Tom's Reviews > For Whom the Bell Tolls

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
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Jun 27, 08

Ok, before I commit the sacrilege of dismissing this "classic," permit me to establish my Hemingway bona fides: I have read and loved just about everything else he wrote, and have taught Sun Also Rises, Farewell to Arms, and many short stories, and had a blast doing it. I've read Carlos Baker's classic bio, and numerous critical articles on H. I've made the pilgrimage to Key West and taken pictures of his study and the hordes of 6-toed cats. I dig Papa, ok?

But I can not stand this book! I should say up front that I've never been able to tolerate it long enough to finish it -- twice. First time was nearly 30 years ago, and as a fairly recently discharged Army troop,I took up this book with much anticipation and excitement. I couldn't get past about half way through. I found the prose so incredibly flat and dull as to be soporific (and, yes, I fully understand and appreciate H's famous "Iceberg Principle" of writing -- "the thing left unsaid" etc). The problem wasn't the "thing left unsaid;" the problem was too many things said, and in a very boring fashion. How could a book with such a dramatic plot be so dull, I wondered in shock? It's all in the language, or lack thereof. I have a theory that great short story writers often don't make great, or even good, novelists, because the voice and style that works so well in the shorter genre just doesn't translate to the longer one (John Cheever, case in point; IB Singer, to a lesser extent). Now, of course, H. did write great novels; this just isn't one of them. Take away the language in H's novels, and what are you left with -- borderline juvenile adventures and fantasies, or at best, semi-journalistic accounts.

Compare the opening of Bells with the opening of Farewell to Arms: be honest and tell me if you hear even one faint echo of the magical rhythm of that famous opening in Bells -- anywhere, not just the beginning? And the dialogue, sweet jesus, joseph and mary, I've heard corporate phone recordings with more intonation and human warmth.

A few months ago, our book club selected this novel. At first, I kept my opinions to myself and hoped I would have a different response reading this time. I readily acknowledge that my reading tastes have evolved -- matured, I hope -- significantly over the years, and maybe I just had a tin ear 30 years ago. Not the case. I couldn't even get beyond the first 6 pgs this time. That flat voice was duller than ever! "Waterboarding would be more tolerable than reading 400+ pages of this stuff," I thought. I've choked down some mediocre books before for the sake of fulfilling my civic duty as a long-standing member of our book club, but I couldn't do it this time.

This is not to suggest that the rest of you are wrong. I have a dear friend who's read more great literature than I can remember, and he loves this book, and expresses great shock when I tell him how much I hate it. But there it is.
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 68) (68 new)

Kelly Paprocki i'm suffering through it despite the growing feeling that this must certainly be his worst work. what the hell was he thinking? was he? this is not the same writer i thought i knew and appreciate. i will finish it out because i am just ill that way.
i think your review is spot on.
i feel much better about hating it so thoroughly, thanks!

message 2: by Tom (new) - rated it 1 star

Tom Good golly, Kelly. Why punish yourself?? I understand the movie version with Gary Cooper is pretty good; I suggest watching that instead.

As for why H. produced such a poor book, I think it may have something to do with his deep attachment to Spain, and therefore, he felt compelled to produce some ambitious, majestic homage to his adopted country. Alas, in the process, he lost his famous aesthetic discipline.

Fear not, you're not alone in hating this book. I have a colleague who's a Hemingway scholar, and though he still teaches Bells from time to time, even he thinks it's an inferior work.

Thanks for taking time to comment!

Omar Not sure where the bashing is coming from. I wholely agree that Hemingway drags every single character through the mud and that nobody is clean. It's difficult to get connected to anyone the way you can connect with the characters in A Farewell. But in my opinion that's the genius of the book: it's real, it's raw and all in Hemingway's vintage prose.

message 4: by Tom (new) - rated it 1 star

Tom Omar, my problem is not with distant and dirty characters but with flat and dull prose, which for reasons I stated above, lack the lyrical and raw impact of H's writing. I acknowledge mine is a minority view, but in the case of this particular novel, I find the prose to be anything but "vintage" Hemingway.

