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.

Beauty as Messenger

Beauty as messenger. I’ve taught literature for many years now. I remain convinced that great literature reflects man’s best, noblest, most exalted efforts to express truth beautifully. For some, that may sound sentimental and saccharine. For others, however, Browning’s line, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” expresses what great literature aims for, namely, truth beautifully written. Might truth beautifully expressed be a messenger? And why do most avoid contemplating it?

The things in life that mean most to us are oftentimes the things about which most people avoid talking. It is more convenient to tweet or post. Headlines, not history. News is just that—new. We’re a “… and now this” culture, as Neil Postman wrote about. It’s what’s “happening now.” There is no room for the great enduring truths of literature when we can get updates sent to our phones and have news scrolled across the gadgets of our choice. We’re connected electronically but exiled in our souls. Where’s room for truth and beauty? Any room for a messenger?

The world is too much with us; late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;–/Little we see in Nature that is ours;/We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” Wordsworth’s poem, “The World Is Too Much With Us,” still speaks, does it not? Might these words, penned hundreds of years ago, serve as a messenger of that which endures?

This morning driving to work I had the radio on in my truck. The radio DJ was telling of how Tom Petty died this week, and of how his albums are now selling at many times the rate they were when he was still living. I was not a big fan of Petty’s music but I do respect how he labored in his craft. For Petty, it was music. His songs are played constantly because he spoke to the human experience and he tailored his talents to fit the genre of rock and roll. And music lovers continue to respond by buying up his albums and turning up the volume. There’s a message through all this and it’s not just the tunes. It speaks to a longing in the human heart for beauty and for truth. I do not wish to stretch the analogy too far. I would not choose to argue that Petty’s lyrics are great literature. However, Petty’s music has endured because it speaks to people in ways music mysteriously has the power to do. It touches people’s souls. It stirs them. It reminds them of what they value, of what brings joy. And those things endure.

I’ve read the following lines hundreds of times: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). It’s a reminder that we don’t know our end. I doubt that Tom Petty knew last week that he had less than a week to live.

James wrote in similar fashion: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:13-14).

Why do I still love teaching Shakespeare and Faulkner? Why do I try to open the Psalms to students who malnourish themselves on intellectual Twinkies? It’s because I remain more convinced than ever that the human soul atrophies if starved of truth and beauty.

I plan to drive home late today. When I do, I will drive north and the sun will be descending over the trees over my left shoulder. When I enter the community where my family and I live, I will wind over hills and cross a lake. On that lake, the sun will place its golden fingers across the water’s surface. Loons and geese will likely be flying overhead. Drakes and ducks are likely to be paddling around and dipping their heads beneath the surface, then reemerging with drops of water on their glossy crowns. And again I will be speechless before beauty. I will be suddenly filled with a message. It’s a message worth telling.

 

Homage to Walt Whitman

I remember the first time I read Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” in college. The poem plucked some invisible strings within my soul. I discovered that the right words in the right order changed things. They gave utterance to stones we carried in our hearts.

Solomon sounded similar thoughts in Proverbs, predating Whitman by millennia when he wrote, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Pr 25:11a, ESV).

The English course was one of those introductory survey courses that non-literary type students dread–a multi-month burden to endure with as scant effort as possible and still pass. But when the instructor assigned the poem, and we later reread it in class, it opened to me musical language. Whitman conducted with a baton:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

As the teacher read aloud most students seemed as moved as molasses. But I looked at the teacher and saw the flame in his eyes, too, that drew light from Whiman’s light. This poem named the unnameable; it expressed how mystery unfurls into a soul. Mystery found relief in language.

Decades later I still go back to that poem, and picture the speaker in the poem trying to listen to pablum. He tried to act the part of dutiful acolyte. Perhaps he envied those who were satisfied with the trivial. But instead, he heard chords sound from outside him, and yet to him, as from the divine conductor. And then he discovered himself looking up at the firmament, almost daring to speak.

Beside

“I’m right behind you,” I said. That’s what I told my wife and son as they departed the hotel. They had been gone an hour or so and I had only a few remaining administrative tasks to accomplish. Then I would be headed home.

I was wrapping up another Strong Bonds for soldiers and families at an Atlanta-area hotel. The program is designed to aid soldiers in communication skills, in understanding trust and mistrust issues, in working through conflict, in fighting for our marriages, in knowing our own “love languages” and the languages of those to whom we are closest, in how we soldiers—married or single—might make wiser decisions regarding how to show love and sustain love.

All I had remaining, I told myself, were just these final signatures with my hotel contacts, accountability for personnel, double-checking my room for gear, and I could go. I was tired, and longed for my own bed. Long day tomorrow (Monday). Always, I thought, looking ahead.

