501 of 541 people found the following review helpful
on June 2, 2000
"For Whom the Bell Tolls" was the first Hemingway I ever read. I was a high school kid in the early 1970s, working on my campus newspaper, newly graduated from Jack London but not yet ready for Jack Kerouac.
To my young eyes, it was a good action story: Robert Jordan, the passionate American teacher joins a band of armed gypsies in the Spanish Civil War. He believes one man can make a difference. The whole novel covers just 68 hours, during which Jordan must find a way to blow up a key bridge behind enemy lines. In that short time, Jordan also falls in love with Maria, a beautiful Spanish woman who has been raped by enemy soldiers. The whole spectrum of literature was refracted through the prism of my youth: Good guys and bad guys, sex and blood, life and death. For me, just a boy, the journey from abstraction to clarity was only just beginning.
Re-reading "For Whom the Bell Tolls" at 42 (roughly the age Hemingway was when he published it), I have lost my ability to see things clearly in black and white. My vision is blurred by irony, as I note that two enemies, the moral killer Anselmo and the sympathetic fascist Lieutenant Berrendo, utter the very same prayer. For the first time, I see that the book opens with Robert Jordan lying on the "pine-needled floor of the forest" and closes as he feels his heart pounding against the "pine needle floor of the forest"; Jordan ends as he begins, perhaps having never really moved. I certainly could never have seen at 16 how dying well might be more consequential than living well. And somehow the light has changed in the past 26 years, so that I now truly understand how the earth can move.
As a teen, I missed another crucial element, even though Vietnam was still a seeping wound. Three pivotal days in Jordan's life force him to question his own role in a futile war. He wonders if dying for a political cause might be too wasteful, but he ultimately believes that dying to save another individual is a man's most heroic act.
The book's title is taken from John Donne's celebrated poem: "No man is an Iland ... and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." It was not about loneliness and aloneness, as I once had thought, but about the seamless fabric of all life: What happens to one happens to all.
I am not blind to Hemingway's flaws. He was a good short writer, and what was short was almost always better. Pilar's tale on the mountainside has been widely acclaimed as the most powerful of Hemingway's prose. Her story within a story is nothing less than a contemporary myth.
"For Whom the Bell Tolls" has also been regarded as Hemingway's capitulation to critics who barked that his innovative style was too lean, and as a consciously commercial exercise for which Hollywood might (and did) pay handsomely. Robert Jordan, in so many respects, was a tragic mythical hero in the vein of Achilles, Gawain and Samson. "For Whom the Bell Tolls" ranks as one of the great American war novels in a country that has always struggled with the concept of good and bad wars.
59 of 61 people found the following review helpful
on June 11, 2001
This novel certainly deserves its billing as a "classic." The action takes place during the Spanish Civil War (of the 1930's), and the story follows a group of guerilla loyalists, who are fighting against Franco's fascist forces in the name of the Republic.
The entire novel only covers a span of three days, so the reader truly gets a sense of the time passing. Because of this, it feels as if the events are actually occurring as one is reading. Each moment is important, and there are few discontinuities in the story. Also, the novel is written in an interesting format where the climax doesn't occur until the final pages-this adds quite a bit of suspense. What really makes this book so excellent is the delicate combination of action and lull, and love and hate, which Hemingway builds into the story. There is a very beautiful (if only slightly unrealistic) love story carefully interwoven with murder, conspiracy, and disaster.
It is impossible not to deeply care for each individual in the story because there are few characters, and they are all extremely well developed. The reader can find a piece of somebody that he/she knows in every character. Hemingway also deals effectively with emotion. It is always easy to understand exactly what each person is feeling. With Robert Jordan, specifically, Hemingway uses a unique series of monologue-type passages so that the reader really can "get inside" Jordan's head. Somehow, Hemingway manages to do this while keeping out that uneasiness one gets when reading a play monologue. The novel has an anti-war feel to it, but it still contains several enthralling battle scenes. If only the love story were a bit more believable, this book could be truly fantastic. "For Whom The Bell Tolls" is definitely a worthwhile read right from the opening quote by John Donne all the way to the very last page.
125 of 143 people found the following review helpful
Usually, even with the best books, I would say that "this book is not for everyone." Not so with this novel. I truly believe that this book IS for everyone. Unlike so much other 20th century literature, one need not be well read to get something out of it.
