Let’s talk about the man, the myth, the bullfighter – Ernest Hemingway. He was known for his concise and masculine style of writing. He also received plenty of accolades for work. His best known titles are The Sun Also Rises (1926), A Farewell to Arms (1929), The Old Man and the Sea (1952), and the subject of today’s review For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). For Whom the Bell Tolls was so successful at the time of its release that it sold over half a million copies and was considered for the Pulitzer Prize (it didn’t get it because an ex-officio chairman of the board vetoed the jurors’ unanimous choice). What do I think of it? It’s simply okay. There are parts that work, and others that don’t work as well.
For Whom the Bell Tolls shows the story of Robert Jordan, a young American from the International Brigades who’s fighting in an antifascist guerrilla unit in the Spanish Civil War. It tells of loyalty and courage, love and defeat, and the tragic death of an ideal. This is basically the fictionalized version of what Hemingway himself experienced while covering the war as a foreign correspondent for the Northern American Newspaper Alliance. Long story short, it’s about a guy who’s assigned to blow up a bridge with an antifascist guerrilla group and all the events that occur in the 3-4 days that he’s with them.
So readers would probably want to know if I have read any of Hemingway’s stories in the past. Yes, I have. In my English class in my senior year of high school, I read one of his Nick Adams stories “Indian Camp.” With that story, we learned how to detect subtext. And man, there was plenty of that knowing how Hemingway coined the phrase “iceberg theory” (or how Lindsey Ellis calls it “K.I.S.S.” [keep it simple stupid]).
Is there plenty of subtext in For Whom the Bell Tolls? There’s surprisingly not a whole lot. A good chunk of that could be found roughly in the first 100 pages. Afterwards, circumstances and motives become very clear. This makes sense as Hemingway perfected the “iceberg theory” while working in journalism, so writing a full-length novel allows him to discuss more topics explicitly.
Let me start off with the positive aspects of the novel. Hemingway is surprisingly good at writing women. At first, Robert’s love interest Maria feels like any other woman in a book written by a white guy in the mid-twentieth century, where beauty is more valued than personality. However, Maria went through sexual assault at the hands of fascists thugs. When she revealed her backstory to Robert, it made me feel a bunch of things like anger and sadness. Despite protests from him to stop, she was determined to tell her story as a way to heal herself. During a portion of the novel, Robert constantly thinks that if she had longer hair, she would be beautiful. However, when he hears of her tragic backstory, he immediately stops thinking that because he knows that her short hair is not her fault. Additionally, Pilar is a wonderful multi-dimensional woman. She can be manipulative and a bully at times, yet she’s the true leader of and mother to the group. I always looked forward to what she had to say. She’s easily more fleshed out than Maria. It makes me wonder if Hemingway inserted his third wife Martha Gellhorn into Pilar because the book is dedicated to her, and he liked to insert real people into his characters. Also, Pilar was a nickname Hemingway gave to his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer and to his boat that he had in Cuba.
Another aspect that worked was the misunderstandings within one side. During the third act, Robert orders Andres to give a note to Commander Golz calling off the bridge demolition. However, Andres runs into some obstacles like encountering antifacist officials who think he’s the enemy. It takes him hours to accomplish this. By the time Andres presents the note to Golz, Robert decides to go ahead and blow up the bridge. Moreover, early in the novel, the group gets to know one another by finding out the reasons why there’s fighting on the antifacist side. When Robert reveals that he’s an antifacist, one of the other members asks if he’s a communist (since they were backing the Republicans or those who wanted a democracy during the war). He says no, for he’s simply an antifacist. I can understand the misinterpretation since the fighters might not always share the same views as their supporters.
Now, let’s look at the aspects that don’t work as well. First, Hemingway didn’t need to make the novel 471 pages because not much occurs during a good chunk of it, and it takes place over the course of 3-4 days. There’s a lot of waiting and talking about what’s going to happen, but I’m forgiving since a lot of war involves waiting and strategizing, especially when to blow up a bridge. However, there comes a point, where there could’ve been more compelling short stories from the various parts from the novel. For example, Pilar’s recounting of the rampage at a village during the early part of the war was pretty interesting. However, once I came across Chapter 27, the book had a wake up call and started building up to the finale. This held my interest til the very end.
Nothing and everything occurs in For Whom the Bell Tolls. During the 3-4 days that Robert is with the group, he falls in love with Maria and gets involved in a plot to kill Pablo – the designated leader and Pilar’s husband. So, there’s plenty of action. It could’ve been a lot worse, it could’ve been The Polished Hoe, which has all the events taking place during one night and is 480 pages. Was there much action? Barely!
In addition, Robert Jordan feels a bit bland, for he’s the typical Hemingway Hero. That’s the problem. He’s typical. He displays honor, courage, and endurance like any other hero in Hemingway novels. What makes Robert stand out is that he loves to think long and hard about things like his father’s suicide and contemplates about whether or not this war is worth fighting for. This helps and hinders him, especially when his group tries to convince him to kill Pablo. Heck, even Hamlet does more in the namesake play than Robert Jordan does. I found it hilarious that in Chapter 35, Robert swears like a sailor but with the word muck. In the subsequent chapter, the author inserts the word obscenity like “what the obscenity.” I guess Hemingway wanted to make sure For Whom the Bell Tolls got passed the censors?
There’s also casual racism. During the course of the novel, Hemingway wanted to make sure that readers knew that the majority of the characters were Spaniards by mentioning their brown skin at almost every possible chance he got. You think that he would be aware of the fact that not every Spaniard has brown skin since he actually was in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, right? A lot of Spaniards have lighter skin. Moreover, there’s a Romani character named Rafael, who is seen as worthless because he’s lazy and a criminal. Robert Jordan even thinks that Rafael is those things because he’s a part of the Roma group.
Others complained about the use of thees and thous, but I really didn’t mind. Early on, Robert identifies that the Spainards speak in the old Castilian dialect. Anytime those characters used those archaic words, it meant they were speaking old Castilian Spanish, and Hemingway incorporated some real Spanish words and phrases to drive home the point.
Overall, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway is a rather okay book. I’m not sure if it should be in the literary canon today, but it has its worthy aspects that I’m sure some readers will enjoy. I would recommend it to those who love Hemingway and those interested in reading novels that take place during the Spanish Civil War. It’s no wonder why the book’s legacy basically lies in a 1943 movie version, a great Metallica song, and a Dog Man sequel.
Speaking of that film, there’s a special reason why I read this novel. I made a guest appearance on The 300 Passions Podcast, where we talked about the film version starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman as well as why it failed to make the cut on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…Passions list. I figured it would be best to read the book first, and then see how the film translates it to the screen. So stay tuned for my movie review as well as for that episode!
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