For Whom the Bell Tolls is a novel loosely based on Ernest Hemingway’s own experiences in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s. Before I delve into the book itself, I thought it would be best to give some background information on Ernest Hemingway and on the Spanish Civil war and the circumstances surrounding it.
Hemingway was born July 21, 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois, and the second of six children. His father, Clarence Hemingway, was a physician and his mother was a devoutly religious woman with a talent for music. When he was young, Ernest acquired the nickname “champ,” which he relished and felt it showed his rowdy, hard-nosed outdoor sense of adventure. He had garnered his father’s passion for hunting and fishing in the north woods of Michigan, a period of his childhood which left important impressions later reflected in several of his short stories such as “Up in Michigan” and “Big Two Hearted River.”
In high school, Ernest edited the school newspaper, excelled in football and boxing, and ran away from home twice. Upon his graduation, seventeen year old Hemingway headed to Kansas City to enlist in World War I, in outright defiance of his parents objections. However the army rejected Hemingway, despite his repeated efforts, due to permanent eye damage incurred from his years of boxing. Yielding finally to the army’s rejections, he added a year to his age and was hired as a reporter for the Kansas City Star, a national newspaper. While working at the Star, Hemingway continued his efforts to participate in the war, and finally succeeded when he joined a volunteer Red Cross ambulance unit as a driver. In 1918 he was very seriously injured at Fossalta on the Piave River. Hemingway received twelve operations on his knee, an aluminum kneecap and two Italian Decorations. After a long period of painful recuperation in Milan, Ernest Hemingway joined the Italian infantry to fight again.
These vivid experiences provided the base for Hemingway’s lifelong fascination with war. Surviving World War I, he later covered the Greek-Turkish War in 1920, World War II and the Spanish Civil War in 1937, the setting for For Whom the Bell Tolls. In 1928, Hemingway’s father committed suicide. He did not reflect on this event in his writing until the thoughts of Robert Jordan, the main character in For Whom the Bell Tolls, in 1940.
The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) followed the failure of a military rebellion to overthrow Spain’s democratically elected government. The war divided Spain both geographically and ideologically and it brought to power General Francisco Franco who ruled Spain from the end of the war until his death in 1975.
Following the Spanish American War (1898), Spain lost the remainder of its once great empire. This defeat greatly increased dissatisfaction and the demands for change grew. People disagreed on the changes needed, however and Spanish politics became dominated by factions. In 1936 the Republic was in power in Spain. A rebellion led by Francisco Franco and the Second Republic began and they received tremendous amounts of support from the people of Spain. They were known as the rebels. Robert Jordan fights on the side of the Loyalists in this novel, as did many Americans and other foreign volunteers, known as the International Brigades. As well as support from the people, the Second Republic had support from Germany and Italy. In the end these forces proved too much to handle for the weary Loyalists, and the war was lost to the Second Republic.
For Whom the Bell Tolls is the story of Robert Jordan, an American college Spanish professor, fighting for “the cause” with the loyalists as an expert in demolition. It is written in startlingly crisp, concise prose (something which Hemingway was know for), and is meant to show the horrors and cruelty of war and the endurance which it requires. It is also a love story.
The novel opens with a flashback of a conversation between Robert Jordan and General Golz, A Russian officer who is directing the forthcoming attack. We learn that Jordan is carrying explosives and that his mission is to blow up a bridge. Golz is interested in the offensive mainly as a military maneuver and he needs Jordan to blow up a bridge to hinder rebel reinforcements. He knows that Jordan will have to enlist the help of an antifascist guerrilla unit in the mountains and he is cynical because he feels that the Spaniards will only interfere.
Ironically, this same cynicism is expressed when Jordan arrives at the guerrilla’s hideout in the mountains. Pablo, the guerrilla leader, resents the fact that a foreigner has come to run the show for awhile. It puts Pablo in an inferior position where he is no longer the spokesman of the group. Irony is a major theme in this novel and is illustrated frequently in the thoughts and actions of its characters. Pablo is interested only in the safety of himself and his band and Jordan’s military plans are of little importance to him.
Anselmo is also introduced in the first chapter. Anselmo is an important character in that he is one of the few people that Robert Jordan trusts. He is an elderly man, but totally committed to the cause. He in turn places his trust in Jordan.
Robert Jordan has here-to-fore been shown as an excellent soldier. He is skilled in his work, dedicated, determined to carry out his orders, and he is willing to sacrifice himself and others for the good of the cause. However, in chapter 3, we see a glimmering of resentment come over his character when he comes to terms with the fact that the manner in which his mission is to be carried out is very unorthodox and so is highly dangerous. He begins to feel that perhaps a cause isn’t always worth sacrificing people for but he brushes the idea aside, not wanting to “think such thoughts” (p. 41).
In Chapter four, there is a confrontation between Jordan and Pablo and in it, Pablo announces that he doesn’t want to blow up the bridge. Pilar, Pablo’s wife and one of the only others that Jordan feels he can trust, sides with Jordan. Subsequently, the rest of the band side with her, feeling that Pablo has “gone bad” (p. 56). Pablo is homesick, tired of the war and scared of getting killed, by his own men and at the battle of the bridge. Jordan wrestles with the idea of whether or not he should have killed Pablo in the confrontation but is reassured by Pilar that he was right not to.
