First edition cover 1940
In 1937 Ernest Hemingway traveled to Spain to cover the civil war there for the North American Newspaper Alliance. Three years later he completed the greatest novel to emerge from “the good fight,” For Whom the Bell Tolls. The story of Robert Jordan, a young American in the International Brigades attached to an antifascist guerilla unit in the mountains of Spain, it tells of loyalty and courage, love and defeat, and the tragic death of an ideal. In his portrayal of Jordan’s love for the beautiful Maria and his superb account of El Sordo’s last stand, in his brilliant travesty of La Pasionaria and his unwillingness to believe in blind faith, Hemingway surpasses his achievement in The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms to create a work at once rare and beautiful, strong and brutal, compassionate, moving and wise. “If the function of a writer is to reveal reality,” Maxwell Perkins wrote to Hemingway after reading the manuscript, “no one ever so completely performed it.” Greater in power, broader in scope, and more intensely emotional than any of the author’s previous works, it stands as one of the best war novels of all time.
“There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes.”
― Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls
Many foreign writers went to Spain to cover the civil war in the 30’s, and fine selection of them told the situation in different ways, all coming together to tell a truthful account of war. Among these writers was Ernest Hemingway, who went on to write one of the greatest novels of all time, For Whom The Bell Tolls. There are only a tiny amount of tales written that capture the bitterness, the desperation, and the tragic outpouring of war. Hemingway succeeded in captivating readers and opening up the reality of Spain’s front lines, through real life situations and experiences that cannot be imagined.
The book tells the story of Robert Jordan, a journalist who travels to Spain as part of the volunteer International Brigade. Jordan, who is experienced with dynamite, is ordered to destroy a bridge outside the town of Segovia, just north-west of Madrid. Jordan and a group of Republican fighters, including Pablo and his wife Pilar, and a young woman named Maria, are all aware that their mission will almost certainly kill them. As the group go ahead with their operation, Jordan finds himself falling in love with Maria, who has suffered the worst atrocities of the Falange (fascist group following Franco’s rebel forces), which only complicates Jordan’s quarrel with death. When a fellow Republican group is caught by the rebels, Jordan’s team falls into disarray and betrayal as the reality of being against a far-stronger enemy begins to become clear. While the band all have honest intentions, fear and misery overcome the group. In a final stand, Jordan is forced to ambush the enemy, just as the world around the idealism of the Republican causes hits the darkness.
One thing readers need to come to grips with is Hemingway’s use of thou/thee, which is a translation of the Spanish tu, meaning you. Once readers have got the hang of using the old adage, it becomes enjoyable to read. The novel is written in the third person limited omniscient narrative, in my opinion the best of its kind for this book. By giving the protagonist an all-knowing all-seeing narrative, as well as thoughts of other characters, the whole picture become more realistic and heartfelt.
Many themes are considered in the book, the main being death. Each character needs to come to terms with the fact escape while under enemy attack is unlikely. Suicide is also on the minds of each character, as it is their only alternative to an evil death in enemy hands. True to form with the civil war, politics is explored, and the ideal that men and women are equal (touted by the Republicans, hated by the Fascists) is given a real chance through the character of Pilar, who threatens to be the star of the entire story.
Due to Hemingway’s real experiences in the field during the civil war, the opportunity to have scenes well described has been used superbly. Readers have no need to have a good knowledge of Spain or the civil war because Hemingway brings it to life for all. The author had been trying to use internal dialogue correctly for years, and this is the book that cracked it with aplomb. The book was also the birth of the famous line “Did you feel the earth move? (or in Hemingway’s case, Did thee feel the earth move?). With the use of fictional characters, those based on real life figures Hemingway met, and also famous figures of the war, the book comes to life with a richly uplifting and painful novel that is a must-read for everyone.
No need to be a Spain or civil war lover, because you haven’t read until you have finished For Whom The Bell Tolls. The book should be rated 15/10. Life and death, ideology versus reality, Robert Jordan is a character that comes along once in a generation. Even if you have read it before, read it again, because books change as people change. This novel just gets better and better.
Next week – The Sun Also Rises