Kevin's Reviews > For Whom the Bell Tolls

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
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May 16, 09

bookshelves: favorites, historical-fiction, heavy-duty, the-good
Read in May, 2009

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a fictional account of the Spanish Civil war, and I say this now, it is probably one of Hemingway’s finest works of fiction. Like Orwell, he reported on the war, arriving in Spain in 1937 and worked with the International Brigades in the Madrid area, advocating a Popular Front Government. The premise of the novel is this: The protagonist is an American called Robert Jorden, a University Teacher in Spain, who joins the International Brigades and gets sent on a mission to blow a bridge up behind the Fascist lines prior to a Republican offensive. He teams up with a group of Partisans, and this mission and his relationship with his band of comrades is essentially what the book is about.

There are many, many themes in the novel; for instance, the nature of the war is questioned, and how far people would go to win, or at least what they would do for their beliefs. What is at stake here is probably tied up with the future of the world, or at least a future free from bigotry and oppression. But this is only hinted at. Hemingway paints a very barbaric picture near the beginning of the novel about the execution of a group of Fascists in a village during the start of the war. This is probably the most disturbing scene in the book, but he does show the nature of the Fascists; landowners, the ruling clique, etc. He also shows how barbaric the whole of the conflict became, and he doesn’t like the CNT-FAI (Anarchist-Syndicalists) either, which is shown not just in this scene, but throughout the novel (Red and Black ‘crazies’). However, one of his partisan group, Pablo, who was involved in the execution, ends up disturbed from what he let happen; even though Pablo has some very questionable motives, I think it is from this scene that we understand how he turned out how he did. Fascist barbarity is not ignored. Jorden falls in love with a Spanish Woman, Maria, who was rescued from an earlier attack on a train; she had witnessed the inhumane execution of her parents by the Falange and was subsequently humiliated (her hair shaved, raped). No side gets off from what occurred, but we know, and Hemingway knows, who the true culprits are.

Then there is Anselmo, and old man with the band; someone who hates the concept of killing anyone, because he is a Christian and Jorden muses that he is a rare Christian in this Catholic Country, because he has more humanity in him than most, if not all of the Priests in Spain during this period. And of most men. During the war, the Catholic Church, or at least the Spanish alternative of it, were hated by the Reds because they were so tied to the State and upheld their ‘barbarity’, or at least the injustices which had occurred under the old order. Many were shot. Hemingway muses on this point, or at least the protagonist does, trying to justify it as a peculiarly Spanish thing (stemming from the Inquisition etc), rather than anything else.

I think Hemingway was tied more towards the official Republican line than that of the POUM or Anarchists; this is painted very clear in his book. He also questions the role of the official Communist Party, detailing their excess towards deviants (mentioning Trotskyists and so on). But I think what the book tries to portray is the comradeship towards his fellow partisans, each with their own ideals, and what they would do for the cause. Robert Jorden I think knew his end in this book, based on his thoughts throughout and what Pilar speaks to him about (like she also knew his destiny), and so this is where the love angle comes into play with his relationship with Maria. During their brief time together, he states his love to her, and knows she is the woman whom he has fallen the most in love with in all his life. They must have spent all of three days together, and, towards the end of the book, when he falls at the last moment from a tank shell, he tells her that she will always be a part of him, and her him; that they will always be together. This is something that humanity cannot destroy. It is a very sad ending to a very good and deep book. I am sure this will stay with me for sometime.
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