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For Whom the Bell Tolls tells the engrossing tale of Robert Jordan, an American supporter of the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Within a short span of some 68 hours, Jordan's involvement with a band of guerrillas- notably a young woman named Maria, with whom he falls in love- forces him to question his own participation in a war that seems unwinnable and to realize that the sacrifice of life for the sake of a political cause may be too high a price to pay.
Jordan is a college teacher on a leave of absence in Spain, and as For Whom the Bell Tolls opens, he's discussing the location of a bridge with a local guide named Anselmo. But there's much more to the situation than that. The Spain that Jordan loves is involved in a civil war, and he has really come to help wage that war on behalf of the side he believes in. At the moment his job is to blow up a bridge behind enemy lines.
The assignment came to Jordan through General Golz, a Soviet officer also in Spain to help fight the war. According to Golz, the demolition of the bridge at precisely the right moment is a key part of a large-scale offensive by the Republican forces.
Jordan needs help to do the job, so the peasant Anselmo has brought him to a guerrilla band hiding in the mountains. From the moment Jordan meets Pablo, their leader, Jordan suspects that the guerrilla chief, who should be his chief ally in the operation, will spell trouble.
Pablo has "gone bad." He's lost his drive, his purpose as a guerrilla leader. He's content simply to stay hidden and survive, rather than actively harass the enemy.
With the arrival of Jordan, the band of seven men and two women are given a renewed sense of purpose. This prompts a showdown for leadership of the band. Pilar, Pablo's mistress, publicly assumes charge. Pablo's status is uncertain at this moment, and several of the band would now be grateful if Jordan killed Pablo. But he doesn't. Plans are made to enlist the help of a neighboring guerrilla band, led by El Sordo, in the demolition of the bridge.
Robert Jordan finds more than the bridge to occupy his attention. Among the guerrilla group is Maria, a young woman who was rescued by the band during their last significant operation. They are almost instantly attracted to each other and spend this first night making love. It's not the first sexual experience for either of them. Jordan has been with other women; Maria was once raped by a group of enemy soldiers. But for each, it's the first experience that combines sex with love.
On the second day, Jordan, Pilar, and Maria make their way to the hideout of El Sordo to enlist his help in demolishing the bridge. El Sordo promises support. On the return trip, Pilar deliberately leaves Jordan and Maria by themselves for a while. Again they make love, and Jordan begins to entertain serious doubts about whether this war is the most important thing in his life after all.
The band now observes a heavy concentration of enemy soldiers riding through the area but manages to avoid detection. El Sordo and his men are not so fortunate. Nationalist soldiers- the enemy- trap them on a hill and they are slaughtered. Jordan and the others hear the sounds of the fighting but are helpless to come to El Sordo's aid. It's an agonizing feeling.
Personal experiences have brought Jordan to doubt the value of this war in general. Now the concentration of enemy soldiers and planes in the area makes him doubt the practicality of blowing up the bridge. Perhaps if Golz were aware of the enemy's numbers in the immediate area, he would want the operation canceled.
He writes a dispatch to Golz. But the messenger is delayed time and again- not by the presence of the enemy in the area, but by the frustrating bumbling and petty bureaucracy of his own Republican forces. Ultimately, he is arrested and the dispatch is confiscated, again by his own people.
At the camp, Maria and Jordan dream about their future together, but Jordan knows they are fooling themselves. Finally, Pilar brings Jordan the news that Pablo has deserted and has taken the detonation devices. The bridge operation wasn't easy to begin with; now Jordan will have to improvise a makeshift exploder and detonators just to have a chance at succeeding.
He spends the middle of the night devising a way- and holding Maria. "We'll be killed but we'll blow the bridge," he whispers to her as she sleeps in his arms.
Early on the morning of this fourth day, as the band eat what could be their last breakfast, Pablo returns. He apologizes for his moment of weakness. To make up for it, he has brought several more men from the area to join them. But the exploder and detonators are gone; he has tossed them in the river.
Meanwhile, a Soviet journalist secures the release of the messenger, and Jordan's dispatch finally reaches Golz, but it's too late. The doomed attack has already been mounted and can't be stopped.
