What can I say about Ernest Hemingway’s 1940 masterpiece For Whom the Bell Tolls?
I’ll have to give it a little time to settle, but I suspect this novel will officially enter my top 10 novels of all time list.
It is written in Hemingway’s usual terse style. Descriptive adjectives are few, replaced by verbs, lots of verbs. This is not to say that it is a book filled with action. For, in fact, much of the novel consists of waiting, sitting and talking. In the near 600 pages, there are only three scenes of real action: Pillar’s retelling of the beginning of the revolution in her town; El Sordo’s last stand, and the bombing of the bridge. The remaining pages consist of the relationships between those involved in the war.
The war, is the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. Instead of focusing on the larger aspects of this war, Hemingway decides to focus on a single guerilla outfit fighting against the fascists. The main character is Robert Jordan, an American Spanish professor, who has volunteered to fight against the fascists as well. He has been ordered to destroy an important bridge, and enlists the guerilla band of Pablo. In doing so, he details the experiences of the average, normal citizens of a country fighting for its destiny.
With the exception of World War II stories, most retellings of war, come from a prospective that all war is terrible and unjust. Here, Hemingway shows not only the horrors of fighting a war, but also the sometime necessity of it. Yet, he is also able to show the confusion of its participants.
Anselmo, a trusted companion of Jordan, midway through the novel ponders what he would be doing had he been raised with fascist ideals. He truly believes in what he is fighting for, but realizes that under different circumstances he would be fighting on the other side of the lines. Many wars are fought by soldiers without any true sense of the ideals behind them. For Whom the Bell Tolls is often called a novel on the death of ideals. And it is true, nearly every idealized truth that is held up by the band, seems tarnished and destroyed by novels end.
It is impossible, within the confines of a review, to fully expound upon the greatness of this novel. It is a piece of literature, of art, that should be read, reread, studied, and made mandatory reading for every human being.