I’d confirmed all of the soldiers and families who had participated in the three-day event had checked out of the hotel. Most had repacked their cars or trucks for the drive back to their homes. As each event finished, I liked to watch couples leave together. Often they held hands walking out from the hotel through the parking lot, their children pulling at the parents’ pants, asking, “Can we stop for lunch?” or “What are we going to do now?” Unmarried soldiers walked with their battle buddies and talked of common interests, or their evaluations of the training event. Single parents often wore expressions of enduring resolve amidst unspoken solitude.

I finished the paperwork with the hotel staff, double-checked I had all my gear, zipped up my backpack and computer bag, and headed out the door. A twenty year-old bellhop said, “Have a good day, sir” as I exited the vestibule and crossed through the closest parking areas down to the lower lot where I had parked my truck.

I placed my gear in the bed of the truck and got in the cab. I cranked the truck, let the windows down for the accumulated August heat to escape, and turned on the A/C. I sat for a moment taking mental inventory, thinking of anything I might have left behind.

When the cab was cool, I backed out and drove towards the exit gate. When I approached the area to scan my room key, I did. The red and white arm lifted. I dropped my key into the drop box and prepared to turn out of the parking lot onto the main road but as I watched the gate’s arm descend in my rear view mirror, a couple caught my eye. It was not a married couple. It was a father and son. The father was one of our instructors and chaplains. He was walking back to the hotel lobby. I stopped my truck and rolled down the window.

“Is everything okay?” I asked.

“Yes,” the father said, his 10-year-old beside him.

Matthew leaned against his father’s leg, smiling.

“Matthew wanted to go walk through the hotel again. He likes it,” the father said.

Suddenly my thoughts flashed to my own 10-year-old son, and of what it means to walk beside.

I watched them walk on beside each other looking ahead together.

What a Survivor Learned

27 January 1945. That was the day that Auschwitz, a World War II death camp, one that defies sufficient description, was liberated, but not before 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered there. Why should this matter to us and to our children, and to our children’s children, seventy-two years later? In short, it should matter because of love.

This week I’m reading Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. It is his story of surviving the Auschwitz death camp. Frankl’s training was in psychology—the study of the soul/mind. In the book he explores the question of how and why some Jews were able to survive the agonies of existence within the barbed wire, the death trenches, the freezing temperatures, the inexorable starvation, etc.

How did some Jews survive the tortures of dehumanization and humiliation at the hand of the Nazis? The answer: love.

This passage from Frankl’s book is profound:

In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature . . . .

 And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous that the sun which was beginning to rise.

 A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.

 There is much to this passage that deserves thoughtful reflection. However, what interests me is the link between the survivors’ spiritual lives and their endurance. The spiritual rootedness of some people set them apart from their fellow men and women. They were sustained amidst unimaginable horror by their spiritual lives, by the lives, if you will, of their souls—their psykhe (soul) + logia (study of).

A fellow military chaplain friend of mine includes these words from General George C. Marshall in his emails: “The soldier’s heart, the soldier’s spirit, the soldier’s soul, are everything. Unless the soldier’s soul sustains him he cannot be relied on and will fail himself and his commander and his country in the end.”

Gen. Marshall and Victor Frankl both understood that the soul is what’s most important. They were not Gnostics; they were not arguing that the body and matter are bad, and that the soul and spirit are good. No. They were simply but profoundly calling us to think, and to admit the crucial role of the human heart, the human soul.

In the biblical worldview, Jesus teaches his followers, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28 ESV). The human soul, then, is crucial, as is each individual’s standing with God.

In the biblical worldview, love is rooted in the nature of God. God has revealed himself in creation, in Scripture, in conscience, and supremely in Christ. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

I do much studying of history, especially military history, and as I reflect on the horrors of Auschwitz, and of how men inflicted unparalleled horrors on other human beings, I feel shame. I see what the human heart is like when it’s rooted in lies. But I also see how God reached down to a sin-soaked creation in rebellion against him. Jesus became sin. He suffered the horror of divine wrath. And he did it for love. Why? Because he is the divine redeemer who has infinite knowledge of men’s souls and knows that outside of his righteousness imputed to men by faith, our eternal fates are worse than Auschwitz. But because of Christ, we may be liberated.

I know this will sound simplistic for many—this idea of penal and substitutionary atonement for sinners, but Scripture reminds us that the message does appear as a stumbling block and folly to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:20-31). But the great promise is that others will be humbled, will be teachable, will think consistently, and will believe upon the loving savior of souls.

The Person’s Grammar vs. the Grammar of the Person

 

 

 

Eight years of marriage to an abusive husband yielded bruised arms, bruised cheeks, and a battered soul. Yet some good came from those years of suffering. Now, she’s begun to talk about it all. How may one’s sufferings yield comfort, even joy, later?

A teacher asked his students on the first day of class to begin writing the first drafts of their autobiographies. Several students took quickly to the assignment. After all, one’s own story should bimgrese easy material about which to write, right? Perhaps. For some people. But not for at least one lady. What if, after all, one’s past is filled with memories, not of love, but of loss? How may one’s suffering be explained in a written assignment for school? How is one to even begin, if the pain is too close to the bone?