Without counterorders from Golz, Jordan's mission to blow up the bridge proceeds. He feverishly rigs the improvised detonation devices just in time. At the sound of the Loyalist attack (his cue), the bridge is blown up. Jordan has accomplished what he came to do. But he is a different man from what he was a short while ago; the success gives him little satisfaction.
The band must now attempt a retreat. Pablo, the most familiar with the area, has devised a workable plan. The group draws enemy fire but no one is hit. They all have a chance to escape to a safe area- except Robert Jordan.
His horse is hit and falls on him, breaking his thigh. For the good of all, he is left behind. Everyone but Maria can see that there is no other way. There is a painful good-bye. Maria protests to the end and won't leave until she is forced to by Pilar and Pablo.
Robert Jordan struggles to remain conscious just long enough to kill at least some of the enemy. He lies on the ground, awaiting the enemy.
SELECTED MINOR CHARACTERS
Because For Whom the Bell Tolls is set during the Spanish Civil War, it is important to know some of the elements of Spanish geography incorporated in the book. If you look at the series of maps entitled "The Course of the Spanish Civil War," (see illustration) you'll notice the increase of Nationalist-held territory from July 1936 to October 1937. (The novel takes place in May 1937.) By 1937 the Republicans were steadily losing ground, and Robert Jordan's mission- to blow up a bridge crucial to enemy Nationalist interests- takes on added importance.
Almost in the center of Spain is Madrid, the capital, once a Republican stronghold, but in May 1937 close to falling to the enemy. To the north of Madrid (see map) is the Guadarrama Range, where Pablo's band is hiding and where the bridge is to be demolished. The town of La Granja is where members of the band go for supplies and news of the war. To the southwest of the Guadarrama mountains is the Gredos Range, where Pablo intends to retreat after the bridge is blown up. To the west of the Guadarrama Range is the city of Segovia, a Nationalist stronghold the Republicans hope to capture in their offensive.
Farther northwest of Segovia is Valladolid, where Maria was taken prisoner. It was there she was transported by the train that Pablo's band seized and blew up.
Notice, too, the region of Estremadura in the western part of Spain, where Jordan was working before his current assignment.
Many readers have pointed out that one of Ernest Hemingway's major goals in writing For Whom the Bell Tolls was to demonstrate that the real victims of the Spanish Civil War were the Spanish people themselves, torn by the savage self-interest of the competing political ideologues. The tragic effects of a brutal war on the peasants for whom it had become a daily reality are revealed in the rebel camp where Jordan and the others are hiding. These simple, earthy people have been transformed permanently by the war, and its toll is immeasurable. Hemingway shows us the cost of war in a variety of ways: Pilar's lengthy and vivid description of the atrocities inflicted upon Nationalist enemies in her village; Maria's suffering at the hands of the enemy; Pablo's erratic behavior; Anselmo's pathetic conflict between loyalty to the cause and his dislike of killing, to name the most obvious examples. Because the fate of the Spanish people (mostly farmers) is so directly tied to the land the war has ravaged, they act as an indivisible part of the novel's setting.
By placing most of the action in the mountain retreat of the guerrilla band, Hemingway has created a setting that is symbolic in contrasting ways. On the one hand, the camp hidden in the Guadarrama Range is a refuge that offers safety for many of the characters. Here Pablo, Pilar, and the other guerrillas have come to find temporary safety; here, too, Maria has come to heal physical and psychic wounds after her imprisonment by the Nationalists. It is in the mountains that Robert Jordan begins to question his motives as a participant in this war: through his love for Maria and his association with the peasants, Jordan is humanized and slowly comes to realize the truth of the quotation from John Donne at the opening of the novel: "No man is an Iland."
On the other hand, the mountain hideout also represents the plight of the Republicans- there they are trapped, blocked by fascist troops below them and enemy aircraft whizzing over their heads. The snow of the mountains offers a similar two-sided symbol: beautiful to look at, it suggests nature at its most peaceful, but the snow is also deadly, since it reveals the whereabouts of the rebels once they have walked in it.
