Whenever I read a novel with stunning writing, I am always reminded why I seek novels with great writing to begin with. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (first published 1940) is one such novel. It is deceptively simple in its plot, dialog, and sentence structure. I felt I was there.
For Whom the Bell Tolls drew me into the middle of the Spanish Civil War. I felt the fear of mistrust, the pain of injuries, and a certain degree of hopelessness, as must be present during preparations for an offensive battle. But on top of the magnificent writing, Hemingway gave an insightful look into living life to its fullest for as long as you have to do so. Given its publication just before a major world war, For Whom the Bell Tolls must have resonated strongly with its first readers.
Robert Jordan is the American dynamiter assigned to blow the bridge. He and a small local band of guerillas are responsible for killing the sentries and exploding the bridge, and all of them must escape to a zone in Republican territory, all during the early daylight hours. They have just four horses, more than ten people, and a long way to go in their escape.
Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls covers the emotions and movements of about 15 guerilla soldiers for 70 hours during the Spanish Civil War (May 1937), focusing mostly on Robert Jordan. As Robert Jordan ponders his life moment by moment over the course of the about 70 hours, he gives us his last minute insights into living a good life.
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. (Chapter 13)
For Whom the Bell Tolls focused on the “now” in many ways, but most especially in relationships. It is truly a celebration of carpe diem. In the last hours before the battle, Robert Jordan has chance to love. His physical love is so perfectly captured. I love parallels between Robert Jordan’s sexual experiences (for the bests such scene, see Chapter 37) and the mention of the rabbits found humping in the woods, just before they are shot (see Chapter 22). Yes, every creature is in the midst of an unexpected life: one cannot know what will come in the next moment. Such a parallel made it clear why Hemingway chose for Maria’s nickname to be “Rabbit.”
Content Warning (Sort of…)
Obviously, given the themes I mention above, For Whom the Bell Tolls has a lot of sex. I normally avoid excessive sexuality in novels. This one was beautifully done, and I felt sex was treated with respect; after all, Hemingway is declaring physical love to be like heaven. Although the novel treats life from a nonreligious atheistic perspective (i.e., “Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die.” Isaiah 23:13), it still resonates with me as someone who does believe in life after this one: whether or not we live after this life, one still must take advantage of life in fulfilling our responsibilities. I do view extramarital sexual relationships as against the plan of God, but Hemingway treated sex with such respect and admiration that I cannot dislike the book on that account. It was simply beautiful.
The dialog also has a fair amount of obscene language. However, Hemingway captured the language in unique way. Instead of writing obscenities in the text, he wrote the word “obscenity” or he translated it into Spanish! This was genius, I thought, because it proved that we didn’t need to know what one was saying, simply the gist of it. Words, including obscenities, are simply words with meanings attached. Knowing the meaning of the word “obscenity” is enough to know that the guerrilla soldiers were pretty nasty to each other. I’m tempted to say, “Oh, obscenity!” next time I have the chance. (I try not to swear anyway.)
As for violence, yes, it has that too. But I was not fazed by it; I think Hemingway’s matter-of-fact tone made it bearable. I believe, though, that I am less sensitive to violence than to sexuality and crude language.
Life Tolls for Thee
The title is taken from a passage by John Donne, and I love how it so perfectly matches the commentary of the novel. Here it is in full.
Meditation 17: Devotions upon Emergent Occasions by John Donne
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
Each of the characters in the novel were affected by each other’s choices, deaths, pains, and histories. Donne’s passage captures that wonderfully.
I highly recommend For Whom the Bell Tolls. As a novel, it fulfilled my expectation of emotionally and mentally moving me. I am a different person having read it.
Finally, I feel now, that I can’t wait to read more Hemingway. In the Paris Review Interview with Hemingway in 1958 (now available online) Ernest Hemingway talked about his writing methods. I think this is so beautiful. It actually reminds me strongly of his themes in For Whom the Bell Tolls.
You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.
The Hemingway image is in the public domain, downloaded from Wikipedia. The cover images are from a 1996 Scribner’s classic and a 1968 Scribner publication of the novel, respectively, the later being the one I read.