Ever noticed the old men with wrinkled skin that sit on the pine bench in a shopping mall? Sometimes they’re sipping coffee. Sometimes they’re wearing Members Only jackets and a fedora. Perhaps they have on plaid shirts with khaki pants. They wear brown Dr. Scholl’s loafers with thick comfortable soles. What are they doing? I used to think they were lonely or misplaced people. I don’t think that way as much anymore. Those wizened men are watching other people. They’re wondering about their stories. I like the way these bench observers seem unhurried, content to watch, sip their coffee, and imbibe their surroundings. You can see the sorrows written in their eyes, too. But they’ve learned to shape sorrows into lives. They’ve endured. And for some, they’ve gained wisdom. They’ve seen into the heart of the matter. More than a little of that skill came by leaning in—attending—to people at the right time.

When I, as the teacher, asked for the students’ drafts to be turned in the following week, one lady’s eyes told the story, even before she spoke. But she did finally speak.

“I, um, really struggled. May I have some more time to work on it?” she asked.

I suddenly felt like the old man on the bench at the mall. I watched the lady. I approached where she sat. She cowered behind her desktop computer.

“I just can’t seem to find the words. I’m really sorry,” she said.

“May I see what you have written so far?” I asked.

“Well, it’s not much,” she said, “and it’s not very good.”

“Let’s just take a look, okay?” I asked.

It didn’t take long to understand. I began reading. She’d married when she was 17 years old, already pregnant with her first child. Out of shame over the pregnancy, she had married the child’s father. Over the next eight years, she endured physical and emotional abuse. But her parents told her, “You will stay married. You will make it work.” And she never told her parents of the degree, or types, of abuse. She just told them it was tough being married.

Eight years and three more children. And abuse through it all. How could she write now, years later, divorced and scarred, in an English class with a deadline, about events that had battered her body and soul?

After I finished reading what she had written, I was not the same person. I raised my eyes. She was staring straight at me, to see what I thought. A stream of tears poured from her right eye, and moisture was building at her left eye. Her glasses were fogging from the tears. She’d begun to perspire. She was terrified about how I’d react.

“This is incredible. Not only is this the beginning of a remarkable autobiography, but you are remarkable for writing the truth, and for coming through to this point,” I said.

“Really?” she asked.

“Yes. Let’s work on it, okay?”

I pulled my MacBook over to her area. Now we both were behind her desktop computer. But she was no longer cowering. A wall had been demolished. I was not a threat. I was not a mean condemning man in her life. I was just her English teacher, and wanted to help.

We began reworking her autobiography. We did not erase her painful past, with all its horrific accuracy, from her autobiography. Initially, I had walked back to her in order to help her with written expression. I’d come to aid with mechanics, with subject–verb agreement, with diction. But life’s bruises intruded. Platitudes gave way to tears. She cried as she typed, and I tried not to look too much, but to encourage her as she pecked out her past on the keyboard, word by word.

We are continuing to work on it. But she’s writing now. The words are coming. She talks to me, too, about her past. I’ve become the old man on the bench at the mall, just by observing her—what she wrote, and what she couldn’t write yet.

There’s a unique humanity in teaching. It is akin to reading the soul’s language. Perhaps it’s not so different from that old man at the mall. He watches. He leans in. When appropriate, he advises.

I learn from my students. No, they’ve not taught me grammar, or love of language and literature; I’ve had those passions for decades. But I continue to learn that people are primary. Many live untouched by one who will attend, who will lean in, who will read what is there, but with compassion. We might find that our sorrows are more easily borne when shared. One of my favorite songwriters, John Brine, writes in “Hello in There”:

Ya know that old tress just grow stronger

And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day

Old people just grow lonesome

Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello’

Sometimes it takes a song to remind me. Or perhaps a student who lets me read her current autobiography, and lets me lean in, and help her to form her future one. “Hello in there, hello.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deep within the Birches

“Come on, Dad, let’s build a fort!”

“Okay, bud, let’s do it.” And we left the house, unsure but eager for what we were embarking upon.

The back yard has mature pines, a fruit tree, red tip shrubs more than ten feet tall along thimgrese fence, and river birches. It’s September and the birches’ fallen bark coats the corner of the back yard in khaki scrolls that crunch under our shoe soles.

We trimmed low lying limbs from some of the trees, shaved them to where we could fashion them into the thick red tip that was to serve as our little camouflage fort. We raked fallen leaves and pinecones from the earth’s floor. We fitted small branches within larger limbs, fashioning more from energy than from thought.

As I watched my son cut limbs with his machete, and saw him carve notches in twigs with his new knife, he was utterly engaged and content. In his mind, he was erecting a fortress, a boyhood castle from which he’d rule his kingdom.

And as I watched, and crouched beneath the limbs with him, and crawled into our growing fort, pulling honeysuckle vines and briars from the fence line, the incalculable weight of grief reached for my heart. I longed for nothing so much as to always see boys so happy.