The story is of two of man's most cherished and hated traditions: Love and War. The tragedy is that we have had so much of the latter and so little of the former. We see much of both in "For Whom The Bell Tolls." It is a tender story of two young people who just want to live a "normal" life together during the Spainish civil war, but who are prevented from doing thus due to their being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It is incredulous to me that there were other reviewers who found this book "boring." I can only surmise that anyone who would find a novel such as this boring will not find anything "exciting" unless it has Arnold Scharzenegger swinging around a machine gun. But that, I believe, is the fault of the reader's lack of attention span and cannot be blamed on Hemingway.
The author writes that "The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it." I would agree. Anyone else who agrees, and anyone who has a passion and zest for life should read this book. One of the best examples of American literature in the 20th century.
28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on February 1, 2007
For Whom the Bell Tolls is quite simply one of the best novels ever written. Honestly, I had relatively low expectations before reading it. I read A Farewell to Arms and found the terse, repetitive prose and stilted dialogue underwhelming. For Whom the Bell Tolls is superior to A Farewell to Arms in every way. This is a complex novel with some of the most memorable characters in modern literature.
This mesmerizing novel neither glorifies war, not does it vilify it. Hemmingway's detached prose is world weary, exposing both sides of the conflict, allowing us to see that war, inevitable and futile, is never simple. Characters on both sides of the conflict struggle with their own fears and regrets. Both sides commit, and are subjected to, the atrocities and horrors of war. As different as each side may think they are from the other, in the end, they are all human and are not as different as they think.
For Whom the Bell Tolls is riveting and powerful, easily one of the ten best novels of the 20th century. I can't recommend this book highly enough.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
"For Whom The Bell Tolls" has long been my favorite Ernest Hemingway novel. A compelling action adventure, this is a tale filled with mystery and suspense, peopled by a cast of extraordinarily vivid characters. It is also the author's finest, and most emotional love story. Although his use of language seems simple, it is deceptively so. Hemingway deals effectively with broad themes here - love, loyalty, trust, courage and honor are some. And of course, "For Whom The Bell Tolls," set against the brutal violence of the Spanish Civil War, is probably the definitive work of fiction about this pivotal period in European, and world history.
Generalissimo Francisco Franco's fascist troops invaded Spain in July 1936 in order to overthrow the newly established Republic headed by the Popular Front, (composed of liberal democrats, socialists, anarchists, trade unionists, communists and secularists. (If I have left anyone out, I am sorry - this was a truly complex and unique political situation.)
The country was basically divided into Red Spain - the Republicans, and Black Spain, represented by the landed elite, committed to a feudal system and Franco's cause, Fascists, the urban bourgeoisie, the Roman Catholic Church, and other conservative sectors. The number of casualties is only an estimate, but suggests that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people were killed. Many of these deaths, however, were not the results of military battles, but the outcome of brutal mass executions perpetrated by both sides.
During the war in Spain, 2,800 American volunteers took up arms to defend the Republican cause against Franco, who was aided by Hitler and Mussolini. Those who fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, from 1937 through 1938, believed the defense of the Republic represented the last hope of stopping the spread of international fascism. These Americans fought alongside approximately 35,000 anti-fascists from fifty-two countries. Most of the volunteers were not political, but idealists who were determined to "make Madrid the tomb of fascism." Hemingway's protagonist Robert Jordan, an American professor of Spanish from Missoula, Montana, was one such volunteer.
Robert Jordan, an explosives expert, has been ordered to make contact with a small band of partisan fighters in the Guadarrama Mountains of fascist controlled southern Spain. His mission, of critical importance, is to blow up a bridge, at a specific time, to facilitate a simultaneous Republican attack on the city of Segovia. Most of the novel deals with Jordan's relationships with members of the guerilla fighters, including the girl Maria with whom he falls in love. Jordan is described as, "a young American of slight political development, but a great way with the Spaniards and a fine 'partizan' record." Neither a Communist nor a Marxist, he is anti-fascist. As is the case with most foreign fighters, he is under Communist discipline/direction, because, in the conduct of the war, they eventually run the "show" and provide the most effective opposition.
