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.

Sleeplessness and Disagreement with Hemingway

Surely others know him. He mocks us as we turn upon our beds. He scoffs at us as we wriggle and squirm into our preferred positions, seeking to close our eyes. Perhaps we fluff our pillows or sip some water. We may arise and check the blinds, making sure they’re drawn, that the doors are locked, and then lie down again. Perhaps we look at our spouse and/or children with envy, as they rest, seemingly untroubled. But we wrestle on…against our mocking foe: sleeplessness. Tonight was such a night. Why? Perhaps it was because my father-in-law is slated for surgery today. Perhaps it was because our college-aged daughter came home last night to accompany her mom to Papa’s surgery later today, as I stay home with our son. Perhaps it was because I was so thankful to see our daughter home, even under the serious family circumstances, that I could not rest. Perhaps it was because God wants me to listen to him. When even the cicadas and frogs have fallen silent, I can listen without disturbance.

thIn Hemingway’s short story, “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” an older experienced waiter and a young restless waiter discuss an old man who is sitting and drinking brandy alone in their café, late in the night. The older waiter respects the old man, and seems to have a spiritual kinship with him. However, the young waiter is hurried, impatient, and feels the old man is a nuisance. The young waiter wants only to close the cafe for the night, so that he can go home to his young wife.

But the old man remains in the café. He likes to sit in this particular cafe late at night where he can imbibe, not just brandy, but the night’s simple beauties. He takes note of the shadow of leaves in the electric light, th-1and of how clean this café is. He notices a soldier and girl, as they walk by in the street. The light reflects off the brass number on the soldier’s uniform. Details sparkle in the night when the pace of the day has slowed. The combination of light, some brandy, and cleanliness create a sanctuary for the old man, in his world that is otherwise a world of nothingness—the operative theme in this Hemingway story.

As the story unfolds, the two waiters discuss how the old man tried to commit suicide recently by hanging himself. But his niece discovered him in time, and cut him down by slicing the rope the old man had used. The old man had been, according to the waiters, in despair. When one waiter asked the other waiter what caused the old man’s despair, the response is crucial: “Nothing.”

Nothing as a cause? Yes. Why? Because man cannot truly live if his belief system is anchored in nothingness. Philosophically speaking, this is the worldview of nihilism. “He has plenty of money,” one waiter quipped. So fiscal poverty couldn’t be the cause of the old man’s despair. The assumption made is clear. Since the old man has enough money, then despair, that nagging sense of lostness, of nothingness, should not plague the old man. But it does. He’s in spiritual poverty. And so he comes out to cafes late at night, alone, and drinks brandy to dull his despair in order to endure.

The assumption by the young waiter is that if one has a good work/career, a loving spouse, and money, he/she should be fulfilled. In the words of the young waiter, one must only have “confidence.” Speaking of himself, the young waiter boasts, “I have confidence. I am all confidence.” Pity this man; he’s a shell.

This is how masterful Hemingway is. Look at that word carefully. Confidence. It denotes the feeling or belief that one can accomplish something, that success is just around the corner. What’s the root? Confide. It denotes the entrusting of something valuable to someone for safekeeping. And there’s the irony that’s crucial to think through in this story. The older waiter understands the reason for his spiritual kinship to the old man sitting alone in the café, sipping his brandy. Both the old man and the old waiter have lived enough to have lost it all; they’ve experienced the nothingness that life can bring, if it’s lived only in artificial light.

Solomon’s perennial lessons from Ecclesiastes are dangerous if taken in isolation: “And I commend joy, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun” (8:15 ESV). It’s vital to read the whole context, because if we don’t understand the overarching story of God behind the existential momentary joys, we are spiritual amputees, like the old waiter and the old man.

They both are seeking light in the night–just a simple café, with clean tables and polished wood and decent brandy. The young waiter is likewise lost, but he’s still so immature, that he’s “all confidence.” He’s just a younger version of the lostness of each man in the story. Why do the old waiter and the old man suffer alone? Because they’re cut off from the confidence the young waiter has, the sense of having life by the tail. They understand lostness, the sense of seeking light and beauty in a world devoid of God.

That light, however, was absent for them because, in Hemingway’s worldview, God was absent. When God is absent, Hemingway had the intellectual honesty to admit, despair and nihilism result. He, like his characters, wanted to entrust his soul, to another. He wanted to confide. He longed for a spiritual confidant. Like the old man drinking brandy late at night alone at the café, Hemingway, too, attempted suicide. But Hemingway’s own end differed in one significant detail. Hemingway’s suicide was actualized. He blew his brains out with a double-barrel shotgun.

The old waiter and the old man had lost almost all hope. And the young waiter’s hope was misplaced. All three men were near to light, but shut it out. Could it be because the true light had come into the world but they preferred darkness (John 3:20)? Could it be that when anyone suppresses the light of God, he/she invariably substitutes other lights—well-lighted cafés, brandy, or activities/busyness?

The young waiter assumes his busyness, his wife, and his activity will stand him in good stead. But the older waiter and the old man share some sad wisdom. Life’s not that neat. The two older men know what happens when those things are taken away. One is left exposed before God. But for Hemingway, as for these men in the story, God was absent.

I’ve read Hemingway deeply for two and half decades now, and I’m continually astounded by his giftedness in evoking catharsisthe pathos engendered by such a masterful writer, where our souls are knit with characters to such a degree that our life experience is deepened. However, I wonder what it would have taken for him to acknowledge that we are always exposed before God. The Bible served Hemingway for more than a few of his titles of his novels and stories (The Sun Also Rises title comes from Ecclesiastes 1:5, and the Lord’s Prayer, found in Matthew 6:9-13, is mocked in “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”).

In Hebrews 4:13, Scripture records this promise from God: “And no creature is hidden from his [God’s] sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (ESV). Often in Hemingway’s writing, the reason we come across men like these, men who are alone, in despair, and teetering over the spiritual chasm, is because they’ve cut themselves off from the author of rest. Perhaps sleeplessness can be a gift to draw those who will listen to the God who grants rest, a Sabbath rest, for those who’ll seek refuge in him. He even calls himself the light. Such light, one might dare to say, outshines even a well-lighted café.