Recently I completed another reading of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.
What follows below are several items: 1) quotes from the book; 2) some ideas about Hemingway’s atheism; 3) some questions to ponder; 4) why my views of the novel changed.
As a brief prolegomenon and as a matter of disclosure, I value Hemingway’s writing–especially his short stories–immensely. His place in the canon of classics of American and world literature is not in doubt. The fact that thousands of us still read his works is proof. So what follows is not a Hemingway-bashing screed.
I hope that it is rather a thoughtful response and series of questions for careful readers to ponder as we continue to read and study Hemingway’s works and his worldview.
Here are a few quotes from the book that moved me, told from a soldier’s perspective, amidst war:
Two Quotes from the Novel:
“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” (169).
And then this quote. It is, like the one above, from a soldier’s perspective, an internal stream-of-consciousness interior monologue, and it reflects a worldview:
“I think that we are born into a time of great difficulty, he thought. I think any other time was probably easier. One suffers little because all of us have been formed to resist suffering. They who suffer are unsuited to this climate. But it is a time of difficult decisions. The fascists attacked and made our decision for us. We fight to live. But I would like to have it so that I could tie a handkerchief to that bush back there and come in the daylight and take the eggs and put them under a hen and be able to see the chicks of the partridge in my own courtyard. I would like such small and regular things.
‘But you have no house and no courtyard in your no-house, he thought. You have no family but a brother who goes to battle tomorrow and you own nothing but the wind and the sun and an empty belly. The wind is small, he thought, and there is no sun. You have four grenades in your pocket but they are only good to throw away. You have a carbine on your back but it is only good to give away bullets. You have a message to give away. And you’re full of crap that you can give to the earth, he grinned in the dark. You can anoint it also with urine. Everything you have is to give. Thou art a phenomenon of philosophy and an unfortunate man, he told himself and grinned again” (368).
Thoughts on Hemingway’s Atheism:
It should be evident from both quotes that Hemingway’s characters in the novel embody a naturalistic worldview. There is no God; there is only material and chance. Man came from nowhere; there is no divine overarching purpose to the cosmos, much less to individual lives, except what one arbitrarily manufactures. No heaven, no hell. Just blood and soil, as it were. Lots and lots of blood, blood-soaked soil, and war.
But what strikes me each time I read this novel is that Robert Jordan, the protagonist, loves. He loves his fellow soldiers (like Anselmo, for example) and he loves Maria, the Spanish girl. He also loves concepts like honor and sacrifice.
Some Questions to Ponder:
Is that not interesting? Why would a person with an atheistic/naturalistic worldview love people, love his fellow soldiers, love a woman, or love ideas like honor and sacrifice? How can one logically account for these things in an atheistic/naturalistic worldview?
But what we find in this novel, and in all of Hemingway’s other masterful works, is that his characters do love. They do value sacrifice. They do value honor. They do believe in right and wrong, good and evil.
Why My Views Have Changed:
When I read this novel now, I see its contradictions, and those contradictions lessen my appreciation for the atheistic position.
The writing (please hear me) is wonderful. But the logical inconsistencies are replete.
Robert Jordan is in many ways, one might reasonably say, a “good” man. (“Why do you call me good?” should be ringing in your bibical ears, if you know the Scriptures.) He is at war voluntarily to combat what he views as evil.
He loves his battle buddies.
He loves a woman.
He loves life and hates meaningless violence while also recognizing that violence is necessary at times to destroy evil’s advances.
But all of these concepts about good and evil, love and hate, right and wrong, purpose versus accident, chance versus providence–they all only make sense if there’s a personal, transcendent, objective reference point, i.e., God.