Josh Finish the story, and then see what you think. I agree that it was a slog from about 1/2 to 2/3 through, but the last chapters left me awed. It's an incredible story, and he saves so much for the end.


message 6: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim I am so glad you feel this way. My husband and I decided to read some "classics" together that we had never read before. He chose this one first. Normally he reads slower than me, but this time he's gobbling up the pages and I can barely stand reading it. Please understand-- I LIKE good literature. I was so excited about the idea of reading classics together. I've been confused about why this book just isn't doing anything for me, and had chalked it up to menopausal distraction. But now I wonder. It really IS flat and dull writing. :-)

message 7: by Tom (new) - rated it 1 star

Tom Certainly a reasonable recommendation, Josh, but I'm afraid I just can't work up the enthusiasm for it. I've returned to books I rejected once and discovered my taste had changed, but never after two rejections.

Josh wrote: "Finish the story, and then see what you think. I agree that it was a slog from about 1/2 to 2/3 through, but the last chapters left me awed. It's an incredible story, and he saves so much for the..."

message 8: by Tom (new) - rated it 1 star

Tom Not to worry, Kim. I would argue that learning to trust one's own tastes regarding the "classics" is the sign of a discerning reader. And sometimes those tastes change, and that's fine, too. I used to loathe Henry James,years ago, but then a couple years back I read The Ambassadors, and enjoyed it immensely (and stylistically, that's one of his knottier books) and now look forward to reading more.

KIM wrote: "I am so glad you feel this way. My husband and I decided to read some "classics" together that we had never read before. He chose this one first. Normally he reads slower than me, but this time h..."

If You See Kay It is funny how this book has been described as the culmination of Hemingway....and yet some Hemingway fans hate it.

message 10: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim I've been slogging through, but I have to say it's growing on me and I like it better than I did previously. I realized the reason it sounds so 'dead' in the beginning is possibly because Robert Jordan, the protaganist, is devoid of all emotion. As his passions have heated towards Maria so has the writing. I still wouldn't call this a favorite, but I can't say I dislike it as much as I did the first 100 pages or so.

message 11: by Tom (new) - rated it 1 star

Tom Hmm, insightful observation, Kim. I'm trying to think of other works in which H. uses the same strategy. Nothing comes to mind. One would think that Frederick Henry, in Farewell to Arms, would be an obvious candidate, but I hear a degree of pathos in H's prose throughout that work regardless of F's benumbed emotional state. Nonetheless, I'm glad you're warming to it. If you're going to finish it, you might as well get something out of it, and sounds as if you have.

message 12: by Steve (last edited Jun 12, 2009 12:42AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Steve Tom, I liked it better than you (I'd probably give it 3 1/2 stars), but to some extent I feel that this is when things start to slide for Hemingway. So I hear what you're saying. It does feel forced, bloated even (an absolute Hemingway no-no). Maybe he thought he was boxing w/ Tolstoy. (Actually, on my Goodreads profile re: authors, I specify early Hemingway.) I think if you rummage around in Gore Vidal's essays, somewhere you'll see where he labels this a bad novel. In contrast, within the last year I just reread a Farewell to Arms. What a great book!

message 13: by Tom (new) - rated it 1 star

Tom I think you're dead on right, Steve, about the starting point of long, slow, sad slide in H's career (with rallying cries in Old Man and Sea, and, to lesser extent, The Garden of Eden -- or at least the heavily edited version we got). And as I recall, he even acknowledged his competition in the canon, among them "Mr Tolstoy, Mr Joyce," as he respectfully addressed them, but knew he wasn't quite in their class (such modesty for a guy who could be such a blowhard!) What makes it even sadder is that I'm convinced even Hem knew his powers were sliding, frittered away, to some extent, with his celebrity hob-nobbing. He as much says so in that marvelous short story, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," a brutally candid portrait of artist who's lost his way (though obviously not so lost at that point to compose such a great story).

