the main characters. Robert Jordan, the American volunteer dynamiter in his early 20s teaches Spanish in the States and has enlisted to assist the country he loves (Spain) in their fight for freedom. He is hardened, deep, considerate, and level-headed with a sense of justice and purpose. Anselmo is his companion at the beginning and throughout the story — an old man who values life and liberty, and serves in war for the purpose of defending his countrymen. Pilar and Pablo are a woman and man who operate as partners and lovers in leading their small band of guerillas against the fascists who threaten to take over their homeland. Pilar is quick witted and physically slow with heightened senses and understanding of the profound. Pablo is a killer, and has lost his motivation to fight but remains an intelligent leader, once brave and strong. Robert finds Pablo as his bravery begins to slip into apathy. Maria is a young girl who was rescued during an attack on a fascist train by Pilar and Pablo. Her politically involved Republican parents were murdered by the fascists before she was taken and abused, raped and shaven bald by the same people. Robert and Anselmo travel together from the beginning and find the cave where the others dwell in the early parts of the second chapter. Immediately upon meeting, Robert and Maria recognize an attraction that is seen and nurtured by Pilar while Pablo maintains a distance and distrust of Robert and his mission.

            The old man, Anselmo, carries on many discussions with Robert Jordan throughout the novel, mostly on the topic of killing and death (as he is very late in life). He disagrees with the killing of man, though hunts for sport. He and Robert have many interchanges where the two attempt to justify the killing they do in the name of the Republic. Even as Robert watches the enemy days before the attack, he considers their families and keeps his mind outside the conflict. After killing an aggressor on horseback, Jordan retrieves the boy’s letters in order to gain intel on the enemy, and reads through personal notes from home and from his novia (lover). He empathizes and then pushes down his feelings. Eventually, the lines between friend and enemy, mercy and necessity become blurred as Pablo threatens to defect. Robert realizes the danger and warns himself to make the difficult decision when it becomes necessary, though he does not, and the small band end up paying for it dearly in the end. Pilar, Pablo’s lover, recognizes the danger and even advocates for the killing of Pablo. By the end of the book, these dilemmas and missed opportunities cost the group many other lives, some at Pablo’s hands, and the end is devastating for Maria. Robert Jordan, through his love relationship with Maria, finds himself prepared and at peace with his own inevitable death, foretold in a palm reading by Pilar.

            Jordan and Maria find themselves immediately attracted to one another in ways that neither understands. Hemingway uses the blended Spanish-English dialogue extensively between the two who have three days of romance together, in seclusion and at night in Robert’s bedroll. The language used is colorful and romantic, and the intimate scenes are expressed using metaphor, never explicit as to the physical act, but instead attempting to describe the feeling, the rush, and the pleasure by wrapping words around the shared metaphysical, heartfelt, and mental experiences they have in such a way that you can almost ride to the climax with them, as awkward as that would be. A lot of the meat of the writing is found in Robert Jordan’s post pleasure inner monologues as he ponders the dangers of the mission, the inevitability of death, and the presence of love so deep that it should never have existed. He sees it as a gift. In one of the better passages, Robert Jordan considers the nature of life, with a beginning and an end, in the presence of a love that begs to be eternal. He considers Anselmo’s 70 year life, and then the 72 hours that he might have with Maria and he thinks briefly about what they will do together after the mission, with a nagging voice in the back of his mind telling him that those dreams will never come to pass. His mind wanders and he ponders eternity, asking himself if forever and always are just the 72 hours, or just the here and now. If that is all he is given, then it is all of his life. Maria is kept as innocent as possible and he refrains from sharing his doubts about his future with her, instead choosing to muse with her about what they might do together in the hotel after the completion of the mission.

            Hemingway plays with the reader’s interest by including superstition and ill omens into the body of the work, foreshadowing Pablo’s betrayal. Snow storms that cause Jordan to rage behind his eyes and enemy planes flying over camp, nearly spotting the band of heroes bring the reader into the dynamic of fear transcended by a sense of duty to the Republic that the characters must be feeling within the little cave in the hills.

            Toward the end of the novel, with the last two chapters detailing the attack on the bridge itself, Hemingway begins to unravel the minds of the main characters. Jordan’s sense of control over the situation gives way to acceptance of his inevitable fate, though there are scenes where Jordan realizes the mistakes he made where he could have prevented certain tragic events that occur in the last few pages. However, as he makes his way into the final battle he stumbles, and awkward interactions between himself and the girl he had fallen in love with remind him that it had all happened before, and will all happen again. His déjà vu plays with his emotions, and rather than struggle to hold onto the control of the thoughts he once had, he lets everything go. He puts the girl first and presses forward into the battle, still subconsciously aware of his own fate. As he starts the battle by pulling the first shot and killing an enemy soldier, he shuts himself off from the action, consoling himself and justifying the atrocity. He even reminds himself that with automatic weapons, it is more the weapon killing than it is the person. He just starts the pull on the trigger.

            As the novel ends, Robert Jordan finds himself in his most intense existential crisis and he considers taking control of the situation. The only thing he has control over at the end of the story is his own death. Hemingway uses Robert’s memory of his cowardly father and sets them against memories of his valiant grandfather to portray Robert’s crisis in a heart-wrenching and intimate way, pulling the reader closer to Robert as he lies wounded in the pine needles on the forest floor.

            This book finds relevance especially in the modern globalizing world, as an American man lives out his love affair with a foreign woman in a foreign country, and fights voluntarily for her freedom. It is beautiful, romantic, raw and tragic, and speaks of the importance of cultural diversity and of the power of love.

Published by dbmoore0727

***All views are my own*** I write commentary on current world events as well as short stories and book reviews. My first book, Where the River Flows - Memories of the Shadow Age, can be found on Amazon (free with Kindle Unlimited). I attended Arizona State University studying neurochemistry. I've worked professionally as a ghostwriter and managed analytical laboratories in supplements and pharmaceuticals, as well as operated as a consultant and technical writer for academics and companies in the science and engineering fields for over ten years. I've been writing creatively all my life. I hope you enjoy the content -- I want my readers to feel empowered to comment and critique as they feel compelled.

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