Pablo is ostensibly the band's military leader. He has become disillusioned with the fight, cynical and bitter. He is no longer willing to die for any cause. A smart man, but brutal, and cunning in a mean way, he is a complex character. He does have a conscience. Pablo spends much of his time in an alcoholic stupor. When Robert Jordon enters the picture, Pablo's level of animosity reaches new heights, and his comrades, along with Robert, are afraid he will sabotage the mission. He undergoes several changes during the 3 days and 3 nights in which the story takes place.
Pilar is Pablo's woman, an extremely strong and savvy person, she is steeped in gypsy lore and superstition, and is probably the novel's most colorful character. She is a fine warrior who can be counted upon to cover one's back in battle. Pilar possesses a big heart. She has cared for Maria and brought the girl back to health. When Robert Jordon joins them, Pilar takes the leadership position over from Pablo, whom she no longer trusts, but still loves. She commands the allegiance of the guerrilla fighters and organizes them into a temporary alliance with "El Sordo," another exceptional character. She is the force behind many of the novel's events - stimulating movement, motivating or manipulating people to take action - but for good purpose. Pilar, relates various war stories, and anecdotes, which reflect the cruelty and inhumanity of civil war.
María's life was shattered by the outbreak of the war. Her father, the mayor, along with her mother, and many of the local citizenry were shot before her eyes by the invading Fascists. Since her mother was not a Republican, but a devout Catholic, she shouted, "Viva my husband, the town's mayor," before she died, rather than the more typical, "Viva La Republica!" Maria was then taken away and brutalized, physically and emotionally, by Franco's soldiers. When the guerilla band blew up the train on which Maria was a prisoner, they carried the dazed and broken girl to their mountain hideaway.
A thrilling subplot is developed when Andrés, a guerilla, must take an urgent message across the lines to a Republican general. Roberto's entire mission, and much more importantly, the offensive, depends upon the successful and timely delivery of the dispatch. Another important character is old Anselmo, for whom Robert develops a strong attachment.
A major portion of the novel is told through the thoughts of Robert Jordan, with flashbacks to meetings with Russians in Madrid, and some reflections on his father and grandfather. Jordon's inner monologues fascinate and clearly demonstrate Hemingway's skill with language and character development. Jordan, at one point comments to himself, that he is his own best companion. Because of his wartime responsibilities, he cannot allow himself to be overcome by emotion, which he considers a luxury. Whenever he feels anger, deep love, disappointment, foreboding, fear, anything that will distract him from his purpose, he talks himself down and refocuses. In such a relatively brief period, he begins to love life as never before, because of his feelings for Maria. Even here, however, he accepts that if anything happens to him, he is fortunate to have experienced a lifetime in three and a half days.
Again, I cannot write enough in praise of Hemingway's use of language. It is sparse, direct, and extremely beautiful in its descriptiveness. He translated the Spanish intimate "tu" form into English. I speak Spanish, and although this may seem a bit awkward initially, it gives a much more accurate feel for the local idiom and the dialogue between Maria and Roberto, (as he is called), and between Roberto and the partisans.
This is not only an extraordinary novel, but is one of the most important in American fiction. Hemingway worked as a correspondent in Spain during the Civil War, as a reporter for the North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA). He raised money for the Republicans in their struggle against the Nationalists under General Francisco Franco.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on June 20, 2007
The last time I read Hemingway's novels was some ten years ago in Spain. I thought I was pretty cool. I read "The Sun Also Rises and A Farwell to Arms." I don't recall what I thought of them. But one thing I do know is that it is sometimes difficult to separate the legacy or mystique of certain writers from the work at hand.
I thought most of the book was very well done. The reality of war was crafted in a way that compares well to more modern portraits of war ("The Things They Carried," "Apocalypse Now," "Deer Hunter," "Jarhead"). The true violence of humiliation, dehumanization, and violation are hauntingly evoked. There are scenes in this novel that I will not forget: the killing of the fascists in Pablo and Pilar's village, the rape of Maria and the murder of her parents, the death of Anselmo at the bridge. The portrayal of men and women, those who try to hold on to some sort of moral clarity and those who lose their bearings, was brilliant. When it comes to men at war, the book shines.
