For Whom The Bell Tolls Review

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For a man who went on African safaris, reveled in the bloodlust of the Spanish bullfight and died from a self-inflicted shotgun wound, Ernest Hemingway’s work in For Whom the Bell Tolls seems to be searching for a quiet life away from all the war and bloodshed.

George Orwell and Hemingway were both journalists assigned to cover the Spanish Civil War. Orwell ended up fighting alongside the Communists and against the Fascists. His time in the war culminated in his novel, Homage to Catalonia. Orwell’s themes of society-wide deception and misuse of power as a result of revolution would echo in later works including Animal Farm and 1984.

The attitude of Hemingway’s leading man in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan, is decidedly pro communist. This is not for the sake of the Marxist philosophy so much as a desire to aid a people he admires, the Spanish people, in keeping their liberty. Hemingway portrays the communists in a dirty, realistic light. The weakest among them are cowards, drunks and murderers, but the stronger are tougher than mountain stone. Hemingway never fought alongside their Republic but they clearly earned his respect.

Although Jordan is devoted to the cause, he is not happy about killing. War is portrayed as a sort of slavery, keeping those on both sides from enjoying the quiet, camaraderie and love they would have experienced otherwise. Different characters express this desire for a simpler life in different ways. One of the guerilla fighters, Anselmo, lives in fear and regret that God will never forgive him for the men he has killed. For communists, the cast in this novel think of God an awful lot.

For Jordan, the stakes are incredibly high. Upon meeting the group of guerilla fighters who will assist him in his mission behind enemy lines, he miraculously falls in love. The meeting of the lovers is one of the most honest and true accounts of love at first sight. The reader feels as if they are standing across from Jordan as he meets his beautiful but broken Maria.

Meeting this woman is the best thing to ever happen to Jordan. He freely admits it. The trouble is that his mission, to blow up a bridge and prevent the arrival of enemy reinforcements in an upcoming battle, looks more and more impossible as the days go on. Jordan believes with a cold certainty that he will die in the mission, along with his guerilla companions. He must make the most of the few days he has with this beautiful woman he found in the unlikeliest of places.

Hemingway’s clipped prose is on point from start to finish. There is no question in the reader’s mind when Robert and Maria first lock gazes. There is no uncertainty of his grim regret and determination when he takes aim, shoots and kills a man.

While the beginning and end of the book are filled with tension, the urgency of the action slips during the middle. There is less about the blowing of the bridge and more about fleshing out the characters Jordan has put his lot in with.

The book slows down considerably in this middle section, spent mostly walking from cave to cave and telling stories about the lives of individual characters. The dip in action is unfortunate but necessary. Without it, the end would not be nearly as gut-wrenching.

One tiny detail Hemingway does very well with is the syntax of the text. The book is set in Spain so the characters are all speaking Spanish. But Hemingway doesn’t simply let the reader know that the dialogue is in Spanish and go from there. Instead, the dialogue is a direct meaning translation. Instead of “Why not?” the characters will ask “How so?” and little things like that.

In other works of his, the use of short, declarative sentences can seem unnatural and vague. Here, it is a perfect match for the characters. They clearly take pride in the way they speak. The reader feels what their language means to them without even reading it.

Even so, the dialogue is only the tip of the iceberg with this book. The style is so fluid and natural, slipping in and out of Jordan’s dreams, inner arguments and fears seamlessly. It is as if you are talking to yourself but you lead another life; one you suddenly cherish and fear it will leave you shortly.

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