Until the 1930s Spain had been a monarchy for centuries, except for a brief experiment as a republic in 1873-74. We can begin the background to the Spanish Civil War with Alfonso XIII, who came to the Spanish throne in 1902. The general verdict of historians is that he was incompetent. In 1921, for example, 20,000 Spanish troops died in an ill-conceived, unsuccessful offensive that he ordered against Moroccan tribes. He subsequently disbanded Parliament and selected Miguel Primo de Rivera as a military dictator.
Rivera established a dictatorship with Alfonso as figurehead. Although Rivera's government, which held power from 1923 to 1930, initially proved efficient and was widely favored, its popularity later declined and finally even the army withdrew its support. Rivera fled in January 1930, leaving Alfonso with the huge problem of trying to run Spain with little popular support.
In the hope of avoiding civil war, Alfonso went into exile, attempting to do so with a touch of grace by not officially abdicating. In 1931 the Second Republic, led by a coalition of Socialists and middle-class liberals, was formed amid enthusiasm.
But the new government tried to do too much too quickly- and often acted unwisely. This was especially the case in matters of educational reform and in trying to reduce the immense power of both the church and the army.
Consequently, opposition mounted. Monarchist plots arose on behalf of Alfonso and even on behalf of the line of Don Carlos, the 19th-century claimant to the throne. By the end of 1935, twenty-eight governments had been formed and had fallen. The country was close to chaos, with frequent strikes and uprisings by self-declared autonomous governments.
The election of February 1936 gave power to the Popular Front, a shaky mixture of Republicans, Socialists, Communists, and Anarchists. But widescale disorder and violence continued to rack the country. Spain had finally gained a government "of the people," but the Republic was weak and inefficient- and thus its own worst enemy.
The situation begged for a force to bring order out of chaos and hence was ripe for the formation and growth of fascist organizations based on the premise of a strong central government. Principal among the fascist groups was the Falange, begun by Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the son of the previous dictator, Miguel Primo de Rivera.
Many tradition-minded Spanish people, particularly the landowners and conservative army officers, began to feel that their way of life would be destroyed either by official government reforms or by the general chaos of the country. They started planning to overthrow the government.
The army made its move on July 17, 1936, charging that the government could not keep order. It was certainly not the first fighting in Spain. But it was the beginning of large-scale civil war, with the lines clearly drawn.
The forces led by the army (with General Francisco Franco in charge) were called the Nationalists or Rebels. Supporting the Nationalists were monarchists, Carlists (monarchists who supported the claim of descendants of Don Carlos, rather than the Bourbon line), the wealthy upper classes, the Falange fascists, and elements of the Roman Catholic Church.
The forces defending the Republican government were called Loyalists or Republicans. This group included much of the working class and most liberals, socialists, and communists.
The Spanish Civil War was a brutal conflict that included many appalling acts of cruelty and terrorism. The Nationalist forces often found themselves in the position of an alien invading army. Popular sympathy was usually with the Republicans, but the support was largely passive. One way the Nationalists tried to gain control of people was through terror: torture, executions, and bloodletting of all kinds. Loyalists responded with equally reprehensible atrocities, like those described in Chapter 10 of For Whom the Bell Tolls.
The Spanish Civil War was, in part, an international affair. Historians have often commented that the war served as a training ground, almost a dress rehearsal, for World War II.
Aiding the Nationalists were approximately 50,000 soldiers from Fascist Italy, 20,000 from Portugal, and 10,000 from Nazi Germany. These countries also provided modern war materials.
On the Republican side were Soviet soldiers, well trained and able to assume positions of leadership, and an estimated 40,000 additional volunteers from around the globe, including the United States. The volunteers were mostly professional soldiers for hire, international adventurers, or persons who sympathized ideologically with the Republicans. This last group included people like Robert Jordan, the main character in For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Some arms and equipment were sent to the Loyalists from such countries as the Soviet Union, Mexico, and France, but this aid didn't equal that provided to the Nationalists. Consequently, Nationalist forces were nearly always better equipped.
