For Whom the Bell Tolls is a war novel about the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s that pitted leftists against fascists. Hemingway worked as a reporter during the war.
In the novel, very little explicit context is provided. You can pick up a fair amount by reading between the lines however. It would still help to have background knowledge about the war (I have a little, but it’s not something I’ve studied in any depth), but it’s not essential to understanding or enjoying the story.
As Hemingway tells it, at least by the period of the war he is writing about, the leftists—which is those who are defending the government of the republic—are very much an international force, especially at the leadership level. Indeed, the leadership seems to be primarily Soviet, though they (the leftists in the book, not Hemingway) make some effort to conceal or downplay that.
This isn’t presented as a negative thing necessarily, but as mixed. The Stalinists running the show aren’t portrayed as particularly evil or dishonest. They have their share of incompetents, but mostly the Soviets are the ones who actually have some discipline and professionalism. The others fighting on the left tend to be considerably more incompetent on average. The anarchists, for instance, are depicted dismissively as extremist ideologues who are basically worthless as fighters.
On the other side, the fascists trying to overthrow the republic predictably are supported by the fascists of Germany and Italy.
There’s the sense that the fascists are much better supplied and are the clear favorites in the war. The leftists are hoping for a miracle, or more realistically I gather are trying to hold out and make things difficult enough long enough for the fascists that the international situation changes to where the United States and others perhaps throw their support behind the republic, or at least the Germans cut down on the resources they’re willing to sink into an ongoing conflict.
Both sides are guilty of horrific atrocities, though Hemingway has his protagonist Robert Jordan partly excuse the leftist atrocities on the grounds that they are a product of passion on the part of an inexperienced force, whereas the fascist atrocities are an intentional matter of policy.
Aside from that excuse, though, Hemingway doesn’t shy away from leftist atrocities. Indeed, in a particularly powerful and violent scene when the forces of the republic massacre the fascists and fascist sympathizers in a small town, the victims mostly come across rather favorably as martyrs spending their last moments in solemn prayer.
Jordan is an American, a young college professor from Montana who had previously spent an extended period of time in Spain and fallen in love with the country. He is now back as a soldier, a munitions expert who is sent behind enemy lines to join up with partisans to engage in sabotage and such.
He has been fighting for the republic for a little less than a year. He is likely going to return to America at the start of the next school year, though he is uncertain if he’ll have any career to return to, as he may be blacklisted depending on how much is known about his activities in Spain. (The U.S. hadn’t officially taken a side in the war, but certainly opposed its citizens assisting the Soviets there or anywhere.)
The book tells the story of his latest mission, which is to blow up a bridge. In and of itself it wouldn’t be too difficult or dangerous a mission if he could pick the time, but his orders are to wait to blow it until the republic has started a major offensive in that area and fascist forces are rushing to use that bridge to provide reinforcements. (If it’s blown too soon, they could rebuild it, or at least use alternative routes. The idea is for them to have already committed to this route before they know the bridge is gone.)
Jordan goes back and forth between seeing this condition as making the mission a bit riskier but still quite doable, versus making it a suicide mission.
In order to carry out his mission, he needs the assistance of a band of guerillas in the mountains. The book takes place almost entirely in the two or three days he lives with them before the mission is attempted.
The leader of the band, or at least the leader before the start of the events depicted in the book, is Pablo. Pablo has been a courageous and wily guerrilla leader, but is on the downside of his career. He’s burnt out from having fought and risked his life for as long as he has, and he has guilt over the atrocities he has committed. (He seems to think the mistake he and the leftists in general made was not committing atrocities per se, but only going halfway. As he sees it, you have to go all or nothing with something like that. You either have to be just as ruthless as the fascists to beat them at their own game, or not start down that road at all.) He is a drunk and a dangerous malcontent now, an unstable person who perceives himself as having nothing to lose. You don’t know, nor do the others in the band know, quite what he will do. He is certainly capable of violence, and may well be capable of some form of betrayal.
He is pushed out of his leadership role partly by Jordan, who has a kind of implied authority since he has been sent on an important mission by the leaders of the republic. But more so he is pushed out by his “woman” Pilar. In an early showdown scene, she tells him that he is a useless drunk and that she is running things now, and the other band members all fall in line behind her. At least in the short term, the grumbling Pablo accepts his defeat.
The only other female member of the band is Maria. (There are three or four other men, plus a guide who came with Jordan and has remained to join in the mission, plus various fighters from other bands in the area who may or may not be willing and able to help.) Maria had watched her parents murdered by fascists who then shaved her head for humiliation and gang raped her, and in her shell-shocked state she was rescued and has been basically adopted by the guerilla band. Jordan and Maria fall madly in love with each other at first sight.
The story is well told just as a wartime action adventure story. But to me it’s also a very intelligent book in terms of the depth of the issues probed and the psychologically insightful development of the characters. This is much more the kind of war story you’d get from Tolstoy, Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead), etc., than just a run of the mill popular action novel.
I’ve only read one Tom Clancy book in my life, but I remember not being very impressed with it. That’s the kind of mainstream, popular war novel I have in mind. For Whom the Bell Tolls just seems like more serious literature.
