‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ is Ernest Hemingway’s third and best-selling novel. It tells the story of a dynamiter tasked with destroying a bridge in the Spanish Civil War.
Drawing from Hemingway’s time as a journalist in that conflict, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ deals with the themes of death, duty, camaraderie and war. The cliché of ‘the earth moving’ during intercourse derives from this book.
I picked a hardback copy in a rushed visit to a Thai bookstore in 2017, a couple hours before a plane flight. It was my introduction to Hemingway, and I was not disappointed.
The title is drawn from John Donne, a 17th century English poet. In Donne’s time church bells tolled when someone had died:
‘No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.’
His Communist superiors describe Robert Jordan ‘a young American of slight political development but a great way with the Spaniards and a fine partisan record.” Jordan has lived in Spain for a decade and dreams of returning to his native Montana to teach the language at university. He fights not for ideological reasons like his peers, but a sense of duty to his adopted home and its people.
Jordan is a demolitionist with the International Brigades, the antifascist volunteer force of Wily Brandt and George Orwell. At the start he is ordered to join a Republican partisan band in the Sierra Guararamma. When the Republican army launches its attack on Segovia he will detonate a bridge and thwart the fascist retreat.
The novel takes place over three nights and four days. For much of the book, Jordan wrestles with his mortality. Pablo, the partisan leader, is the only one to recognise the mission’s danger and this strikes tension between the two. Bonding with the lively guerrillas and falling for the innocent yet long suffering Maria, in four days Jordan learns there is more to life than duty.
The book’s dialogue is written to give the impression it has been transliterated. Italicised Spanish phrases pepper the chapters and the characters address one another as ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ to represent their rural, old fashioned dialect. Whilst this has drawn criticism, my personal complaint is the handling of curse words. Phrases like ‘mucked off’ and ‘go and obscenity thyself’ replace expletives. It is frustrating, but can be overlooked.
The story reflects the dangers of doctrinal belief. Horrendous atrocities on both sides are accounted, including a rural township’s humiliating anti-fascist purge and the murder of a Republican mayor and his family by Falangist troops. So too is the bone wrenchingly frustrating suspicion and mistrust of the Communist leadership.
Some of the characters are based on real people.
- Robert Jordan is a combination of Hemingway’s friend Robert Merriman, who fought in Spain, and himself.
- Karkov, ‘the smartest man I knew’ writes for the Soviet newspaper and mentors Jordan. He is based on Hemingway’s friend Mikhail Kolstov, whom Stalin purged in 1939.
- Andre Marty, the head of the International Brigades who appears near the end, was a historical figure.
Hemingway described ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ as ‘the most important thing I’ve ever done’. It would have won a Pulitzer Prize were it not for Columbia University president and fascist sympathiser Nicholas Murray Butler. He vetoed and no prize was awarded for 1941.