The title “For Whom The Bell Tolls” is taken from a poem written by John Donne wherein he makes the claim that because of our common humanity, every death necessarily diminishes each of us, therefore, ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. This is a book about death and dying set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War.
Hemingway’s novels and stories present a certain kind of hero: “The Code Hero.” This individual lives by his own code and struggles gracefully and bravely against death and annihilation. Another consistent theme found in Hemingway is courage under fire or dire circumstances, whether it is in the bull ring, behind enemy lines, or hunting man-eaters in the green hills of Africa. Cowardice is particularly loathed.
The novel begins in 1937 at the height of the Spanish Civil War and takes place over a four day period. The chief protagonist is an American named Robert Jordon who has been tasked to blow up a bridge behind enemy lines in the Spanish mountains. He is aided in this task by a band of guerrillas headed by Pablo and the woman of Pablo, Pilar. We also meet the beautiful Maria. A young Spanish girl whose parents were murdered by Fascists soldiers who then raped and abused Maria. Some say that Maria represents Spain and her gang rape represent the despoilage of Spain by the Fascists.
Robert and Maria fall in love at first sight. This is another recurring theme to be found in Hemingway, that humans can find salvation through romantic love. The couple makes love together in Jordon’s sleeping bag on the ground outside the mouth of the cave where they are all hiding. He asks Maria “Did the earth move for thee?” This is the earliest I have seen this terminology in print and is now considered a cliché, but it may be that Hemingway coined this usage.
Hemingway’s use of language was controversial in this novel. Many Spanish words and phrases were translated literally word for word which gave a sense of the Spanish but sounds archaic and stilted to our English hearing ears. For example, the Spanish characters in the novel referred to each other as thee and thou. The traditional second person singular in English is “thou/thee/thy”. The most exact way of translating “tu” from Spanish is “thou” or “thee”. This was a bold experiment. Once the convention was understood and accepted one got used to and even grew to like it.
During the course of the novel many flashbacks and digressions take place as various characters tell their stories and reminiscence about the past. We learn, for example, that Jordon’s Grandfather was a Civil War hero in the America’s war of rebellion. We also learned that his father was a coward and that he shot himself to death with a pistol. It is indeed ironic that Hemingway’s own father committed suicide and that Hemingway took his own life with a shot gun many years later.
Death is the primary focus of the novel with much discussion amongst the characters about what it is like to kill another human being, was it the right thing to do and what would it be like to die. In the end, Jordon is fatally wounded after successfully completing his mission and trying to escape. He waits by the roadside while the others get away, hoping to kill as many of the enemy soldiers as he can before he dies.
It took me a long time to get around to reading this book. I have been carrying it around with me since 1971. I finally read it in 2011. Forty years. It was well worth the wait. While each man’s death may diminish me to some extent, this novel has made me whole.