For Whom the Bell Tolls
By Ernest Hemmingway
In 1940, Ernest Hemingway published For Whom the Bell Tolls to wide critical and public acclaim. The novel became an immediate best-seller, erasing his somewhat flawed performance in To Have and Have Not (1937). During the 1930’s, a time when Hemingway enjoyed great publicity, he went on the African safari that produced Green Hills of Africa (1935) and his column in Esquire (1933-1936). In 1940, he was divorced by his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, and married Martha Gellhorn. He set fishing records at Bimini in marlin tournaments, hunted in Wyoming, and fished at Key West, Florida, where he bought a home. In 1937, when the ...view middle of the document...
This war provides the backdrop for the events of For Whom the Bell Tolls , and the novel’s main character, like Hemingway, is a passionate supporter of the Loyalist cause. The thing that one immediately notices about Jordan is that he is an idealist, which sets him apart from Jake and Frederic. Also, unlike Jake, who wanders randomly throughout Europe, and unlike Frederic, whose reasons for being in Italy to participate in the war are never clearly defined, Jordan has come to the Sierra de Guadaramas with the specific purpose of blowing up a bridge that would be used to transport ammunition in attacks against the Loyalists.
Even more than in A Farewell to Arms (1929), Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls focused the conflict of war in the experiences of a single man. Like Frederic Henry, Robert Jordan is an American in a European country fighting for a cause that is not his by birth. Henry just happened to be in Italy when World War I broke out; he had no ideological commitment to the war. Robert Jordan, however, came to Spain because he believed in the Loyalist cause. He believed in the land and the people, a belief that ultimately cost him his life. Yet Jordan’s death is an affirmation and the novel a clear political statement of what a human being must do under pressure.
For Whom the Bell Tolls is a circular novel. It begins with Robert Jordan in a pine forest in Spain, observing a bridge he has been assigned to destroy, and it ends with him in snow that covers the pine needles carefully sighting on an enemy officer approaching on horseback. Between the opening and closing paragraphs is a time period of only seventy hours, and at the center of all the action and meditation is the bridge, the focal point of the conflict to which the reader and the characters are repeatedly drawn.
In what was at that point his longest novel, Hemingway forged a tightly unified plot, with a single place, a single action, and a brief time—the old Greek unities. Jordan’s military action takes on other epic qualities associated with the Greeks. His sacrifice is not unlike that of Leonidas at the crucial pass of Thermopylae, during the Persian Wars. There, too, heroic action was required to defend an entry point, and there, too, the leader died in an action that proved futile in military terms but became a standard measure of courage and commitment.
Abandoning somewhat the terse, clipped style of his earlier novels, Hemingway makes effective use of flashbacks to delineate the major characters. Earlier central characters seemed to exist without a past. Yet if Robert Jordan’s death was to “diminish mankind,” then the reader had to know more about him. This character development takes place almost within suspended time, and Jordan and Maria try to condense an entire life into those seventy hours. The reader is never allowed to forget time altogether, for the days move, light changes, meals are eaten,...