For Whom the Bell Tolls

For Whom the Bell Tolls

First edition cover
Author Ernest Hemingway
Country United States
Language English
Genre War novel
Publisher Charles Scribner's Sons
Publication date
21 October 1940

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a novel by Ernest Hemingway published in 1940. It tells the story of Robert Jordan, a young American in the International Brigades attached to a republican guerrilla unit during the Spanish Civil War. As a dynamiter, he is assigned to blow up a bridge during an attack on the city of Segovia. The novel is regarded as one of Hemingway's best works, along with The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea, and A Farewell to Arms.[1]


Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls in Havana, Cuba; Key West, Florida; and Sun Valley, Idaho in 1939.[2][3] In Cuba, he lived in the Hotel Ambos-Mundos where he worked on the manuscript.[4][5] The novel was finished in July 1940 and published in October.[6][7] It is based on Hemingway's experiences during the Spanish Civil War and features an American protagonist, named Robert Jordan, who fights with Spanish soldiers for the Republicans.[8] The characters in the novel include those who are purely fictional, those based on real people but fictionalized, and those who were actual figures in the war. Set in the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range between Madrid and Segovia, the action takes place during four days and three nights. For Whom the Bell Tolls became a Book of the Month Club choice, sold half a million copies within months, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and became a literary triumph for Hemingway.[8] Published on 21 October 1940, the first edition print run was 75,000 copies priced at $2.75.[9]


The book's title is taken from the metaphysical poet John Donne's series of meditations and prayers on health, pain, and sickness (written while Donne was convalescing from a nearly fatal illness) published in 1624 as Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, specifically Meditation XVII. Hemingway quotes part of the meditation (using Donne's original spelling) in the book's epigraph, which in turn refers to the practice of funeral tolling:

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

The poem is often found in anthologies and literature textbooks.

The point made by the choice of this title and epigraph is that the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, a major topic of debate in Western intellectual and political circles, is not of importance only to Spaniards; it matters to everyone.

Plot summary

The novel graphically describes the brutality of the civil war in Spain during this time. It is told primarily through the thoughts and experiences of the protagonist, Robert Jordan. It draws on Hemingway's own experiences in the Spanish Civil War as a reporter for the North American Newspaper Alliance.

Jordan is an American who has lived in Spain during the pre-war period, and fights in the International Brigades for the Republic against Francisco Franco's fascist forces. An experienced dynamiter, he is ordered by a Soviet general to travel behind enemy lines and destroy a bridge with the aid of a band of local anti-fascist guerrillas, in order to prevent enemy troops from responding to an upcoming offensive. On his mission, Jordan meets the rebel Anselmo who brings him to the hidden guerrilla camp and initially acts as an intermediary between Jordan and the other guerrilla fighters.

In the camp, Jordan encounters María, a young Spanish woman whose life had been shattered by her parents' execution and her rape at the hands of the Falangists (part of the fascist coalition) at the outbreak of the war. His strong sense of duty clashes with both the unwillingness of the guerrilla leader Pablo to commit to an operation that would endanger himself and his band, and Jordan's own new-found lust for life which arises from his love for María. Pablo's wife, Pilar, usurps Pablo's leadership and pledges the allegiance of the guerrillas to Jordan's mission. However, when another band of anti-fascist guerrillas, led by El Sordo, is surrounded and killed, Pablo steals the dynamite detonators and exploder, hoping to prevent the demolition and thereby avoid fascist reprisals. Although he disposes of the detonators and exploder by throwing them down a gorge into the river, Pablo regrets abandoning his comrades and returns to assist in the operation.