A technique that I found interesting was the way that Hemingway created the absent character of Kashkin. He serves as a counter point to Robert Jordan and as an example of all that could and eventually does happen. The absent character adds depth to the novel; it gives a skeleton upon which to hang the clothes of the past.
However, there were places in the book where I felt uncomfortable, like watching the awkward intimacies of adolescents. The love scenes in the book were failures. And I keep trying to figure out why.
One reason perhaps is that they happened without enough development. Like some romantic comedy, the two lovers see one another and almost instantly fall in love. Granted, the entire novel takes place in three days, but every other part of the narrative is carefully developed. Though the timeframe is compact, there is plenty of space in the narrative. The book is nearly 500 pages long. The sex, the declarations of love, the intimacy, it all seems hollow.
In every other place in the novel there is complexity, nuance. But when it comes to romance, to the issue of love, the novel falls into absolutes and clichés. Robert Jordan is too righteous in his love for Maria. He is too loyal, too gentle. They love each other fully and doubtlessly. And in a novel that creates such a real portrait of war and moral ambiguity; complexity in loyalty, politics, allegiance, nationality, and idealism, to offer the reader such an ordinary, pop-song rendition of love nearly justifies skipping every section where one sees the words "little rabbit."
Hemingway attempts to integrate language into the story by employing the occasional Spanish word along with an antiquated sort of English, full of thou and thee. This is supposed to simulate Catalan. But it does not work. It just makes characters that talk funny.
But of course, it is after all Hemingway. And everybody should read it.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2011
With vivid, descriptive prose, Hemingway takes us into the mind of a soldier. Focused on duty and his mission, our main character encounters love among the carnage, but even that does not sway him from his duty. Though at times a bit long-winded, Hemingway brings the internal battle of war to the surface. The self-talk that goes on shows the conflict behind the rough exterior. We also see the useless deaths that take place because of the uncertainties that come with war.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Set during the Spanish Civil War, Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" tells the story of Robert Jordan, a young American who is serving as a demolitions expert for the Republican cause. The novel follows his experiences with a band of guerrilla fighters as he undertakes a mission to blow up a strategic bridge. The whole novel, except for some flashbacks and reminiscences of various characters, covers just a few days.
Although the novel focuses on a small number of characters in a fairly compressed time period, Hemingway attains a real epic feel with this book. The novel is fairly lengthy (471 pages in the 2003 Scribner edition), but I found it to be a swift read--indeed, often difficult to put down. There is much that is noteworthy about this novel. It offers a compelling perspective on war from the viewpoint of guerrilla forces, rather than conventional forces (interested readers might want to check out Mao Tse-Tung's "On Guerrilla Warfare" for some theoretical and historical perspective). The novel also deals with the phenomenon of ideologically committed foreign forces in Spain's Fascist-versus-Republican conflict.
Hemingway deals with the issues of love and sex in a combat zone, as well as with the roles of women in a guerrilla force. Other significant issues include loyalty, leadership, communications, military hardware, the impact of weather and terrain, and the connection between guerrilla and conventional forces. Particularly interesting is Hemingway's portrait of Robert Jordan as a technically and tactically skilled guerrilla fighter, and as a leader of guerrilla fighters. Thus the book should interest not just lovers of literature, but also serious military professionals and students of the history of warfare.
Hemingway offers a grim and graphic look at the brutality of 20th century warfare. War is not glamorized or sanitized, and atrocities are described in unflinching detail. The characters explore the ethics of killing in war. As the story progresses, Hemingway skillfully peels back the layers of Jordan and other characters to reveal their psychological wounds. But the book is not all about pain and violence. In the midst of war Hemingway finds the joy and beauty that keep his characters going. He also incorporates storytelling as a powerful motif in the book; his characters share stories with each other, recall missing untold stories, or resist a story too hard to bear. In Hemingway's world storytelling is as essential a human activity as eating, fighting, and lovemaking.