I agree that FTA still holds up well, though the last time around for me, after several year absence, I found the near nihilistic attitude a bit overdone. His best work, in the novel, anway, such as SAR, offers a glimpse of, if not redemption, solace. Now, I haven't gone soft in my middle age, as I think the bleakness motif still works superbly in many of his short stories, such as "The Killers." Stylistically, though, FTA certainly retains its lyrical magic.

Ha, doesn't surprise me that Vidal would've trashed anything EH wrote. If not for his brilliant riposte to Mailer's threat to punch him in the nose -- "Once again, words fail Norman" -- V has no business occupying the same sentence as EH (ok, that's a bit harsh; I did like his novel Julian, 30+ years ago), but I will try to look up his essay.

I appreciate your comments!

Steve Tom, that's a good point regarding the "solace" of The Sun Also Rises (another favorite of mine). I haven't read Garden of Eden because it's a post Hemingway publication (so I was suspicious). Vidal. Yeah. What can you say? I also figured he probably didn't like EH anyway, but the comment kind of reinforced a few things I was already thinking about For Whom the Bell Tolls. The essay (or comment within) was buried, I believe, in his Second American Revolution collection. The collection does have some good essays on L. Frank Baum (Wizard of OZ), and Lincoln.

message 15: by Tom (new) - rated it 1 star

Tom Thanks for the tip, Steve.
And I did like Vidal's novel Burr, as well, so he has made some worthy contributions to literary world, especially with his hitorical novels.

Regarding posthumous works of any great author, I too am generally skeptical, especially when you consider the embarrassment H's estate published 2-3 years ago. But Garden of Eden is well worth reading. His take on shifting sexual identities is quite revealing for those who want to pigeon hole him as macho man.

message 16: by 2pay (new) - rated it 5 stars

2pay Totally disagree! But I still like the review! It's so strange and fascinating how people perceive the same things so differently.....

message 17: by Tom (new) - rated it 1 star

Tom Disagreements always welcome, even encouraged, 2pay, but House Rules stipulate that the maitr'd won't seat you at a table unless you present support for said disagreement.

message 18: by Rory (new) - added it

Rory Right on the money there, Tom. I couldn't agree more. I live in Spain and think H would have been better off writing a comic about double-dealing Andalusian gypsies rather than this overblown nonsense, yet there are some gems in it. I read it as part of my research on the SCW and was impressed with some details - especially the pen pictures of La Pasionaria and Gaylords Hotel in Madrid; his treatment of the paranoid André Marty (who never once got near any front) is brilliant, as is the gripping account of what happened in Ronda. But this is a news reporter at work, not a novelist.

message 19: by Tom (last edited Oct 12, 2010 10:20AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Tom Rory, in your SCW research, have you come across a book by Stephen Koch, "The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos and the Murder of Jose Robles," a biographic history? I've only read reviews, but it sounds like it sheds interesting light on H's experience there -- and not a flattering light. (for all his posturing as warrior-artist in SCW, I find it interesting that H. spent far less time exposed to actual danger and hardship than George Orwell did in gathering material for his Homage to Catalonia, something O., to my knowledge, never crowed about. Hmm, I wonder if Hemingway and St. George ever met? No mention of H. in Crick's bio of Orwell. I can't imagine O. having much patience for H's self-importance.)

message 20: by Rory (new) - added it

Rory Actually Tom, he was only too keen to get behind a machine gun and loose off precious rounds, as was the case when he visited a house in the Paseo de Rosales overlooking the front in Madrid. But let's not carp, I'm with you 100% on this, and often wonder why H supported the doomed Republican side. Maybe someone on the fascist side insulted him at some point? As regards Dos Passos and the Robles incident, I can only think that H considered Dos Passos a wimp and therefore went against him. Keep the comments coming!