However, the enemy, apprised of the coming offensive, has prepared to ambush it in force and it seems unlikely that the blown bridge will do much to prevent a rout. Regardless of this, Jordan understands that he must still demolish the bridge in an attempt to prevent Fascist reinforcements from overwhelming his allies. Lacking the detonation equipment stolen by Pablo, Jordan and Anselmo coordinate an alternative method to explode the dynamite by using hand grenades with wires attached so that their pins can be pulled from a distance. This improvised plan is considerably more dangerous because the men must increase their proximity to the explosion. While Pablo, Pilar, and Maria create a distraction for Jordan and Anselmo, the two men plant and detonate the dynamite, costing Anselmo his life when he is hit by a piece of shrapnel. While escaping, Jordan is maimed when a tank shoots his horse out from under him. Knowing he would only slow his comrades down, he bids goodbye to María and ensures that she escapes to safety with the surviving guerrillas. He refuses an offer from Agustín to shoot him and lies in agony, hoping to kill an enemy officer and delay their pursuit of his comrades before dying. The narration ends right before Jordan launches his ambush.


Main themes

Death is a primary preoccupation of the novel. When Robert Jordan is assigned to blow up the bridge, he knows that he will not survive it. Pablo and El Sordo, leaders of the Republican guerrilla bands, see that inevitability also. Almost all of the main characters in the book contemplate their own deaths. Before the operation, Pilar reads Robert Jordan's palm, and after seeing it, refuses to comment on what she saw, foreshadowing his untimely demise.

Hotel Ambos-Mundos (Hotel of Both-Worlds), Havana, Ernest Hemingway's first residence in Cuba (1932–1939) where the first chapter of For Whom the Bell Tolls was written. Much of the rest was written later in his home near Havana, Finca Vigía (Lookout Farm)

Camaraderie and sacrifice in the face of death abound throughout the novel. Robert Jordan, Anselmo and others are ready to do "as all good men should" – that is, to make the ultimate sacrifice. The oft-repeated embracing gesture reinforces this sense of close companionship in the face of death. An incident involving the death of the character Joaquín's family serves as an example of this theme; having learned of this tragedy, Joaquín's comrades embrace and comfort him, saying they now are his family. Surrounding this love for one's comrades is the love for the Spanish soil. A love of place, of the senses, and of life itself is represented by the pine needle forest floor—both at the beginning and, poignantly, at the end of the novel—when Robert Jordan awaits his death feeling "his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest."

Suicide always looms as an alternative to suffering. Many of the characters, including Robert Jordan, would prefer death over capture and are prepared to kill themselves, be killed, or kill to avoid it. As the book ends, Robert Jordan, wounded and unable to travel with his companions, awaits a final ambush that will end his life. He prepares himself against the cruel outcomes of suicide to avoid capture, or inevitable torture for the extraction of information and death at the hands of the enemy. Still, he hopes to avoid suicide partly because his father, whom he views as a coward, committed suicide. Robert Jordan understands suicide but doesn't approve of it, and thinks that "you have to be awfully occupied with yourself to do a thing like that."[10]

The novel explores political ideology and the nature of bigotry. After noticing how he so easily employed the convenient catch-phrase "enemy of the people," Jordan moves swiftly into the subjects and opines, "To be bigoted you have to be absolutely sure that you are right and nothing makes that surety and righteousness like continence. Continence is the foe of heresy."[11] Later in the book, Robert Jordan explains the threat of fascism in his own country. "Robert Jordan, wiping out the stew bowl with bread, explained how the income tax and inheritance tax worked. 'But the big estates remain. Also, there are taxes on the land,' he said. 'But surely the big proprietors and the rich will make a revolution against such taxes. Such taxes appear to me to be revolutionary. They will revolt against the government when they see that they are threatened, exactly as the fascists have done here,' Primitivo said. 'It is possible.' 'Then you will have to fight in your country as we fight here.' 'Yes, we will have to fight.' 'But are there not many fascists in your country?' 'There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes.'"[12] In the same conversation Robert Jordan is having with the others, he also realizes how there are populist policies right in America, namely homesteading which was widely used by American settlers to settle the West from 1863 onward:[13] "Robert Jordan explained the process of homesteading. He had never thought of it before as an agrarian reform. 'That is magnificent,' Primitivo said. 'Then you have a Communism in your country?' 'No. That is done under the Republic.'"[14]

