Home > Literature, Reviews > Review of For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Review of For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

I’d never read any Hemingway before I picked this book up, but I knew that he was famous for his pared-down style. For Whom the Bell Tolls is based on his experiences reporting on the Spanish Civil War. It relates a period of about three days during which a young American Explosives expert, Robert Jordan (which is also the pen name of the James Oliver Rigney, author of The Wheel of Time), arrives at the hideout of a small band of Republican guerillas and embarks on the demolition of a nearby bridge. During this time he has to plan the attack and deal with the tricky web of relationships between himself and the partisans.

It’s a sizable book (perhaps not as big as some Wheel of Time volumes) and the fact that only three days pass is quite impressive. The length of attention given to the build-up to the attack on the bridge heightens the sense of danger, doom and melancholy. This is a book about death and although Robert Jordan manfully avoids thinking about the risks of his task, the inevitability of death hangs over him throughout – from Pilar’s harrowing recounting of the slaughter of fascist-supporting townsfolk, to the fate of the previous dynamiter who worked with the guerillas, to the suicide of Robert Jordan’s own father.

The way language is used is interesting. The characters speak in Spanish throughout, but, of course, the book is written in English, so Hemingway uses various techniques to create a sense of Spanishness to the dialogue. There is a smattering of actual Spanish used in the book, particularly the expression que va? which is used to show disbelief or disgust. In order to convey the Spanish informal pronoun , thee and thou are used. Some of the grammar is idiosyncratic; whenever the Spanish characters mention the plan to blow up the bridge they say, ‘this of the bridge’. There’s also some use of ‘false friends’ – these are words in two language that are similar enough to suggest that they have the same meaning, when, in fact, they don’t. For example, the Spaniards in the novel say that a Russian character has a ‘rare’ name, but this is a false friend of the Spanish raro, which actually means ‘strange’.

There is a lot of dialogue in this book – both between the characters and within the protagonists’ own heads. A lot of this dialogue is also quite repetitive. Robert Jordan repeatedly asks the partisans questions – perhaps because he is afraid of anyone making mistakes (although this isn’t stated explicitly). All these qualities give the text a strange readibility – I was always aware that I was reading dialogue and always trying to guess how much of the technique is authorial invention and how much based on experience.

The book paints a consistent and believable picture of life behind enemy lines in the Spanish Civil War. As I mentioned, the shadow of death hangs over the whole narrative – especially given that the reader knows something the characters don’t, namely that the Republicans lost to Franco’s forces. There’s a certain coldness to the story – I felt that I was appreciating the events and the characters and their feelings intellectually rather than emotionally.

Another weak point was the character Maria, a brutalised young woman who falls in love with Robert Jordan as soon as she sees him and who provides a tender counterpoint to the harsh realism of the rest of the story. She’s an annoyingly passive and girly character, always fawning over Jordan. She jumps into bed with him despite the trauma she has very recently experienced.

Incidentally, one episode in the book shows the last stand of the leader of a nearby band of guerillas and a few of his men on a hill, surrounded by fascist troops. This scene was the inspiration for the Metallica song, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ (and what a stupendously brilliant song that is).

All in all, the novel is engaging, thought-provoking and occasionally moving. It is dark, but not depressing – the protagonist may be doomed to die, but he is prepared to die for something he believes in.

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