MANY critics judge For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) to be Hemingway’s greatest novel. It is certainly his most intricate in terms of ideas, language, and the complex subjectivity of its characters. As a work addressing the problem of maintaining humanity in the midst of war, it speaks particularly to us on the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The book is set in the Guadarrama mountains, lying between Madrid and Segovia, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). It follows the path of a young American, Robert Jordan, serving as a volunteer in the forces of Spain’s left-wing Republican government as it struggles with the Nationalist military insurrection led by General Francisco Franco.
The plot concentrates on the three days during which Jordan, a literary scholar turned explosives expert, is given the task of demolishing a Nationalist-held bridge, thereby cutting off the expected enemy response to a planned government offensive.
Jordan’s mission is to be conducted in daylight. This timing, however, makes the venture near-suicidal. To accomplish it with even partial success, Jordan needs the help of a motley band of local partisans, but first he must win their trust.
The novel’s action is concentrated at its end — the battle for the bridge. Conversely, its emotional drama resides in the shifting dynamics of reciprocity between Jordan and the band of irregular fighters during their days of preparation.
The most tense moments in the book occur in the claustrophobic cave that serves as the fighters’ hideout. These intense scenes are offset by Jordan’s forays into the surrounding countryside to scout the land and confer with other bands.
The turbulent battle of wills between Jordan and Pablo — the group’s mercurial leader — is offset by the gently unfolding psychic fusion between Jordan and Maria, a traumatised girl rescued by the partisans from Nationalist captivity and sexual exploitation. In the course of the narrative, she becomes not only Jordan’s lover, but the “lodestar” of his moral universe. Her safety gives him the ultimate cause to fight for.
The moral universe framing the novel is both allusive and elusive. The title is a quotation from “Meditation 17” of John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624): a reflection on the interconnectedness of all human life within God’s plan. The full (prose) sentence from which it is extracted appears as an epigraph prefacing the narrative.
Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock PhotoIngrid Bergman and Gary Cooper in the 1943 film adaptation of For Whom the Bell Tolls
Conventional faith is, however, impossible for most of the book’s characters —alienated from it by Roman Catholicism’s association with the Nationalist cause. Robbed of Christianity’s “moral grammar”, they fumble for alternatives with which to process their sense of guilt-ridden complicity in the business of death.
The band’s emergence from three days in a cave to face death — the “ultimate” test of meaning — inverts the narrative arc of the Gospels. Jordan discovers not new life, but a new way of understanding life. The discovery involves embracing a deep unity with nature — not (as in Christianity) affirming the transcendence of nature in the resurrection.
In our last glimpse of Jordan’s inner state as he lies wounded, we are told: “He was completely integrated now . . . he touched the palm of his hands against the pine needles and he touched the bark of the pine trunk that lay behind him. . . He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.”
The 1943 film adaptation of For Whom the Bell Tolls, starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, was a box-office hit, but eluded the moral complexity of the book. The movie places in the foreground the characters’ growing mutual solidarity, but suppresses their doubts about both “the cause” and their own actions. It also suppresses Hemingway’s strongly negative references to Soviet intervention in Spain so as not to upset the wartime alliance.
Aspects of the book jar with today’s sensibilities. Hemingway’s depiction of the unreliable and cheerfully feckless gypsy Rafael is an uncomfortable stereotype. Fortunately, this embrace of “race” is mitigated by Hemingway’s crafting of the (part-Roma) woman Pilar — Pablo’s lover and, arguably, the novel’s true heroine.
Pilar might, indeed, have relevance for today’s Church as it internalises society’s friction around gender. Traditionally, war has been understood as the sphere in which men “prove” themselves to be men. Yet it is the witty and muscular Pilar, modelled on Hemingway’s writer-friend Gertrude Stein, who outshines the men in both courage and foresight.
Pilar also challenges the unity of sex and self in words uttered to Jordan while (unladylike) she blows cigarette smoke from her nostrils: “Life is very curious. . . I would have made a good man but I am all woman and all ugly.” Jordan’s near-maternal tenderness towards boyish, crop-haired Maria undergirds his ultimate act of heroic sacrifice.
Such variegated “play” with gender-traits presages the experimental androgyny of Hemingway’s posthumously published last novel, the biblically referent Garden of Eden (1986).
Ultimately, despite its title, the book might be said to have the message that retaining our humanity amid conflict depends not only on recognising its existence in others, but also its complexity in ourselves.
The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist based in Budapest.
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway is published by Cornerstone at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09); 978-0-09-990860-9.
Listen to Alexander Faludy in conversation with Sarah Meyrick in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is a monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature. Listen here.
FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS — SOME QUESTIONS
- The novel starts with a quotation from John Donne (“No man is an Island. . .”). What do you think Hemingway communicates in the story about the limits of our responsibility to others? Does that duty vary, legitimately, for each of the book’s characters?
- Several characters seem to be searching for a structure of moral meaning outside of conventional faith. Do they find it?
- What does Jordan find so attractive about Maria (and vice versa)?
- Some critics say that Pilar, not Maria, is the “true heroine” of the story. Do you agree?
- Does Hemingway’s unusual use of language in the dialogue passages help or hinder the book?
- How does the book, in its exploration of the moral problems of war, compare with other novels that you have read?
IN OUR next Book Club page, on 6 April, we will print extra information about our next book, The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak. It is published by Penguin at £9.99 (£8.99); 978-0-241-98872-5.
The Island of Missing Trees is set between Cyprus in 1974, at the start of the country’s conflict with Turkey, and London, decades later. Two teenagers, Kostas and Defne, from different sides of the warring parties, meet in secret at a taverna. In the middle of the taverna is an impressive fig tree. Kostas, a keen botanist, takes a cutting from his beloved Ficus carica when forced to flee to England. It is from the perspective of the fig tree that much of the story is told — a tale of love, loss, and generational trauma.
Born in France (1971) to Turkish parents, Elif Shafak is an academic, author, and advocate of women’s and minority rights. She has degrees in international relations and gender studies, and a doctorate in political science, and she has taught at universities in Turkey, the United States, and the UK. As an author of fiction, she has written 11 published novels in both Turkish and English. She was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2019. She is often described as Turkey’s most widely read female novelist. She now lives in London.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
May: Of Stone and Sky by Merryn Glover
June: My Father’s House by Joseph O’Connor