The Prose of For Whom The Bell Tolls


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The WWII had just begun a year prior. The Nazis had made their push west and began their support of the fascist side of the Spanish Civil War. The spread of fascism from Italy to German and now the rest of Europe had become a threat to the free world. Born July 21, 1899 in Illinois. Fought in WWI where he developed a strong distaste for fascism as an ideology. After being injured during h8is service he began work as a journalist. He moved to Paris to work as a correspondent, but moved back to America in 1928. Wrote The Old Man and the Sea finally securing him a Pulitzer Prize in 1951. The next decade of his life was rife with depression, liver disease, and high blood pressure. He eventually committed suicide in 1961.

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The main characteristic of a war story is the focus on war. Either being a spectator or impacted by it in a civilian manner or a direct participant in the fighting. Usually used to preserve a feeling held by a certain side or by the rank of the participants in the conflict. However, in Hemmingway’s case it was to make the point that the plight of the Spanish Nationalists and their possible defeat could have global repercussions.

Plot Summary

The story begins during the Spanish Civil War with Robert Jordan, an American who left home to fight in the war to stem the tide of fascism. He participates in guerrilla warfare in enemy territory. He is guided to the camp he will be staged out of by the leader of a guerilla band named Pablo. After going to the camp, and meeting everyone, Robert and Anselmo leave to do recon on the bridge they will be blowing up. 

Pablo begins to show signs of cynicism to the guerillas and refuses to help with their task. Rafael thinks him a traitor, but Pablo’s wife convinces him and Robert to not kill her husband. A girl taking refuge with the guerillas who had already made a connection with Robert comes to meet him later that night and they sleep together. The next day Robert and the two other women go discuss the day’s plan with another band of guerillas led by El Sordo and Robert and Maria sleep together again on the way back. 

When they return, Pablo berates Robert until Robert tries to look for a reason to kill him. Only when he agrees to help blow up the bridge does the group decide to not kill him. The sounds of gunfire wake up the group as Robert shoots a fascist horseman hearing more fighting by El Sordo’s camp. While some want to go help their brothers in arms, the three that visited the day prior knew it would achieve nothing. That day, planes later bombed El Sordo’s camp. In the middle of the night Pablo takes five other men from another camp as well as the explosives meant to blow up the bridge to set them himself. 

However, in the morning Pablo tells the camp that he got scared and threw the explosives away on the way there. The group must destroy the bridge regardless and set off to do so. Eladio is killed, Fernando’s wounds prevent him from being taken along and the explosion of the bridge kills Anselmo. On the retreat, Robert’s horse is killed and when they fall, his leg is broken. He recognizes his fate and appreciates what he has been given in life, but uses his final moments to take a few fascists with him on the way out.

The prose of For Whom the Bell Tolls is very candid and lucid. The interactions between the characters are very real with each interaction feeling as though they are actual people. The characters mean what they say and most of them only say what they mean. There is no “fluffy” text like that of Tolkein’s work, but gets to the point of the scene.

Now that Pablo was back in the movements of the unit, Robert Jordan did not wish to talk against him and as soon as he had uttered it he regretted saying the thing about his ability. He knew himself how smart Pablo was. It was Pablo who had seen instantly all that was wrong with the orders for the destruction of the bridge. He had made the remark only from dislike and he knew as he made it that it was wrong. It was part of the talking too much after a strain. So now he dropped the matter and said to Anselmo, “And to go into La Granja in daylight?” p.154

The face value of the statement shows Robert coming to believe that Pablo still has the group’s best interest at heart. He acknowledges the intelligence of Pablo and his ability to spot the flaws in the plan for the bridge. While simply stated, the meaning behind these phrases goes far beyond. Pablo’s betrayal at the end of the book becomes all the more painful because of the current idea in Robert’s mind that he might have been correct about not wanting to help destroy the bridge. The dramatic irony of Robert acknowledging how smart Pablo is that he played along with the entire group managing to exact a plan without being caught or killed.

He is the main character followed throughout the book. He is a dynamic character in that he realizes changes about his mindset as the story progresses, understanding that he doesn’t know why he stands on a particular side, but keeps fighting because of what he has already said and the connections he has made. Pablo is the leader of the guerillas set to blow up the bridge in preparation for a Republican attack. He is a round character in that, for most of the book, he is cynical of the group’s chances of success and their cause as a whole. This causes him to desert, but later come back in atonement for what he has done.