Bookish I am listening to it, and I think had I tried to read it, I would have felt like I was slogging through it. However, listening to it, and hearing the small nuances the narrator uses to express the words as one might imagine they were spoken, has made for a very complex & enjoyable experience with this novel.

message 22: by Tom (new) - rated it 1 star

Tom Hmm, interesting that audio voice would sound better than written voice. In any book, I tend to value voice, the persona behind the words, more than plot or subject, as voice is the thing that pulls me through a work. Starting on pg 1, the first question I ask myself is, "Do I want to spend the next few days or weeks with this voice?" It almost becomes a quetion of trust that the persona speaking, whether omniscient or first person, will prove a worthy narrator or a manipulative mooch on my time, or just plain dull. Sadly, the latter proved to be the case in this book.
Do you know who's narrating this recording?

Laura wrote: "I am listening to it, and I think had I tried to read it, I would have felt like I was slogging through it. However, listening to it, and hearing the small nuances the narrator uses to express the..."

Bookish Campbell Scott

Siobhan Hartigan i couldn't agree more! i adore The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, but I just cannot get inside this story! I don't care for any of these characters!

message 25: by Matt (new) - rated it 3 stars

Matt I hate 'The Sun Also Rises.' I was lukewarm about 'For Whom the Bell Tolls.' I think it was too long due to significant padding. I think if a good 100-150 pages were trimmd, it would outstanding. I think 'A Farewell to Arms' is the only Hemingway novel that actually lived up to expectations for me; it is brilliant. This had some amazing moments but is brought down by poor editing.

message 26: by Em (new) - rated it 1 star

Em Grove I love Hemingway's short stories, and have re-read The Sun Also... and A Farewell to Arms a hundred times. I get a LOT out of re-reading A Farewell to Arms, and NOTHING out of reading For Whom... even ONCE. Sentences like "How are thee called?" and "Thou havest not seen thee like thee wouldst" (not actual sentences from the book) bog down any rythmn and flow at all, which is sad, because Hem is a master at encapsulating characters strictly through dialogue. Hem's a great writer, but I have to chock this up as a flop, along with Green Hills..., Islands in the Stream, etc. Thanks for posting your review! For Whom... is one of those books you feel you SHOULD like, and feel stupid or illiterate for not liking, but is really just long-winded prose that says nothing.

message 27: by Tom (new) - rated it 1 star

Tom Em, for me Sun Also Rises holds up quite well,better and better all time time, in fact -- a fascinating nonfiction complement would be Eliade's study The Myth of the Eternal Return -- but I found H's borderline nihilism in FtA tiresome when I returned to it many years after first reading, though the prose is still marvelous. Sorry to hear Islands in Stream is a "flop." I've had it on shelf for years and keep hoping to read it some time. What do you consider its main flaws?

message 28: by Em (new) - rated it 1 star

Em Grove I read "Islands in the Stream" years ago, and, honestly, NOTHING in the book stood out for me. It was just a forgettable novel I read and quickly dismissed. It made so little an impression on me I can remember almost nothing about it, like a bad movie you watch and quickly forget. The Sun Also Rises still holds up well today. I think each novel he wrote encapsulated that time period in his life: The Sun Also... when he was young, fairly well-off, with his whole life ahead of him, looking forward to his future, getting involved with the drama of his youthful friends, and partying and drinking. A Farewell... when he was disillusioned by the war and found something true only in his love for his soul mate. The Islands in the Stream was written at a time, quite honestly, where he was kind of crazy, and envisioning himself as a U-boat captain seeking out enemy submarines. He was pretty well damaged from head injuries and alcoholism at that point, and it shows in his writing. Just my opinion. Because of The Sun Also... and A Farewell to Arms and his short stories, though, he'll always have a place in English literature.

