Larry's Reviews > For Whom the Bell Tolls

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
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's review
Jan 15, 2012

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Read in November, 2011

Having never read Hemingway, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. Perhaps the glorification of war, with a good dose of machismo? But nothing of the sort. For Whom the Bell Tolls is a truly nuanced look at people dealing with all aspects of war: patriotism, idealism, camaraderie, brutality, horror and self-doubt.

The story centres on Robert Jordan, an American volunteer in the International Brigades in the Spanish civil war. The nation was being torn apart, as some rallied to the fascist side while others fought for the republicans.

Jordan is assigned to blow up a bridge with the help of a local guerrilla band. While still supporting the cause and willing to sacrifice his life, if necessary, he was becoming more jaded with growing ambivalence about warfare. “The things he had come to know in this war were not so simple.”

Everything about the war seemed to be in varying shades of gray, rather than black and white. The fascists killed and tortured innocents, yet the leaders of the republican guerrilla band had themselves carried out a brutal mass killing of fascist prisoners and supporters.

An elderly man in the guerrilla band struggled with his conscience. As he watched fascist soldiers at the bridge guardhouse they would later attack, he thought: “It is only orders that come between us. Those men are not fascists. I call them so, but they are not. They are poor men as we are. They should never be fighting against us and I do not like to think of the killing.”

When visiting a nearby city, a friend of Jordan's talks scathingly about the republican leadership, who are safely away from the combat. “I have just come back from Valencia [the republicans’ HQ ]…No one comes back very cheerful from Valencia…The cowards who fled from Madrid still govern there….And Barcelona. You should see Barcelona…It is all still comic opera. First it was the paradise of the crackpots and the romantic revolutionists. Now it is the paradise of the fake soliders…who like to strut and swagger and wear red-and-black scarves. Who like everything about war except to fight. Valencia makes you sick and Barcelona makes you laugh.”

“You went into it knowing what you were fighting for. You were fighting against exactly what you were doing and being forced into doing to have any chance of winning,” Jordan concludes.

Thought-provoking and an interesting story. I’ll make a point of reading more Hemingway. And more about the Spanish civil war.

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