For Whom the Bell Tolls: A Review

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“Pancho” — Photo by the author, 1977

I re-discovered Hemingway in the late ’70s through his first collection of short stories titled In Our Time. I was stunned by the power of Hemingway’s prose. Though I’d never worn glasses, the stories made me feel like a grandma who gets hit in the face with a fist, glasses flying across the room from the impact.

I read the book continuously two-and-a-half times straight through. The conflict at the center of The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife is so loaded with tension, yet achieved with a masterful sleight of hand, never once saying the guy was mad or outraged, or any such thing. It’s nothing short of miraculous how he accomplishes so much with such simple prose, the essence of “show, don’t tell.”

I’d read Old Man and the Sea in high school, which is likely out of favor now due to Hemingway’s well-known overbearing machisimo and politically incorrect attitudes. It is, however, a good read. The story made a lasting impression and I’ve now read it again since.

The first Hemingway novel that followed my return to classic literature during this period in my life was For Whom the Bell Tolls. Its setting is the Spanish Civil War. The hero’s quest turns out to be a futile mission. The characters are vividly drawn, and tragic. Can one man make a difference? Robert Jordan believes that each must do his part in the larger whole and in this manner give his life meaning.

The real tragedy of the Spanish Civil War was the pillaging of a section of European real estate in order to try out new war technologies. Franco fascists were not armed with Mussolini’s planes for nothing. Hitler and friends watched with avid interest as the peoples were subjugated. Technology, not ideology, proved the winning variable in this situation.

In the novel, idealism and realism collide. Pablo, the local leader of a small guerrilla band of anti-fascists, represents one shade of realism. Pilar, his wife, epitomizes another. Robert Jordan, the American teacher who has joined the war effort, is the idealist.

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Illustration by the author.

What really happened in Spain has still not fully been understood. The events of that time were significant, though soon lost in the shadows and mists of the world war that follow. Orwell lost his faith in communist socialism as a result of things he saw. Others were appalled by fascism’s jackboot horrors. Picasso was inspired by the destruction of a town called Guernica to paint his famous statement decrying the brutality of this kind of “total war,” which the U.S. continued to carry out in Viet Nam.

What follows here is an excerpt from one of Michael Mazza’s reviews at I find reading reviews to be a mentally stimulating exercise. Movie reviews at and the Amazon reviews are frequently cogent, insightful offerings from people who are thinking at least a little beneath the surface of things.

“Hemingway offers a grim and graphic look at the brutality of 20th century warfare. War is not glamorized or sanitized, and atrocities are described in unflinching detail. The characters explore the ethics of killing in war. As the story progresses, Hemingway skillfully peels back the layers of Jordan and other characters to reveal their psychological wounds. But the book is not all about pain and violence. In the midst of war Hemingway finds the joy and beauty that keep his characters going. He also incorporates storytelling as a powerful motif in the book; his characters share stories with each other, recall missing untold stories, or resist a story too hard to bear. In Hemingway’s world storytelling is as essential a human activity as eating, fighting, and lovemaking.”

The frontispiece of the novel contains the famous John Donne poem that infuses the story with its gravitas.

For Whom the Bell Tolls
by John Donne

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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