For Whom the Bell Tolls
By Ernest Hemmingway
In 1940, Ernest Hemingway published For Whom the Bell Tolls to wide critical and public acclaim. The novel became an immediate best-seller, erasing his somewhat flawed performance in To Have and Have Not (1937). During the 1930??™s, a time when Hemingway enjoyed great publicity, he went on the African safari that produced Green Hills of Africa (1935) and his column in Esquire (1933-1936). In 1940, he was divorced by his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, and married Martha Gellhorn. He set fishing records at Bimini in marlin tournaments, hunted in Wyoming, and fished at Key West, Florida, where he bought a home. In 1937, when the Spanish Civil War broke out, Hemingway went to Spain as a correspondent with a passionate devotion to the Spain of his early years. Not content merely to report the war, he became actively involved with the Loyalist Army in its fight against Franco and the generals. He wrote the script for the propaganda film The Spanish Earth (1937), which was shown at the White House at a presidential dinner. The proceeds of the film were used to buy ambulances for the Loyalists. In 1939, with the war a lost cause and just as World War II was beginning its course of destruction, Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls.
To understand Hemingway??™s motive in writing the book, it is helpful to study the quotation from John Donne, from which Hemingway took his theme, ???any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.??? Hemingway wanted his readers to feel that what happened to the Loyalists in Spain in 1937 was a part of the twentieth century world crisis in which everyone shared.
Regardless of the route by which Hemingway came to exchange the ???separate peace??? idea of The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms for the ???part of the maine??? philosophy embraced by Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls , one can be sure that much of the impetus for his changing came from his strong feelings about Spain??™s internal strife, particularly as this strife became an all-out conflict during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). This war provides the backdrop for the events of For Whom the Bell Tolls , and the novel??™s main character, like Hemingway, is a passionate supporter of the Loyalist cause. The thing that one immediately notices about Jordan is that he is an idealist, which sets him apart from Jake and Frederic. Also, unlike Jake, who wanders randomly throughout Europe, and unlike Frederic, whose reasons for being in Italy to participate in the war are never clearly defined, Jordan has come to the Sierra de Guadaramas with the specific purpose of blowing up a bridge that would be used to transport ammunition in attacks against the Loyalists.
Even more than in A Farewell to Arms (1929), Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls focused the conflict of war in the experiences of a single man. Like Frederic Henry, Robert Jordan is an American in a European country fighting for a cause that is not his by birth. Henry just happened to be in Italy when World War I broke out; he had no ideological commitment to the war. Robert Jordan, however, came to Spain because he believed in the Loyalist cause. He believed in the land and the people, a belief that ultimately cost him his life. Yet Jordan??™s death is an affirmation and the novel a clear political statement of what a human being must do under pressure.
For Whom the Bell Tolls is a circular novel. It begins with Robert Jordan in a pine forest in Spain, observing a bridge he has been assigned to destroy, and it ends with him in snow that covers the pine needles carefully sighting on an enemy officer approaching on horseback. Between the opening and closing paragraphs is a time period of only seventy hours, and at the center of all the action and meditation is the bridge, the focal point of the conflict to which the reader and the characters are repeatedly drawn.
In what was at that point his longest novel, Hemingway forged a tightly unified plot, with a single place, a single action, and a brief time??”the old Greek unities. Jordan??™s military action takes on other epic qualities associated with the Greeks. His sacrifice is not unlike that of Leonidas at the crucial pass of Thermopylae, during the Persian Wars. There, too, heroic action was required to defend an entry point, and there, too, the leader died in an action that proved futile in military terms but became a standard measure of courage and commitment.
Abandoning somewhat the terse, clipped style of his earlier novels, Hemingway makes effective use of flashbacks to delineate the major characters. Earlier central characters seemed to exist without a past. Yet if Robert Jordan??™s death was to ???diminish mankind,??? then the reader had to know more about him. This character development takes place almost within suspended time, and Jordan and Maria try to condense an entire life into those seventy hours. The reader is never allowed to forget time altogether, for the days move, light changes, meals are eaten, and snow falls. Everything moves toward the time when the bridge must be blown up, and life, love, and death are compressed into those seventy hours. The novel becomes a compact cycle suspended in time.
In the gypsy camp, each person becomes important. Pilar is often cited as one of Hemingway??™s better female characters, just as Maria is often criticized as being unbelievable. Yet Maria??™s psychological scars are carefully developed. She is just as mentally unstable as are Brett Ashley and Catherine Barkley. Jordan, too, is a wounded man. He lives with the suicide of his father and the killing of his fellow dynamiter. The love of Jordan and Maria makes them both temporarily whole again.
The destruction of the bridge is meaningless in military terms. Seen in the larger political context, Jordan??™s courage and death were wasted. However, the bridge was important for its effect on the group, giving them a purpose and a focal point and forging them into a unity, a whole. They can take pride in their accomplishment despite its cost. Life is ultimately a defeat no matter how it is lived; what gives defeat meaning is the courage that a human being is capable of forging in the face of death??™s certainty. One man??™s death does diminish the group, for they are involved together, but Jordan??™s loss is balanced by the purpose he has given to the group.
In conclusion we can say that just as the mountains are no longer a place safe from the Fascists with their airplanes, in this story Hemingway seems to be saying that no person and no place are any longer safe. It is no longer possible to make a separate peace as Frederic Henry did with his war. When Fascist violence is loose in the world, people must take a stand. Jordan does not believe in the Communist ideology that supports the Loyalists, but he does believe in the earth and its people. He is essentially the nonpolitical man caught in a political conflict that he cannot avoid, and he does the best he can with the weapons available to him.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. Although no essay in this collection deals exclusively with For Whom the Bell Tolls , the novel is mentioned in many of them. Of particular interest may be Robert Penn Warren??™s discussion of irony in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Includes a good index.
Josephs, Allen. ???For Whom the Bell Tolls???: Ernest Hemingway??™s Undiscovered Country. New York: Twayne, 1994. Considers the literary and historical context for the novel and gives a detailed reading. An interesting and accessible discussion. Includes an excellent annotated bibliography.
Reynolds, Michael. ???Ringing the Changes: Hemingway??™s Bell Tolls Fifty.??? Virginia Quarterly Review 67 (Winter, 1991): 1-18. In this good general reference, Reynolds presents the novel in historical context and suggests ways in which it can be seen to transcend its own time.