The Nationalist rebels began by occupying the northwest and the southern tip of Spain and gradually linked these two areas. From there they executed a pincer movement: down from the north, up from the south, and toward the Mediterranean coast in the east.
By the spring of 1937, when For Whom the Bell Tolls takes place, the Nationalists were making serious inroads in Republican-controlled territory. Madrid, the Spanish capital, was held by the Republicans but was constantly under siege. The guerrilla camp depicted by Hemingway in the novel was behind Nationalist lines, about sixty miles from Madrid. It was also during this time, on April 26, that Nazi German airplanes bombed the Basque town of Guernica, killing more than 1600 civilians. Guernica was without military importance, and the bombing brought an international outcry of protest. The incident also inspired one of Spanish painter Pablo Picasso's most vivid and moving paintings, called Guernica, created out of his heartbreak and rage.
Yet for all the Nationalist gains in 1937, the Republicans remained hopeful they could win the war. Hemingway has called this period of brave optimism "the happiest period of our lives," referring to those sympathizers and journalists who were in Spain. But less than two years later, in March 1939, Madrid was captured by the Nationalists, and the war was over.
The toll in human lives was immense. Nearly 110,000 people died in battles and air raids. Some 220,000 persons were murdered or executed. About 200,000 Loyalist prisoners were shot or died of ill-treatment in prison cells even after the Nationalist triumph. And more than 300,000 people sought exile abroad.
The following are themes of For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Rarely have authors become so identified with a particular writing style or with the word "style" itself as Ernest Hemingway. Many writers have attempted to "write like Hemingway." Few have succeeded.
To many readers, the essential characteristic of the Hemingway style is simplicity and precision of word choice. That description, while accurate, can be deceptive.
"Simplicity" is not the same thing as short, grammatically simple sentences. "Precision of word choice" does not mean an abundance of unusual words in order to achieve precision. And Hemingway's style cannot so easily be explained as in his own often quoted advice (which needs to be taken with a grain of salt!) to write the story and then remove the adjectives and adverbs.
At the conclusion of For Whom the Bell Tolls, you will have a distinct picture of the places, the objects, the people in the story. If you diagrammed or sketched them, they might be somewhat different from another reader's mental picture. That's inevitable. It's the distinctness- giving the reader the feeling of being there- which is Hemingway's literary feat.
Beyond question this effect is achieved by a heavy use of nouns and verbs. If there is an object in the scene he is relating, Hemingway will mention it. If a character moves, Hemingway will mention it.
It is true that Hemingway often leaves the adjectives and adverbs to the reader. The resulting effect is all the more vivid and memorable. An excellent example is the description of the sights and smells both inside and outside the cave, at the opening of Chapter 5. At the same time, Hemingway does not avoid modifiers altogether. A good example is the description of Joaquin when he is first introduced at the beginning of Chapter 11.
Much has been made of Hemingway's dialogue, through which you get the feeling of being at the scene. Yet when the dialogue is transferred to the motion picture screen, directors have had to be careful to keep it from sounding stilted and formal, because its effectiveness does not depend on reproducing the exact words (including the "uh's" and "er's") that people utter in real life. Hemingway also doesn't often punctuate his dialogue with italics, capital letters, ellipses (...), and exclamation points to suggest emphasis. The effectiveness lies in stating with utmost simplicity the heart of what the characters mean.
In general, however, For Whom the Bell Tolls is often regarded as somewhat of a stylistic departure from Hemingway's earlier novels, such as The Sun Also Rises. Earlier works relied more heavily on colloquial dialogue to communicate action and rarely included lengthy descriptive passages. Some experts have suggested that in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway was responding to criticisms of his style. In this, his longest novel, he inserted lengthy lyric passages that describe the countryside, portrayed the mind of Robert Jordan with extended interior monologues, and replaced flowing conversation with a sometimes stilted attempt to reproduce the Spanish language. The leanness of the prose in his earlier novels- which prompted critics to call him a major literary innovator- was thus sacrificed for what some consider pretentiousness, but what others see as brave and successful strides in experimentation. Those who disliked his work in For Whom the Bell Tolls were pleased when he returned to a simpler, terser style in works like The Old Man and the Sea.