In spite of all attempts to maintain a coldly professional attitude toward his work and to remain detached from any emotional involvement, Robert Jordan finds himself falling in love with Maria. Jordan’s Battle within himself has now passed the beginning stage. He talks to Pilar about his sense of duty but he acknowledges the fact that he cares very much for Maria. It begins to become obvious to all the characters that their enemy is better organized, has more support, is better equipped, and really cannot be defeated. It is becoming less obvious to them that the cause is worth all of their lives and the lives of others like them.
Chapter 10 was the most impressive narration I have ever read. It serves the purpose of displaying how, in war, the “good guys” can be just as cruel as the “bad guys.” Hemingway, in masterful style, recounts the executions of several members of the Second Republic.
“There were more than twenty (fascists). But none was shot”
“Pablo had them all beaten to death with flails and thrown from the top of the cliff into the river.”
“in all my life never do I wish to see a scene such as the flailing to death in the plaza on the top of the cliff above the river.” “The fascists were all held in the Ayuntamiento, the city hall”
“There was a great crowd outside and there was some levity outside and some shouting of obscenities, but most of the people were very serious and respectful.”
” most had flails and those who did not have flails had heavy herdsman’s clubs, and some had wooden pitchforks Some had sickles and reaping hooks but these Pablo placed at far end where the lines reached the edge of the cliff.”
Pilar went on to describe the gruesome way in which the fascists were forced to run the gauntlet to the edge of the cliff, where they were then thrown off. Some of the men went screaming and crying, begging for mercy, some had to be dragged, near paralyzed with terror. It was absolutely the most heartbreaking, gut-wrenching thing I have ever read. I was as close to tears as I had ever been. The sympathy one feels for the fascists at this point is short lived though when, in chapter 11, the reader learns of the slaughter of Joaquin’s (part of Pablo’s band of guerrillas) family. It serves to acquaint the reader with the cruel practices of the fascists.
In chapter 13 Jordan’s battle within himself has swollen massively. He wants to live out a normal life with Maria as his wife and he does not want to die for a cause. He argues bitterly with himself and he becomes disgusted with the politics of both sides. He admits to himself for the first time that he is in love with Maria, and his love has made him see things clearly. Here is another example of the theme of irony: he has finally met someone he truly loves and in less than four days he must blow up this bridge and probably die. The urgency of his desire for Maria shows his fear that they have little time left. That fear is shown again when Jordan wakes up one night and holds her tightly as if he were afraid of losing her.
It soon comes to Robert Jordan’s attention that the plans for the attack have been leaked to the fascists. He sends a message to General Golz asking to call off the attack. Jordan’s longing to stay alive grows and, aware of this, he tries to make sure that the message he sends to Golz doesn’t sound like he wishes the attack to be called off for personal reasons. He entertains the idea that the offensive could be merely a diversionary tactic to draw enemy troops away from another front. If that were the case, then he had little hope that the attack would be canceled, for fascist knowledge of the attack would mean little to Golz.
In chapter 30 we learn that Jordan’s father committed suicide- a shameful and cowardly act in Jordan’s mind. It is the first time Ernest Hemingway ever reflected on the suicide of his father in his writing.
We learn that Maria’s father was the mayor of her town and that her mother was not a Republican, but was loyal to her husband. Both were killed by a Falangist firing squad. We know also that Maria was a captive of a vicious group of fascists before she was rescued by Pablo’s band, and that she was raped repeatedly by her captors.
The battle at the bridge has grown more and more hopeless up to this point (it has even snowed so that the fascists will be able to follow their tracks). Robert Jordan’s daydreams of taking Maria to vacation in Madrid are indicative of his little hope of surviving.
Jordan awakes from his daydreams to Pilar shaking him. Quickly he returns to reality when he learns that Pablo has vanished, taking many of the explosives, and their means of escape, with him. He is terribly discouraged but assures Pilar that he can find another way to set of the explosives at the bridge. Jordan is furious with himself for forgetting that Pablo would only be friendly in order to betray him. He becomes furious with Spain and with both sides of the fight. He decides that they will be able to blow the bridge, but that they will die doing it, as Pablo and his horses were their only source of escape. Robert Jordan lay sleeping that night next to Maria: “He lay there holding her very lightly, feeling her breathe and feeling her heart beat, and keeping track of the time on his wrist watch.”
Chapter 37 shows Jordan and Maria’s last intimate moments together. He feels as if he has spent his whole life at this cave, that the guerrillas are his brothers, and that Maria is his wife.
The scene in the cave before the fight is one of nervous despair. The men are riddled with angst and are snapping at each other. Jordan’s plan which he had thought up the night before doesn’t seem like such a great one now that morning is near. The situation has become progressively worse. He doesn’t have enough men to overcome the enemy guard posts, and he has lost the equipment necessary to blow the bridge correctly. Suddenly, Pablo reappears, with additional men and horses in tow. Immediately things begin to look better and the task at hand doesn’t look quite so impossible.
“Organized confusion,” (p 404) describes the pre-battle preparations. Jordan repeats several times that no one is to do anything until they hear the offensive begin. The time of the battle finally arrives. It is a bloody and complicated battle where the importance the individual is reintroduced. First, when Jordan looks at the sentry he must kill and sees him as a human being- a fact which makes him decide not to look at the man again until he has to. Then, when Anselmo cries over the fact that he just killed a sentry.
Finally comes the ultimate irony of the novel. Robert Jordan has done everything he should have done and his mission has actually been successful. He is in the process of escaping with Maria and everyone else who is left alive, but he will die, not for the cause, but for the protection of Maria, for true love.