Tuğçe Sevin Oh great! I am not alone, I have been struggling with this one for over a month now and serious about finishing it but really forcing myself. And I was wondering what people like in Hemingway. I guess mine was, a very wrong start to his books.

message 30: by Greg (new)

Greg I feel the same way brother. I have tried to like this book because its a classic. Picked it up and put it down multiple times. It just plain sucks.

message 31: by Tom (new) - rated it 1 star

Tom Donna, such are the risks and rewards of a life-long reading relationship with an author: sometimes they transport you to sublime realms and other times they dump you into a verbal landfill. But that doesn't diminish their best achievements, in my opinion. I still love Sun Also Rises and many of the short stories; they more than hold their own in the pantheon of 20th C. Amer Lit. Though Hem was showing signs of decline even in late 30s, he still produced gems like Old Man and Sea and the fascinating Garden of Eden. As bad as Bells is, don't it let turn you off to his other works. Even Melville had his failures (ie Pierre!).

message 32: by Brim (new)

Brim I understand and appreciate your point completely, however as an English major turned Infantry USMC Sergeant, I have to ensure you that the boredom of tempo, theme, and mode is essential to understand the "excitement" that the unexperienced feel regarding war. The themes in this novel are genius in their relation to the "real" emotion of war. (read with a tone of extreme sarcasm) In my experience, the only war novel that comes close to this is red badge of courage. As a side note, most of the published commentaries on the work are flawed for the same reason ... the inablity to empathize with someone who has actually witnessed war.

message 33: by Brim (new)

Brim The most dangerous aspect of war is the boredom it creates. This evolves into fained attemps at connections to "real" life (ie absinthe and its emotional hallucinations) questioning internal and external motives, overanalyzing situations, complacency, and, worse yet, grasping at fantasies of the positive side of humanity.

message 34: by Tom (new) - rated it 1 star

Tom That's an astute observation, Brim, but I wouldn't grant Hemingway that much credit for intentionally using style to reflect experience, not that such skill was beyond him, but I remain convinced that he simply hadn't gained enough critical distance from the material to work with it with the same famously disciplined craftsmanship that he brought to his best work. He needed to let his experience in Spanish Civil War mulch and ferment longer.

Brim wrote: "I understand and appreciate your point completely, however as an English major turned Infantry USMC Sergeant, I have to ensure you that the boredom of tempo, theme, and mode is essential to underst..."

message 35: by Tom (new) - rated it 1 star

Tom That does seem to be prevailing opinion, Wilkes, just not one I share.

Wilkes wrote: "It is one of the great all-time masterpieces."

Jared I adore this book, we disagree, and thats ok. I'll just say thanks for acknowledging other people are allowed to have VALID other opinions and for outlining your arguments rationally and well. Cheers for that. Compared to the general review douchebaggery that goes on (here less than other sites maybe) it was nice to read and gave me something to think about. I still love it though. Cheers.

message 37: by Joe (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joe Tom, I have to say I liked/loved the book but I love your quote even more: "And the dialogue, sweet jesus, joseph and mary, I've heard corporate phone recordings with more intonation and human warmth." I nearly fell over laughing. It is very true. The prose is as dry as a bone, and yet somehow I think that's what I liked about it.

Roberta McDonnell Tom, I hear you, but would suggest you persevere with the book as the story and the characters get more intense in the later stages. Though I loved it, I will admit it took a bit of discipline to get my metaphorical teeth into FWTBT at the start. but it was worth the effort from my perspective. It's the first Hemingway book I've read so from your descriptions I'm looking forward to catching up with the rest. Best wishes, Roberta :)

message 39: by Chrissie (last edited Feb 28, 2013 01:15AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Chrissie Tom, I had to go check out your review! My, there is much we agree upon, but sill some his lines grab you. I don't like all his experimental techniques. None of them. I really don't even think the thee, thy and thou trick is worth much even if I now understand why he used it.

It is like, well, I will read a strong passage and love it, and then I must continue. It is not as good as Farewell to Arms.

Cheryl, The Book Contessa I have just started this book for a group read. I have never read Hemingway *gasp*;but we seem to agree on the language in the book. It isnt flowing for me, which leaves me uninterested in the characters. I don't hate it yet. I just don't know how far I will read.

message 41: by Tom (new) - rated it 1 star

Tom Joe wrote: "Tom, I have to say I liked/loved the book but I love your quote even more: "And the dialogue, sweet jesus, joseph and mary, I've heard corporate phone recordings with more intonation and human warm..."