Divination emerges as an alternative means of perception. Pilar, "Pablo's woman," is a reader of palms and more. When Robert Jordan questions her true abilities, she replies, "Because thou art a miracle of deafness.... It is not that thou art stupid. Thou art simply deaf. One who is deaf cannot hear music. Neither can he hear the radio. So he might say, never having heard them, that such things do not exist."[15]


Hemingway frequently used images to produce the dense atmosphere of violence and death his books are renowned for; the main image of For Whom the Bell Tolls is the automatic weapon. As he had done in "A Farewell to Arms", Hemingway employs the fear of modern armament to destroy romantic conceptions of the ancient art of war: combat, sportsmanlike competition and the aspect of hunting. Heroism becomes butchery: the most powerful picture employed here is the shooting of María's parents against the wall of a slaughterhouse. Glory exists in the official dispatches only; here, the "disillusionment" theme of A Farewell to Arms is adapted.

The fascist planes are especially dreaded, and when they approach, all hope is lost. The efforts of the partisans seem to vanish and their commitment and their abilities become meaningless, especially the trench mortars that already wounded Lt. Henry ("he knew that they would die as soon as a mortar came up").[16] No longer would the best soldier win, but the one with the biggest gun. The soldiers using those weapons are simple brutes, they lack "all conception of dignity"[17] as Fernando remarked. Anselmo insisted, "We must teach them. We must take away their planes, their automatic weapons, their tanks, their artillery and teach them dignity."[17]

The novel also contains imagery of soil and earth.[18] This imagery appears rather famously at the start of chapter thirteen. Jordan and María have sex in a meadow in the forest. He feels "the earth move out and away from under them." Then afterwards he asks María, "Did thee feel the earth move?", to which she responds affirmatively. Variants of this phrase have become a cultural cliché,[19] often used humorously.[20]

Literary significance and critical reaction


Since its publication, the prose style and dialogue in Hemingway's novel have been the source of controversy and some negative critical reaction. For example, Edmund Wilson, in a tepid review, noted the encumbrance of "a strange atmosphere of literary medievalism" in the relationship between Robert Jordan and Maria.[21] This stems in part from a distinctive feature of the novel, namely Hemingway's extensive use of archaisms, implied literal translations and false friends to convey the foreign (Spanish) tongue spoken by his characters. Thus, Hemingway uses the archaic "thou" (particularly in its oblique and possessive form) to highlight the differences in Spanish between the more formal and archaic, but popular "vos"( (singular) and "vosotros" (plural) forms from the pronominal "tú" (familiar) and "Usted" (formal). Additionally, much of the dialogue in the novel is an implied direct translation from Spanish, producing an often strained English equivalent. For example, Hemingway uses the construction "what passes that",[22] which is an implied translation of the Spanish construction lo que pasa. This translation extends to the use of linguistic "false friends", such as "rare" (from raro) instead of "strange" and "syndicate" (from sindicato) instead of trade union.[23] In another odd stylistic variance, Hemingway referenced foul language (used with some frequency by different characters in the novel) with "unprintable" and "obscenity" and substitutes "muck" for fuck in the dialogue and thoughts of the characters, although foul language is used freely in Spanish even when its equivalent is censored in English (e.g. joder, me cago). The Spanish expression of exasperation me cago en la leche repeatedly recurs throughout the novel, translated by Hemingway as "I obscenity in the milk."

Narrative style

The book is written in the third person limited omniscient narrative mode. The action and dialogue are punctuated by extensive thought sequences told from the viewpoint of Robert Jordan. The novel also contains thought sequences of other characters, including Pilar and Anselmo. The thought sequences are more extensive than in Hemingway's earlier fiction, notably A Farewell to Arms, and are an important narrative device to explore the principal themes of the novel.

