Hemingway’s Poignance and Grandeur at its Best

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

I am never disappointed after reading a Hemingway novel.  For Whom the Bell Tolls is one of many by the American great included in the modern canon, and none more rightfully so.  Because of the book’s epic scope and brilliant style it is very difficult to review.  In an attempt to do this novel some justice I’ll just touch on the features that jumped out most for me.

It should first be stated that For Whom the Bell Tolls is a myriad of novels in one.  It is the category of personal growth for the protagonist Robert Jordan, an American teacher fighting with a band of Republican guerillas in the Spanish Civil War.  It is also the love story of Robert Jordan and the beautiful Maria. Maria is essentially flat as a character, but teems so richly with symbolic significance that her relationship with Robert Jordan cannot be minimized.  At the same time, though, the novel is also the expert account of the Spanish Civil War, dealing in both the physical war effort as well as the inner workings of the Communist leadership.

As a category of personal growth, For Whom the Bell Tolls details with acute clarity what it means to become what is now termed as Hemingway’s “code hero.”  The code hero lives a life ripe with appreciation for what he is endowed with in nature, namely food, wine, sex, etc.  However, the code hero understands that all beings must die, and therefore should never fear this eventuality.  Hemingway’s heroes force themselves to encounter death in order to understand it, whether the avenue for doing so is bullfighting or war, thus proving that this level of fearlessness is something that must be earned.  Robert Jordan experiences an evolution in the novel that exemplifies the learning process.  Robert Jordan begins with the makings of a code hero, but tortures himself with an internal monologue that never allows him to fully embrace life and live in the present.  However, experiencing love with Maria in the environment of a war whose principles he believes in allows him to finally experience this Hemingwayan version of nirvana.

While Robert Jordan’s personal journey is at the forefront of the novel, the love story between the protagonist and Maria at times takes on a life of its own.  While Maria is no rich heroine herself, her symbolism adds a significant dimension to the novel.  Like Pilar, Maria is closely intertwined with nature.  Hemingway is consistent in depicting her physical beauty in terms of nature: her fawnlike movements, her golden grain field skin tone, etc.  Robert Jordan’s most significant moments with Maria are described as natural occurrences; most significantly is their lovemaking, which is likened to the physical movement of the earth.  Therefore Robert Jordan’s ultimate acceptance of Maria is symbolic of his communion with the natural world itself.

Finally, For Whom the Bell Tolls is a well-rounded and engaging depiction of the Spanish Civil War itself.  Hemingway expertly details the account of Robert Jordan, who fights for the Republicans, while at the same time humanizing the Fascist opposition.  While Robert Jordan clearly believes the Republicans are the most capable of preserving the Spain he loves, Hemingway allows his protagonst to understand that the Communist leadership is tragically flawed.  For this reason, For Whom the Bell Tolls can be considered Hemingway’s poignant indictment of the Communist Party.

Now that I’ve gotten through this book I will be sure to recommend it as a classic that should not be avoided.  For Whom the Bell Tolls is a haunting book, and one that will not leave the reader disappointed.

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