The ear hears what it needs, Joe. Long jazz sax solos make me howl and claw my arms till they bleed but transport others to new heights of ecstasy.

Thanks for the laugh.

message 42: by Elias (last edited May 15, 2013 09:15PM) (new)

Elias Christian I'm glad to read this review. My dad LOVES this book and thought that the rest of Hemingway was dull compared to Bells...But I've read The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms and find them much, much better than Bells. This one doesn't attract my attention at all. I've tried it three times and it wasn't working for me. It seems flat and voiceless. I felt like I had an obligation to read it as a well-rounded reader of good literature but couldn't like it... So thank you for writing this.

message 43: by Tom (new) - rated it 1 star

Tom Glad you found it helpful, Elias. I've come to point where plot and subject are nearly irrelevant. It's voice, above all, that keeps me reading a piece, fiction or nonfiction, literature or journalism. And it's taken me years to get over tyrany of "obligation" to read anything. Check out NYT series "By the Book," interviews with authors about their reading habits; many have described how often and quickly they give up reading books, "classics" or otherwise, that don't hold their interest for any number of reasons. I find that view liberating. I used to tell my students who insisted having a length requirement for papers that I'd read 3 pg papers that felt interminable and 20 pg papers I flew through on gust of exhiliration, and the difference usually came down to language.

message 44: by Dyuti (new) - added it

Dyuti Thankfully I am not the only one who thinks so. I have been reading this book for six months and completed many books along side. I just can't read too much of this book at a time. Maybe Hemingway dragged it too long. However, I still want to read the end so I am going through this painful torture.

And the worse part is, this is the first book of his I am reading, so it discouraged me from reading his other books. Thankfully I read your review and the comments on it. At leasti know now that his short stories aren't so bad.

message 45: by Tom (new) - rated it 1 star

Tom Dyuti, some of the short stories are truly masterpieces, and H's novel The Sun Also Rises holds up quite well. Don't give up on Papa, yet. FWTBT is the embarrassing relative of the family.

message 46: by Joe (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joe I will add to these comments and to those who are having a hard time with it: try the audiobook version. I guess I should have mentioned that I 'read' this with the audiobook version by Campbell Scott. I think that is what helped the flow of the dialogue, etc. Even with Scott's monotone delivery, the character changes kept it going.

Cheryl, The Book Contessa Really enjoy this discussions & tangents it takes. I was unable to finish the book. I tried. I tried. Tom, I too struggle still with the 'obligation' to finish a book. A lovely 86 yrs young, avid reader friend just told me "You pay attention: Life is too short to read a book you don't like. Put it down and find something else." Dyuti, FWTBT was my 1st crack at Hemingway. I read The Paris Wife; and decided I best read from the real author. Looks like I picked the wrong book to start my journey. I will try something else in time. I am far on the other end of the spectrum of those who love this book.

Alice It's interesting to see some people might find this book boring or even poorly written. To me, it entails all the great observations about life and love that have ever been made. And about war. I agree completely with what was written here about the way the book portraits the war as it really is. Or at least the way I think it is.
I find it somewhat unnecessary or even foolish to read Hemingway's biographies written by the "experts" when everything you might ever want to know about him, you will find in his books. Especially in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

message 49: by Laura (new) - rated it 1 star

Laura Agree with you 100% about this book, but I have to disagree with you about Cheever. It's true that his short stories were his best work, but he also wrote two great novels, in my opinion: Falconer and The Wapshot Chronicles.

message 50: by Tom (new) - rated it 1 star

Tom Hmmm, Laura, didn't think Falconer was a "great" novel, but I do think it's a very good novel, and one I would read again, and probably should. Last time was when I taught it in a freshmen seminar on Law & Literature, and the students hated it, thought it "pornographic" (well, mostly the guys, still steeped and cured and juvenile homophobia, couldn't get beyond the sex and masturbation scenes; the gals didn't seem overly bothered)and highly offensive. Haven't read Wapshot Chronicles; major omission on my part. The short stories, however, are timeless and brilliant -- trule "great" in my opinion. Reread them often.

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