For Whom the Bell Tolls – Thoughts on Hemingway’s Novel

Hemingway. Just reading his name connotes a persona. Solitary yet brave characters pervade his fiction. Santiago, for example, is the heroic wizened old fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea. Robert Jordan, another example, is the self-sacrificing bridge-blower in For Whom the Bell Tolls. And literary connoisseurs know of Hemingway’s trademark short declarative sentences. Imagine the opposite of Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy, and you get an idea of Hemingway’s terse unadorned style. Most scholars trace Hemingway’s stripped-down style to his years spent in journalism where linguistic precision and minimalism were prized. In less than a week, I fly out to another military deployment, and so I tend to read a lot of war novels and history in the months leading up to going across the pond again. Over the last few weeks I read Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, a novel set during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). What follows is a three-part examination of the novel–overall summary, analysis, and assessment. Lastly, I pose a question or two for reflection. If you’re a fan of war novels, of Hemingway’s linguistic skill, or of Hemingway’s importance in the Western canon, I welcome your reading.

Summary: For Whom the Bell Tolls is the story of an American Spanish teacher (Robert Jordan) who’s in Spain during the Civil War there in the late 1930s. The war is between the Republicans and the communists/fascists. But Jordan’s not there to teach Spanish to expatriated Americans; he’s a dynamiter of bridges. He is fighting against the communists/fascists, a guerilla warfighter attached to a motley crew of Spaniards who hate communism/fascism as much as he. He falls in love with a Spanish girl (Maria) over the course of the novel. He battles internally over how he might completely love her and simultaneously remain committed to his life’s work of blowing bridges the fascists use, and killing as many communists as possible. About two-thirds of the way through the novel, Robert and Maria are discussing their plans after the war is over. What follows is an example of their dynamic, as Maria speaks:

“We will be in the big clean bed in thy famous room in our famous hotel and we will sit in the famous bed together and look into the mirror of the armoire and there will be thee and there will be me in the glass and then I will turn to thee thus, and put my arms around thee thus, and then I will kiss thee thus.”

 Then they lay quiet and close together in the night, hot-aching, rigid, close together and holding her, Robert Jordan held closely too all those things that he knew could never happen, and he went on with it deliberately and said, “Rabbit, we will not always live in that hotel” (Hemingway, 1940, p. 346).

 At least a couple of things are seen in the above excerpt. First, we sense Maria’s naiveté. Her mind over-inflates the beauties of Madrid as a counterpoint to the carnage she and Jordan are currently in. And secondly, we sense Jordan’s internal recognition of “things that he knew could never happen.” There is, in short, recognition by Hemingway’s main character that the relationship will not end happily. In typical Hemingway fashion, the protagonist suffers this recognition silently. He keeps it to himself. He is a man in love, yes, but a man nonetheless alone.

Analysis: Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls just two to three years after being in Spain during their Civil War, and just prior to WWII. In sum, it is a war novel. But what was Hemingway suggesting about war? Was the book only a diatribe against communism? Clearly, communism is shown in the book to be a system of butchery wherein what matters is never the individual but only the state and its power. But I think Hemingway was less focused upon exploring political ideologies than he was in exploring the individual’s role in war (any war) and his significance/lack thereof. Here is one example of what I mean. Robert Jordan is thinking to himself:

If this was how it was then this was how it was. But there was no law that made him say he liked it. I did not know that I could ever feel what I have felt, he thought. Nor that this could happen to me. I would like to have it for my whole life. You will, the other part of him said. You will. You have it now and that is all your whole life is; now. There is nothing else than now. There is neither yesterday, certainly, nor is there any tomorrow. How old must you be before you know that? There is only now, and if now is only two days, then two days is your life and everything in it will be in proportion. This is how you live a life in two days. And if you stop complaining and asking for what you never will get, you will have a good life. A good life is not measured by any biblical span (Hemingway, 1940, p. 169).

 Hemingway shows his hand here by having his protagonist demonstrate his worldview. Jordan is secular. There is no God in his thinking. What matters is this world, the here and now, and he should not look for cosmic justice. Eat, drink, and be merry now, for that is all there is. There is no “biblical span” in this man’s thinking.

Assessment: How do I therefore judge the novel? What are my visceral and intellectual evaluations of the novel and its worldview? Is Hemingway’s worldview, at least as evidenced through this novel, accurate? Is the worldview given the way reality really is?

As a story of a man in war, a man against overwhelming odds, the novel succeeds as far as it goes. As a military man, I appreciated the specifics and accuracy with which Hemingway denotes calibers of weapons, the precision of maps and cartography, the models of aircraft, etc. All of these rang true. How did the novel affect me emotionally? How did it stir me? In short, it stirred me because I felt what it was like to view life as a secularist. Though I am a Christian, I revisited what the Bible calls the natural man’s way of seeing the world. Here is an example of Hemingway’s demonstration of his (and Jordan’s) atheism.

I wish Grandfather were here instead of me. Well, maybe we will all be together by tomorrow night. If there should be any such damn fool business as a hereafter, and I’m sure there isn’t, he thought, I would certainly like to talk to him (Hemingway, 1940, p. 338).

Here I see Jordan’s view of life as a secularist. He longs for ultimate redemption and the benefits of an afterlife to commune with his beloved grandfather but he rejects it, too. It seems foolishness to him. Biblically speaking, redemption is foolishness to the perishing.

A question or two: What if Hemingway was wrong? What if God does exist? Would Robert Jordan then embrace him? I don’t see any evidence of that in the text. What I do see is a man who, because he exiles God from his worldview, becomes an exile himself. He longs for love but believes he is unworthy of it from Maria, and that he will fail her. His god becomes his own pride, valor, courage in battle, and his sense of honor. But what do these terms mean in a universe devoid of the God who offers transcendent value? If all is material, whence come these values? How does the atheist account for objective values? I would argue that he cannot. They are preferences, but not objective values. Jordan is an exile from Eden (in which he doesn’t believe, but against which he nonetheless rebels), and his exile is self-imposed.

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