For Whom the Bell Tolls

Roughly two years ago I read my first book by Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, and I fell in love with his writing style. The simplicity of the sentence structure, how the old man’s thoughts soon felt like my thoughts, and how I was transported to the boat to sit beside the old man reeling in his marlin. A feeling I wanted to recapture after the disappointment I felt upon reading Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. I quickly decided that the next book I read would be by Ernest Hemingway.

After consulting Google and NC State’s library I selected For Whom the Bell Tolls, a novel published by Hemingway in 1940 that follows the journey of dynamiter Robert Jordan in the Spanish Civil War. As with any Hemingway novel (or at least the two I have read), the story was not about the characters physical journey. Nor was it about Jordan’s trip across enemy lines to join the band of Pablo, following the events of the war, or the blowing of a bridge. No. These were events that involved the characters, but the real story was about their camaraderie, their history, love shared and lost; the true story was about the characters emotion.

My first realization that Hemingway’s focal point were the characters dawned on page 198 when the narrator, Jordan, began to describe an unexpected snowstorm.

“In a snowstorm it always, seemed for a time, as though there were no enemies. In a snowstorm the wind could blow a gale, but it blew a white cleanness and the air was full of a driving whiteness and all things were changed and when the wind stopped there would be the stillness.”

Initially, I read this passage thinking ‘Whoa, I have just found the one person who’s love of snow and can rival that of my friend Paul’s love of the snow.’ However, as the book progressed I soon realized that I had missed the entirety of this chapter. Prior to the snowstorm’s arrival, is the first major conflict between Pablo and Jordan where we soon learn about Jordan’s distrust of Pablo and his dislike of working with this man. Then an unexpected storm rolls in causing Jordan to enter an internal rage, but soon he let’s go of his frustration and the lack of control he has over current events. The storm represents the temporary release of Jordan’s annoyance with Pablo and his mission, instead he gains a momentary acceptance from the stillness of the storm.

The true plot to this story is, as with any Hemingway novel, ultimately a love story that begins when Jordan first meets the woman Maria. Prior to meeting Maria Jordan’s mission was simple: To blow the bridge. The consequences that would befall Pablo’s band were not his worries, what would happen to him after completing the mission was not his worry. However, after Jordan meets Maria that quickly changes.

There is one point in the story where Jordan falls into an internal dialogue where he begins to doubt the ethnicity of his love for Maria. Jordan begins to question if anyone could actually find love in so short a time span (it has only been a few days). But, Hemingway reflects on how valuable it is to have love and how lucky it is to be loved no matter the length of time through the voice of Jordan,

“And another thing. Don’t ever kid yourself about loving someone. It is just that most people are not lucky enough to ever have one. You never had it before and now you have it” -pg 328

This revelation by Jordan occurred while he was thinking of the hopelessness of his mission and, more importantly, about how he suddenly wanted something after the mission. A life with Maria, where he could show her Madrid, possibly Montana, and the world. Once again, Hemingway uses Jordan’s voice to teach us a valuable lesson about time: That time is only short if we fail to use every precious moment.

“I wonder if you only learn them [the important lessons, like love] now because you are over-sensitized because of the shortness of time? There is no such thing as a shortness of time, though.” -pg 412

But, the most compelling characteristic of Hemingway’s novel is the realness of his characters. None of them are heroes searching for greatness. None of his characters woke up looking to become legends, or complete acts of courage. They are all people who wish to live life, but will complete the tasks before them; no matter how unfavorable those tasks maybe.

The realness of Hemingway’s characters became apparent to me during the musings of Andres to deliver Jordan’s message to General Golz. As Andres is sneaking across enemy lines he is reflecting upon his home town’s annual bull baiting where he earned the nickname. the Bull Dog of Villaconejos. During his reflections, the reader soon discovers that though Andres is brave and fierce, after all he earned his nickname by biting into the ears of bulls, his favorite sound was the sound of rain on a tin roof that signaled the bull baiting would be canceled for the year.

“Surely. He was the Bull Dog of Villaconejos and not for anything would he have missed doing it each year in his village. But he knew there was no better feeling than that one the sound of the rain gave when he knew he would not have to do it.” -pg 396

While Andres is secretly grateful for his mission that removes him from the battle, other characters, such as Anselmo, begin to worry about how they will conduct themselves in the battle. Anselmo is the Old Man that Jordan quickly befriends and relies on for his most important tasks. But, as the looming battle approaches Anselmo’s nerves begin to grow and he prays his last request: To conduct himself as man during the difficult times.

“But let me be close to him, O Lord, and may his instructions be exact for I do not think that I could control myself under the bombardment of the planes. Help me, O Lord, tomorrow to comport myself as a man should in his last hours. Help me, O Lord, to understand clearly the needs of the day. Help me, O Lord, to dominate the movement of my legs that I should not run when the bad bad moment comes. Help me, O Lord, to comport myself as a man tomorrow in the day of battle.” -pg 352-353

* * *

The start of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls began slowly, but once the characters were fully developed and I became familiar with the writing structure the pages quickly began turning. This was a novel that contained war, love, friendship, and anger; it was a book that contained heroes born of necessity. Most importantly, it was a book that I could not set down and that is all that really matters for any story.

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My favorite part about reading any novel is the unusual places you can read. Such as hanging in a hammock beside a lake.
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