Updated: Aug 14, 2018
Hemingway, Ernest. For Whom the Bell Tolls. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1940.
Genre: Historical-Based War Novel
Setting: 1937 war zones in Spain during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)
Author’s Purpose: To demonstrate that human beings are not isolated or alone (“No man is an island” – John Donne)
Robert Jordan, a young American professor, volunteers to fight on the side of the Loyalists against General Francisco Franco’s Fascist army during the Spanish Civil War. While preparing to destroy a key bridge behind Fascist lines, he learns of brotherhood and love.
Themes and Thesis
Death: A study of the behavior of human beings faced with the prospect of death.
Sense of Duty: Examination of a soldier’s sense of duty in the face of imminent death.
The Hemingway Code: Fearlessness, courage, decisiveness, strength, dedication, and defiance in the face of death molds individual character and produces heroes.
Love: Although death is inevitable and cannot be staved off by love, the emotional support of loved ones provides motivation to carry out one’s sense of duty.
Theme of Nada (nothingness): This theme predominates throughout all of Hemingway’s works. Since death is inevitable, human beings must live life with intensity to the fullest. Humans cannot prevent death, but can determine how they live their lives. Since there is nothing after death, dying is insignificant and meaningless. Living life to the maximum extent in the present is important, since the future is uncertain, unlikely, and unimportant.
Method of Development
Hemingway’s descriptions of the action scenes in the novel support his thesis exquisitely. He relates his story, told primarily by an objective third-party narrative, using numerous flashbacks to demonstrate to his readers the motivation for the actions of his protagonist Jordan. However, when necessary to inform readers, the author employs internal monologue. Vivid prose, realistic dialogue, and geographical descriptions place readers at the scene of the action. As is common in classical literature, symbolism is essential to the plot of the novel. The most significant symbol around which the plot is developed is the bridge targeted for destruction. The bridge becomes the center of the entire conflict between the Loyalists and the Fascists, as though the outcome of the war depends on the success or failure of the protagonist’s mission. Blowing up the bridge would be tantamount to Caesar crossing the Rubicon (“the die is cast”). Once completed, there would be no return.
For Whom the Bell Tolls remains my all-time favorite work of literature. Poet John Donne is quoted by the author in his selection of the novel’s title (… never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”), and it could not be more appropriate. Hemingway succeeds in his lesson. In the author’s opinion, we are powerless over death, but can direct the nature of our lives. Death is inevitable, so focusing upon it is useless. Life is better spent facing danger head-on, which makes us heroic. If a hero survives, he or she lives with a focus on new adventures.
In this novel, Hemingway has achieved his goals and deserves the highest praise enjoyed in literary circles for nearly eighty years. The classic work enlightens readers by demonstrating its historical significance. Despite the obstacles human beings confront in life, ordinary people can perform extra-ordinary tasks, which is quite heroic.
I strongly recommend this novel for all readers.