Hemingway's writing appeals to all the senses as he creates some vivid scenes. He demonstrates his mastery of the art of fiction; he continually makes interesting choices and creates some really striking and beautiful passages. "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is an exceptionally haunting work of literature; I consider this rich and rewarding text to be an essential volume in the canon of war fiction. For intriguing companion texts that also deal with the Spanish Civil War, I recommend "Spain's Cause Was Mine: A Memoir of an American Medic in the Spanish Civil War," by Hank Rubin, and "The Confessions of Senora Francesca Navarro and Other Stories," by Natalie L. M. Petesch.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on October 29, 2011
For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Book Review by Benn Bell
The title "For Whom The Bell Tolls" is taken from a poem written by John Donne wherein he makes the claim that because of our common humanity, every death necessarily diminishes each of us, therefore, ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. This is a book about death and dying set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War.
Hemingway's novels and stories present a certain kind of hero: "The Code Hero." This individual lives by his own code and struggles gracefully and bravely against death and annihilation. Another consistent theme found in Hemingway is courage under fire or dire circumstances, whether it is in the bull ring, behind enemy lines, or hunting man-eaters in the green hills of Africa. Cowardice is particularly loathed.
The novel begins in 1937 at the height of the Spanish Civil War and takes place over a four day period. The chief protagonist is an American named Robert Jordon who has been tasked to blow up a bridge behind enemy lines in the Spanish mountains. He is aided in this task by a band of guerrillas headed by Pablo and the woman of Pablo, Pilar. We also meet the beautiful Maria. A young Spanish girl whose parents were murdered by Fascists soldiers who then raped and abused Maria. Some say that Maria represents Spain and her gang rape represent the despoilage of Spain by the Fascists.
Robert and Maria fall in love at first sight. This is another recurring theme to be found in Hemingway, that humans can find salvation through romantic love. The couple makes love together in Jordon's sleeping bag on the ground outside the mouth of the cave where they are all hiding. He asks Maria "Did the earth move for thee?" This is the earliest I have seen this terminology in print and is now considered a cliché, but it may be that Hemingway coined this usage.
Hemingway's use of language was controversial in this novel. Many Spanish words and phrases were translated literally word for word which gave a sense of the Spanish but sounds archaic and stilted to our English hearing ears. For example, the Spanish characters in the novel referred to each other as thee and thou. The traditional second person singular in English is "thou/thee/thy". The most exact way of translating "tu" from Spanish is "thou" or "thee". This was a bold experiment. Once the convention was understood and accepted one got used to and even grew to like it.
During the course of the novel many flashbacks and digressions take place as various characters tell their stories and reminiscence about the past. We learn, for example, that Jordon's Grandfather was a Civil War hero in the America's war of rebellion. We also learned that his father was a coward and that he shot himself to death with a pistol. It is indeed ironic that Hemingway's own father committed suicide and that Hemingway took his own life with a shot gun many years later.
Death is the primary focus of the novel with much discussion amongst the characters about what it is like to kill another human being, was it the right thing to do and what would it be like to die. In the end, Jordon is fatally wounded after successfully completing his mission and trying to escape. He waits by the roadside while the others get away, hoping to kill as many of the enemy soldiers as he can before he dies.
It took me a long time to get around to reading this book. I have been carrying it around with me since 1971. I finally read it in 2011. Forty years. It was well worth the wait. While each man's death may diminish me to some extent, this novel has made me whole.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on August 1, 2006
It's difficult to point at one work of a writer like Ernest Hemingway and claim it to be the best, but that is the claim that I would make for "For Whom the Bell Tolls."
This is a story that captures both the true spirit and the doubtful minds of war. It portrays both courage and cowardice, in the beautifully descriptive words that Hemingway was known for. His main character Robert Jordan is an American college instructor who leaves his job to take part in the Spanish Revolution, with a strong conviction in his heart and truly believing that he can make a difference. The story encompasses a time frame of slightly less than three days, during which he plots to blow a strategic bridge at precisely the right time. In those three days he falls in love with a young Spanish girl in the encampment where he is awaiting that moment and is involved in a character conflict with one of the guerrilla fighters by the name of Pablo.
This is a well paced story and never boring, with action suspense and romance, all coming together in a setting where you can feel the cold and smell the forest in the way that only Hemingway can describe it. A splendid and beautifully told story that I would recommend to anyone of any age or gender. For that reason I would place "For Whom the Bell Tolls" at the top of the heap among all of his works.
In my opinion this great story is the pinnacle of Hemingway's talent. A must read for anyone interested in great literature.