Stylistic features peculiar to For Whom the Bell Tolls should be noted. They concern Hemingway's deliberate attempt to reproduce in English the flavor of the Spanish language.
Spanish (like other languages) preserves a special second-person singular pronoun and related verb form such as English formerly had (thou, thy, thee). This form is used in speaking to another person in a familiar manner. Hemingway uses the antiquated English form to better approximate the speech of his Spanish characters. Readers differ in their reactions to this device. Some find it awkward and distracting. Others find that it begins to sound natural after a while. You'll recognize other English sentences that display strange word order or style, such as "That this thing of the bridge may succeed." This kind of construction is also an attempt to capture the flavor of the Spanish language.
Both Hemingway's actual Spanish and his attempt to render the flavor of Spanish in English have been criticized as frequently inaccurate by people who know Spanish better than he did. An exiled Loyalist commander, Gustavo Duran, read the manuscript of For Whom the Bell Tolls before it was published and was critical of Hemingway's Spanish, although impressed by the story. A more contemporary Spanish critic has called the language abstract when it should be concrete (to properly mirror real Spanish) and solemn when it should be simple.
Hemingway also tries to convey the extremely physical and earthy- often crude- dialogue of Spanish peasants (particularly when they are upset with each other). Today, when there is very little censorship in the publishing industry, there would be no problem in printing the exact English equivalent of what Hemingway wanted his Spanish characters to say. But in 1940 there was a problem in using obscenities.
One of Hemingway's solutions was simply to quote the original Spanish word or phrase. It's then up to the reader to check with a Spanish/English dictionary to learn how crudely someone has insulted someone else.
A second method was to employ an all-purpose and acceptable English word that at least suggests the original. Anselmo, in his early tirade about Pablo's negative attitude, says: "I this and that in the this and that of thy father. I this and that and that in thy this." On several occasions one character advises another to "Go unprint thyself."
There are many ways for a writer to tell a story. Point of view depends in part on the author's decision concerning who tells the story. Is it someone intimately involved with the action of the story? Someone who was merely a minor participant? Someone who has an omniscient view of everything and can see into the minds of one or all of the characters?
Hemingway considered the first-person point-of-view (in which one of the story's characters narrates the action) effective but limited. He said that it took him a while to master the third-person omniscient point-of-view used in For Whom the Bell Tolls, in which the narrator knows everything and reports the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters.
Most of the time, Robert Jordan is at the center of the scene, and it is his thoughts that we listen in on. But there are exceptions. Chapter 15, for example, spotlights Anselmo and his soul searching. In Chapter 27, El Sordo reveals the thoughts that occupy his last hours. These occasional departures from Jordan's consciousness serve to create a fuller, more rounded picture of the world the novel portrays.
For Whom the Bell Tolls is a finely crafted novel that builds to a powerful climax. The novel covers approximately sixty-eight hours, outlined as follows:
The technique of flashback is used sparingly but effectively. The most notable example is in Chapter 10, where Pilar describes the brutality that Pablo inflicted on the leading men of a Nationalist town his band had taken. Strictly speaking, this is indirect flashback, since it comes through Pilar's narration, rather than through a directly presented scene.
Other significant flashbacks include Jordan's painful recollection in Chapter 30 of his father's suicide and Maria's moving account in Chapter 31 of her abuse at the hands of Nationalist soldiers.
Hemingway heightens the suspense in the final chapters (33 to 43) by devoting alternating chapters to two strands of the story line. The odd-numbered chapters are devoted to Jordan at the scene of the demolition. The even-numbered chapters (with the exception of 38) feature Andres on his mission to find Golz and deliver Jordan's dispatch.
The bridge, described masterfully as "solid flung metal grace" forms the center of the novel. Few readers find the bridge itself to be symbolic, but the entire action of the novel radiates from it- it is the reason Jordan has come to the guerilla camp, it is important to both sides at this point in the war, and the decision to blow it up is a matter of intense controversy among the Republicans hiding in the mountains. Virtually every movement in the novel is directed toward or away from the bridge and is occasioned by the plan to blow it up.
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