“No man is an I[s]land, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” — John Donne, 1624
Thus chillingly begins Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, which will turn 75 this year, upon the sentiment that every funeral bell tolls for us all, as well as for our dying world. Hemingway was the first to release a major novel about World War II, and it was also considered the most moving novel yet published about the Spanish Civil War. Written out of his time reporting from Spain on the war for the North American Newspaper Alliance, it is not surprising that Hemingway’s veteran experience of war again in Europe, having already survived fighting in WWI, furthers his sense of disillusionment. Yet For Whom the Bell Tolls carries with it a poignancy and meaning absent in his earlier novels written closer to his WWI service, perhaps finally seeing the ultimate significance of “any mans death” described by Donne.
Heralded as “his finest novel” by The New York Times when the book was first released in October of 1940, The Times goes on to say, “Mr. Hemingway has always been the writer, but he has never been the master that he is in ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls.’ The dialogue, handled as though in translation from the Spanish, is incomparable … As a story, it is superb, packed with the matter of picaresque romance: blood, lust, adventure, vulgarity, comedy, tragedy … The tragedy is present and only too plain; the bell that began tolling in Madrid four years ago is audible everywhere today.”
The reader primarily experiences the novel through the thoughts and actions of Robert Jordan, a young American college professor spending his sabbatical opposing the fascist forces of Franco by fighting in the International Brigade. An experienced dynamiter, he is assigned by a Russian general to travel behind enemy lines to briefly join up with a local anti-fascist guerrilla unit for the purpose of blowing up a strategic bridge. It is there that he meets Maria, a young Spanish woman and victim of the fascists’ cruelty. Their immediate and passionate love creates conflict with his strong sense of duty, as completing his mission will greatly endanger the guerrilla band. Robert Jordan is juxtaposed to Pablo, the leader of the band, who is adamant against an operation that will put himself and comrades in jeopardy. Pablo is furthermore contrasted to Pilar, his “woman,” who emerges as the true patriot and leader of the band and is arguably the most intriguing character, representing the commanding strength and intuitive wisdom of the Spanish peasantry. Hemingway’s sketches of the various Spanish characters are as somber as they are entertaining, and are as tangible and real as they are representative of something greater than themselves.
Hemingway explores and develops differing themes through the progression of the plot, such as the loss of innocence in war, the price and value of human life, salvation through love, and the juxtaposition of duty with sensory pleasure. The cyclical nature of life and events is also depicted through various means throughout the novel, emerging as one of the primary themes. Words are rhythmically repeated, conversations and scenes are rehashed and reenacted, and Robert Jordan depicts his interactions with Pablo as a merry-go-round, described by one critic as “the wheel of human conflict.” The novel itself is one overarching, complete turn on a cycle in Robert Jordan’s life, as Hemingway concludes the piece just as it starts, with Robert Jordan lying prone and armed on the “pine-needled floor of the forest.”
Reading this novel is like listening to primal music, rhythmic and hypnotizing, seemingly simple on the surface but continually hearkening to something more beneath. I greatly enjoyed listening to much of this book read aloud which enhanced the cadence quality of Hemingway’s writing. The version available on Audible, narrated by Campbell Scott, is one of the best-read audiobooks I have experienced and is the perfect one to start with if you are new to listening to books on tape. Regardless of the medium, Hemingway’s masterpiece is an enchanting and enriching read.