In 1941 the Pulitzer Prize committee for letters unanimously recommended For Whom the Bell Tolls be awarded the prize for that year. The Pulitzer Board agreed; however, Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University at that time, overrode both and instead no award was given for letters that year.[24]

Allusions/references to actual events

The novel takes place in late May 1937 during the second year of the Spanish Civil War.[25] References made to Valladolid, Segovia, El Escorial and Madrid suggest the novel takes place within the build-up to the Republican attempt to relieve the siege of Madrid.

The earlier battle of Guadalajara and the general chaos and disorder (and, more generally, the doomed cause of Republican Spain) serve as a backdrop to the novel: Robert Jordan notes, for instance, that he follows the Communists because of their superior discipline, an allusion to the split and infighting between anarchist and communist factions on the Republican side.

The famous and pivotal scene described in Chapter 10, in which Pilar describes the execution of various fascist figures in her village is drawn from events that took place in Ronda in 1936. Although Hemingway later claimed (in a 1954 letter to Bernard Berenson) to have completely fabricated the scene, he in fact drew upon the events at Ronda, embellishing the event by imagining an execution line leading up to the cliff face.[26] In Ronda, some 500 people, allegedly fascist sympathisers, were thrown into the surrounding gorge by a mob from a house that faced onto the cliffside.

A number of actual figures that played a role in the Spanish Civil War are also referenced in the book, including:

A Japanese poster for the 1943 American film version.

See also


  1. Southam, B.C., Meyers, Jeffrey (1997). Ernest Hemingway: The Critical Heritage. New York: Routledge. pp. 35–40, 314–367.
  2. Meyers 1985, p. 326
  3. "Hunting for Hemingway in Yellowstone country | News". Retrieved 2016-10-01.
  4. Mellow 1992, p. 516
  5. One source, however, says he began the book at the Sevilla Biltmore Hotel and finished it at "Finca Vigia"
  6. Meyers 1985, p. 334
  7. Meyers 1985, p. 339
  8. 1 2 Meyers 1985, pp. 335–338
  9. Oliver, p. 106
  10. Hemingway, Ernest (1940). For Whom the Bell Tolls. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 338.
  11. For Whom (p. 164)
  12. For Whom (pp. 207, 208)
  13. "The Homestead Act of 1862". Retrieved September 9, 2010.
  14. Hemingway, Ernest. For Whom the Bell Tolls. USA: Scribner, 1968. 223
  15. For Whom (p. 251, chapter 19)
  16. For Whom (p. 330)
  17. 1 2 For Whom (p. 349)
  18. Mount, Henry (2006). Hemingway's Tribute to Soil. iUniverse. pp. 132–3. ISBN 978-0-595-39758-7.
  19. Josephs, Allen (1994). For whom the bell tolls: Ernest Hemingway's undiscovered country. Twayne's masterwork studies. 138. Twayne Publishers. p. 104. ISBN 978-0-8057-8078-9.
  20. Ammer, Christine (2006). The Facts on File dictionary of clichés (2nd ed.). Infobase Publishing. p. 119. ISBN 978-0-8160-6279-9.
  21. Edmund Wilson, " Return of Ernest Hemingway" (Review of For Whom the Bell Tolls) New Republic, CIII (Oct. 28, 1940)
  22. E.g., For Whom (p. 83)
  23. Gladstein, M. R. (2006). "Bilingual Wordplay: Variations on a Theme by Hemingway and Steinbeck". The Hemingway Review. 26 (1): 81–95. doi:10.1353/hem.2006.0047.
  24. McDowell, Edwin (11 May 1984). "Publishing: Pulitzer Controversies". The New York Times. p. C26.
  25. In Chapter 13, Robert Jordan thinks "The time for getting back will not be until the fall of thirty-seven. I left in the summer of thirty-six..." and then comments on an unusual snowfall in the mountains occurring "Now? Almost in June?"
  26. Ramon Buckley, "Revolution in Ronda: The facts in Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls", the Hemingway Review, Fall 1997
  27. "A Spanish romance". The Olive Press. December 1, 2010. Retrieved December 14, 2015.
  28. For Whom (p. vii) - "This book is for MARTHA GELLHORN".


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