Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway

Boy, did it take me a long time to finish this one.

I really knew absolutely nothing about this book, or Hemingway, before I picked it up and it subsequently took me a while to get into Hemingway’s style of war narrative, including frequent phrases and sentences kept in untranslated Spanish. Set during the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls takes place during three days before an important attack by a partisan Republican group of peasants. Hemingway switches between the voice of the protagonist, American Spanish lecturer Robert Jordan, and intermittently and briefly into the narratives of his fellow Republicans fighting for the cause they so passionately believe in. (FYI I also knew/know nothing about the Spanish Civil War and so this all was very new to me.)

It’s certainly a bleak story, Hemingway’s narrative style providing a gripping sense of reality, as well as an impending sense of doom. Naturally the theme of death recurs throughout FHTBT, with characters discussing the deaths they have caused, the deaths they have thus far avoided and the imminent possibilities of their own deaths. Robert Jordan’s lifeline is pronounced as short at the beginning of the book by peasant leader, and semi-gypsy Pilar, and this sets the tone for much of Jordan’s interior dialogues for the next three days. He claims that he does not fear death, and yet his contemplations and reluctance to participate in his own suicide at the end of the book is an altogether different kind of fear. Robert Jordan is certainly brave, but at the end of the day he is only human, and he understands the weight of his own life in a very definitive way.

Shining as a glimmer of hope in a world of death and darkness, Jordan’s romantic relationship with Maria, cements FHTBT amongst the greats, as not only a war story, but also as a love story, beautiful and poignant. Their relationship, just like the war, moves quickly, from their love at first sight, to Maria’s initial fear and the reliving of her painful past, to their symbolic marriage and eternal binding to each other.“Then you and me we are the same,” Maria says simply, and Hemingway presents their love as just this: simple and pure and a salvation to redeem mankind. The later “I am thee and thou art me and all of one is the other” becomes the kind of love which cannot survive the war, if only because it is too grand and it looks to the future too much in a world continually occupied with the present. Jordan imagines his future with Maria but he knows that it cannot come to be, just as he knows somewhere deep inside that he cannot possibly survive a war of such hatred.

One of my favourite lines alludes to this:

“To kill them teaches nothing,” Anselmo said. “You cannot exterminate them because from their seed comes more with greater hatred.”

I’ve not read much war literature, but something about this made me stop and think. Maybe it’s the world we live in today, where we’re constantly bombarded with almost infinite sorrows from wars taking place all over the world. But this sentence struck a chord and has continued to make me think, long after having put down the book. And for this I must thank Hemingway, for a piece of work which challenged not only my reading habits and long-exhausted preferences, but also my thoughts and experiences of the world around me.

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