Jay's Reviews > For Whom the Bell Tolls

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
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Apr 08, 14

bookshelves: literature-united-states
Read from August 29 to September 05, 2011 — I own a copy, read count: 2

Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is not a reliable view of the Spaniards during the decade of the 1930s or of their 1936-39 Civil War. From both of those perspectives, the novel has its difficulties.

In Spain of the post-Franco years, and especially since the opening of the archives of the old Soviet Union, the debate about the role of the Communist in the Republic both before and after Franco’s rebellion has increased with renewed intensity. It has long been clear that the war was not a simple black-and-white conflict between a freely elected democratic State (the Republic), on one side, and an insurgent Fascism, on the other. What is emerging in greater clarity, however, is the role of the Communists.

The historian Stanley Payne has argued that Russia’s subvention of the Republic both before and after 1936 was far more extensive than many once thought. Even if his conclusion that the Republic was moving toward a Communist totalitarianism well before the military’s 1936 intervention is not universally accepted, it is certain that the Republic (a coalition of Anarchists, Socialists, Communists and Republicans) was ill disposed to grant the right wing (a grouping of Church, Military and Fascists) any position in the political arena. It also seems clear that the West’s economic embargo did not drive the Republic into Russia’s hands. The Republican government’s links to Moscow, which supplied that government with armaments and strategy, were cemented well before that embargo.

Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (published in 1940) emerged out of a simpler, less Machiavellian view of the conflict that circulated outside of Spain and that romanticized the Republican cause and minimized Russia’s pernicious involvement. Hemingway’s novel—its plot and characters-- is certainly compelling and continues to rank among his best writing even given some of the negative criticism of the language which was intended to reflect the Spanish spoken by the characters. But, as a window on the Spanish and their war, the novel is defective. Although Hemingway worked as a journalist in Spain during a large part of the conflict, he was at best disengaged from the complexities of politics as they played out in Spain through 1939. His time in Madrid in the Hotel Florida, as Hemingway himself describes it, was far less political than social. He certainly never embraced the ideology of any of the Communist parties. He did, however, emerge as a spokesperson for the myths forged by the Stalinists.

When I first read For Whom the Bell Tolls as a teenager in 1956, I found both the setting and the politics of the war described by Hemingway as engaging as the novel’s more transcendental themes. I had no reason to doubt the authenticity of Hemingway’s voice in regard to Spain and its War. Robert Jordan, the young American academic fighting in Spain as part of the International Brigades on the side of the Republic, carried me into the mountains around Segovia and into a Spain of matadors, peasants and shepherds. And, although Hemingway described atrocities on both sides of the conflict [Pilar’s account of Pablo’s sacking of a small mountain town (based on actual events in the town of Ronda?) in the environs of Avila is quite chilling], the Republican guerrillas cemented my sympathies for their crusade. As Robert Jordan, I was a Republican. As Robert Jordan, I fell in love with María. And similar to Jordan, I saw the war and the inevitability of a victory of Franco’s Nationalists as the death of truth and idealism in Spain itself. Democracy defeated at the hands of Fascism. Here was the image: Robert Jordan’s commitment to blowing up a bridge was a XX Century reenactment of Don Quijote’s charge at windmills.

Having re-read For Whom the Bell Tolls in 2011, after years of studying Spanish history and culture and of living in the country itself off and on during Franco’s dictatorship, I now find it as a view of the Spaniards and of their Civil War flawed. On the other hand, the work’s themes—death, honor, commitment, love—and Hemingway’s treatment of them are far more meaningful for me than the novel’s physical setting and its portrayal of the Civil War. Hemingway’s treatment of those themes engaged me in 2011 as much as the novel did in 1956.
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message 1: by Greta (new)

Greta Roussos It has been a few since my husband read "For Whom the Bell Tolls" at bedtime for many weeks. It helped me get to sleep often from boredom with the story, until the ending which made this one of my favorite Hemingway stories. I also lived in Spain during Franco's reign in the late 1960's which added to my interest in Hemingway's accounts of Spain and it's people.


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