For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

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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…)

This post is a part of the Lost Generation: American Literature Classics Circuit.

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.

Reviewed on March 31, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I’ve started “For Whom the Bell Tolls” a few times and for no reason I can pin down (I like the writing, the story interests me, I like Hemingway) I’ve never made it past about 50 pages. I think it’s time I make another attempt.

    • Ellen » I felt the beginning was hard to get into. It starts in the middle and takes a while to get the feel for the character and the settings. But I really did love it by the end.

  • I forgot the whole “obsenity” thing! It’s been quite a few years since I read this.

    This is my second favorite Hemingway behind The Old Man and the Sea. It’s an amazingly powerful book.

    • Amanda » I do think OLD MAN was probably a deeper favorite — add succinct to good story, good writing, interesting characters, and that’s it. But I do need to reread it.

  • I read this back when I was a teenager, but admit that most of it probably went over my head. I did keep my copy, however, so I do hope to re-read it at some point in the future. I am not sure how I will feel about Hemingway, but I suppose I need to give him a real try before making up my mind.

    • Steph » I have mixed thoughts on Hemingway, so don’t feel bad if you like some but not others. You don’t ever have to make up your mind, as trying something again in five years may make it more or less favorite…

  • Ha, I forgot about that “obscenity” trick too! I couldn’t decide at the time whether I thought it was gimmicky or effective, but it ended up being pretty much neutral for me.

    In any case, I loved this book when I read it. I loved the way Hemingway managed to combine a certain level of cynicism about war with a certain amount of conviction that the characters were fighting for a worthwhile cause, and he just let them be with that dissonance. Also loved the sensual descriptions of the land and the physical realities of the different characters.

  • I just cannot make myself like Hemingway. I’ll admit I have no motive to like him — I think he wasn’t that nice a person, and I’ve never heard anything amiable about him — but I just can’t stand his writing. I want to slap him and all his characters and particularly I want to slap him over the rubbish women characters he writes.

    *deep breath* I’m so ranty about Hemingway. I am not open-minded about him, I fear. 🙁

    • Jenny » Which have you read? I really disliked THE SUN ALSO RISES (I “got” it but don’t want to have to read it again…). but I enjoyed OLD MAN and this one. I’ll have to think about the women in the book. I think Pilar was strong. Both she and Maria seemed individuals. They lived as 1930s women: they did the cooking and cleaning, etc. I don’t think they were rubbish women in this book at least.

  • Haha I guess I never really looked at it from a sex, drugs and rock and roll point of view but, yes, it’s a bit off the charts for drinking, smoking, sexing, swearing bit. This has always remained one of my favorites.

  • When you wrote “Whenever I read a novel with stunning writing, I am always reminded why I seek novels with great writing to begin with,” you have said it well! I agree with you 100%.

  • I’ve had this book on my shelf for ages but still haven’t read it. I enjoyed reading A Moveable Feast for this tour so much that I plan on reading more of Hemingway. This one probably will be next.

    I wonder if the “oh, obscenity!” thing was something Hemingway came up with on his own or was it something that he decided to do after his editors said he needed to do something different. But, yes, I think it’s a better method than *bleep* or whatever.

    By the way, I think the Lost Generation tour is one of my favorite Classics Circuit tour so far. Thanks for all the work on this.

    • Valerie » I think the “oh obscenity” thing was probably a combination of the two reasons. But really, half the obcscenities are probably in Spanish — it just shows that the exact words aren’t what make something rude. I loved it myself…I’m glad you enjoyed this tour. So many great books to read…

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