Pilar is Pablo’s wife or “mujer” who grounds him. She is a pillar of stability and reason when blood runs hot. She is also part gypsy and touches on this aspect of herself multiple times throughout the book. Maria is Robert’s love interest. She gives him a purpose outside of his given duty with the guerillas. Maria gives Robert an outlet from the fighting that he only accepts once she shows him how.

El Sordo went into the cave and came out with a pinch bottle of Scotch whiskey and three glasses. The bottle was under one arm, and three glasses were in the hand of that arm, a finger in each glass, and his other hand was around the neck of an earthenware jar of water. P. 78 This scene depicts the ragtag nature of the Spanish Republicans. Their dire circumstances highlighted by their living conditions. Basing their operations out of caves and holding fluids in earthenware jars doesn’t seem befitting of a military organization.

Then there was a valley that no one held except for a fascist post in a farmhouse with its outbuildings and its barn that they had fortified… He knew where there was a trip wire laid that fired a set-gun and he located it in the dark, stepped over it, and started along the small stream bordered with poplars whose leaves were moving with the night wind. A cock crowed at the farmhouse that was the fascist post and as he walked along the stream he looked back and saw, through the trunks of the poplars, a light showing at the lower edge of one of the windows of the farmhouse. P 195 The common goal throughout the entire story is the destruction of the bridge. It is surrounded by forest, mountains, and hills creating constant physical barriers in addition to the threat of the fascist Nationalists. The purpose of setting the novel in Spain was to illustrate the toll exacted on the Spanish people because of the war. Tripwire, mines, gun nests, bombing raids, all carried out by Spaniards against Spaniards.

“We all lay on roofs and on the ground and at the edge of walls and of buildings in the early morning light and the dust cloud of the explosion had not yet settled, for it rose high in the air and there was no wind to carry it, and all of us were firing into the broken side of the building, loading and firing into the smoke, and from within there was still the flashing of rifles and then there was a shout from in the smoke not to fire more, and out came the four civiles with their hands up. P. 56 The imagery of the dust clouds following explosions demonstrate just how dangerous the fighting was during the Spanish Civil War. Along with the excerpt from page 195, it shows how close the fighting was to home with the Republicans laying on the roofs of buildings in ruined cities, firing into the rubble of other broken buildings.

The first scene contrasts the last in that it is less lucid, however, mirrors it by framing his first interactions with the Republicans to his last. The first scene is a flashback to his time meeting Anselmo. This first scene being a flashback frames how the book will be structured with more details outside of the main story being revealed in this manner.

The ending scene depicts Robert saying goodbye to the woman he loves and accepts that he must die so that others may live. It shares a line with the first sentence of the book, specifically him laying on the,” pine-needled floor of the forest.” The ending also depicts how pointless his journey was. He came all that way to fight only to destroy a single bridge and probably die.

“He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.” p.1 The recurring symbol of pine needles and the “pine-needled floor” of the forest brings the work full circle from the first sentence of the book to the last mentioning them. Whenever Robert is sleeping with Maria outside and whenever Robert makes his final trek to the bridge, pine needles are mentioned.

“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.” p.1 The entire book is named after this poem. The bell tolls when someone dies as a sign of recognition that they have passed. However, there is no recognition for those who die in war, every death is passed by as a number on the casualty report. The book alludes to the fact that there are too many that die for the bell tolling to mean anything.

““Then we will do the bridge without thy aid,” Robert Jordan said to Pablo. “No,” Pablo said, and Robert Jordan watched his face sweat. “Thou wilt blow no bridge here.” “No?” “Thou wilt blow no bridge,” Pablo said heavily.” p.30 The interactions between Pablo and the others concerning the plan to blow up the bridge foreshadow his later betrayal. Pablo’s increased cynicism toward the resistance and his negativity with any task build up to what he eventually does.

“My little rabbit. My darling. My sweet. My long lovely.” p.40 Rabbits both literally or as a nickname for Maria are symbols of innocence.Animals are more peaceful than humans. While the people act like animals themselves, the animals act with more civility. Animals represent the peace that is desired and admired, but that can not be currently achieved.

“Think about Montana. I can’t. Think about Madrid. I can’t. Think about a cool drink of water. All right. That’s what it will be like. Like a cool drink of water. You’re a liar. It will just be nothing. That’s all it will be. Just nothing. Then do it. Do it. Do it now. It’s all right to do it now. Go on and do it now. No, you have to wait. What for? You know all right. Then wait.” p.251 Robert lays on the ground waiting for the fascist officer to come upon him so that he can gun him down, but contemplates suicide. Suicide is a recurring symbol for giving up throughout the book, Robert’s father having gone that way and Robert contemplating it as his thoughts become more complex.

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