For Whom the Bell Tolls

Last week I finally finished For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. I must admit, I initially struggled to get into it.

This may be because I got distracted by Wild, Cheryl Strayed‘s memoir of her cathartic solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. I guess I just found it easier to relate to the memoir of a 20-something year old woman than to Robert Jordan’s fictional account of four days in the Spanish Civil War.

But by the time I got to the last third of the book, I began to understand some of the reasons why Hemingway is admired. For example, his ability to describe the tragedy of falling in love during war:

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. There was never any of what this is. You think that is one thing you will never have. And then, on a lousy show like this, co-ordinating two chicken-crut guerrilla 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. Sure. That is what you would do. You ran into her rather late, that was all.

His understanding of the need to make the most of the time you have:

Probably Golz knew about all this too and wanted to make the point that you must make your whole life in the two nights that are given to you; that living as we do now you must concentrate all of that which you should always have into the short time that you have it.

And his explanation of the motivation behind fighting for the Republic:

You felt, in spite of all bureaucracy and inefficiency and party strife, something that was like the feeling you expected to have and did not have when you made your first communion. It was a feeling of consecration to a duty toward all of the oppressed of the world which would be as difficult and embarrassing to speak about as religious experience and yet it was authentic as the feeling you had when you heard Bach, or stood in Chartres Cathedral or the Cathedral at Leon and saw the light coming through the great windows; or when you saw Mantegna and Greco and Brueghel in the Prado. It gave you a part in something that you could believe in wholly and completely and in which you felt an absolute brotherhood with the others who were engaged in it. It was something that you had never known before but that you had experienced now and you gave such importance to it and the reasons for it that your own death seemed of complete unimportance; only a thing to be avoided because it would interfere with the performance of your duty. But the best thing was that there was something you could do about this feeling and this necessity too. You could fight.

Characters

Some of the characters are complex and colourful, such as the strong, wise and potty-mouthed Pilar, who occasionally becomes sentimental. Then there is the smart but spoiled drunkard Pablo (Pilar’s husband), who oscillates between fear and courage. Elderly Anselmo is a loyal and dependable fighter who doesn’t like to kill.

I had trouble relating to and understanding Robert Jordan, the American protagonist who is fighting in Spain as part of the International Brigades. There is one scene, towards the end, which is somewhat revealing. Jordan thinks about his grandfather, a man he clearly admired, who was a veteran of the American Civil War. He contrasts his grandfather with his father—who Jordan considers a coward for having committed suicide. This scene helps explain that duty and courage are important ideals for Jordan’s character, which is perhaps why he found himself fighting a civil war in a far-off country. (It is also interesting when considering that Hemingway himself eventually committed suicide).

Maria is Robert Jordan’s young lover, who has suffered at the hands of the fascists. She’s beautiful and somewhat damaged, although recovering. I wish Maria had been given more depth as a character.

Despite the fact that I had a little trouble sympathising with Robert Jordan and Maria, I still keenly felt the sense of tragedy that they met and fell in love when they did.

Summary

Overall, I enjoyed For Whom the Bell Tolls. It’s impressive that the whole book covers a period of just four days.

For Whom the Bell Tolls gave me a window into the Spanish Civil War, a period in history I know little about. There are also parts where Hemingway beautifully captures universal human emotions and experiences. The dialogue, with its direct translations of Spanish expressions and use of replacements for swearwords—”I obscenity in the milk of your…”—is colourful and amusing.

But, like many old books, I found For Whom the Bell Tolls a little difficult to relate to. The fact that it was chosen as the September 2013 book for The Art of Manliness Book Club, might at least in part help to explain why. Perhaps, I’m just not manly enough to fully appreciate Hemingway?

Another little gem worth checking out—the NY Times review of For Whom the Bell Tolls from 1940.

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1 reply

  1. One of my main reasons for enjoying Hemingway is the abundance of meaning conveyed in such a minimal number of words. He doesn’t use adjectives much, which makes his writing bare-boned, without losing anything from the story.

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