There is more about Jordan than any other character, and while he is quite an interesting and complex person, I think the character I find most intriguing of all is Pilar.
Pilar is a woman of great strength. But she also has her vulnerabilities and her sadness. Some of the most effective passages of the book deal with her awareness that she is in so many ways the opposite of what men are drawn to. Sometimes she doesn’t care about that, and sometimes—being a person of passion and a strong sex drive, and even a romantic in some ways—she does.
But she knows that the things that give her such a low dating market value are things she either can’t change or won’t change. As far as the former, she’s apparently a big, mannish woman with an unappealing face (she describes herself as “ugly” repeatedly), and by now is also aging.
She can’t do a lot about that, but she’s also disadvantaged in the mating game by precisely her strengths. As a fierce, scrappy, vulgar, strong-willed, independent, natural leader type, she can earn respect and achieve much of what she wants in life, but she is the opposite of what the vast majority of men seem to want—the ideal of the feminine, demure type who always puts her man first. There’s some anger in her that being assertive and insisting on respect and, at least, equality shuts her out of a part of life she highly values.
Though it hasn’t shut her out entirely. I don’t know if it mitigates her current pain of being, in her eyes, undesirable to men, or makes it worse by letting her know what she’s missing, but in the past she has had torrid love affairs. It would seem that she is the type of dynamic woman that some tiny subset of men—of all levels of dating market value—are drawn to. I don’t mean that she has in the past suppressed her strong-willed side, nor that she was only with men who settled for her because they could do no better, but that precisely her brassy, in-your-face style and strength was charismatic for certain men.
So she knows what it’s like to love, to experience romance, to have passionate sex, without compromising who she is. But she also knows that that’s an occasional lightning strike, and that at her age it may have dropped from occasional to never.
There’s a particularly moving scene where a teenage boy is being teased in a friendly manner by the band members, with Maria jokingly saying she’s going to come over and kiss him, and he blushing and warding her off in a shy, giggly sort of way. Pilar attempts to join in the spirit of the fun by striding toward him and announcing that she too intends to give him a big kiss. He instinctively recoils in horror, rather than the “fun” kind of fending off he’d done with Maria. It may well be too subtle a difference to even register with the others, but Pilar immediately picks up on it and is hurt by it.
You can really feel what it is in that moment to be in her shoes, to know that at some level you are that repulsive as a woman, as a sexual being.
Maria, on the other hand, is almost the exact opposite of Pilar. She lacks confidence, is totally unassertive, and has the youth and looks (other than the shaved head) to easily attract men.
Pilar maybe has some resentment or jealousy about that, but mostly she adopts a maternal attitude toward Maria, and welcomes and facilitates her affair with Jordan, as long as she is convinced Jordan is sincere in his interest in Maria and not exploiting or mistreating her. Maria in turn is adoring toward Pilar.
You can make the case that Maria is such a caricature of the meek, submissive female as to be both unrealistic and for that matter so weak as to be unappealing. Then again that might be a matter of imposing a 21st century viewpoint of gender relations and such on a 1930s character.
What is depicted here is a time and place and culture where a common or expected or accepted way for a woman to express her love for a man was to be clingy and worshipful and serve him in all ways. It’s certainly not Pilar’s style with men, but then Pilar is apparently neither very typical nor very successful.
You can take it as hokey or offensive certainly, but you can also lose yourself in it with the attitude that to give oneself totally over to love will manifest itself differently in different cultures and that regardless there is something noble and romantic about it.
I suppose it would be nice to have a pretty girl slave like that. But I tend to think if I were in that situation I’d use it as an opportunity to facilitate her growth into more of an independent, strong person. We could still be in love with each other and all, but I’d prefer the relationship to develop to where that love could be manifested in something other than an extremely unequal, prefeminist way.
I won’t go into detail on any of the other characters, but there are several more that we get to know moderately well, and generally these too are skillfully and thought-provokingly drawn.
At times the characters think and talk about deep matters of life and death, religion, loyalty, virtue, fighting in a good cause, etc., but they don’t do it so often or so awkwardly that it reads like the author just looking for an opportunity to espouse some of his own philosophy. It is instead consistently interesting, and largely realistic.
One of the most noticeable things about the book is Hemingway’s unconventional manner of translating dialogue. The characters are generally speaking in Spanish, which he renders into English—sort of. He tends to translate overly literally, like to provide a constant reminder about the differences between the languages.
For instance, Pilar is typically “the Pilar” because in Spanish it’s routine to put “the” in front of a person’s name, e.g., “la Pilar.” Now, the “correct” translation of “la Pilar” into English is simply “Pilar.” That’s the functional equivalent; that’s how English handles names. When you render it as “the Pilar,” you’re only half translating it.
He’s also not consistent about it. So Pilar might be “the mujer of Pablo” in one passage, “the woman of Pablo” in another, and “the wife of Pablo” in a third.
You couldn’t openly curse in a book of that time period, so Hemingway again plays language games to get across that they are cursing. So the characters say unlikely things like “I obscenity in the milk of thy mother!” and “Care well for thy unprintable explosive” and “Go and obscenity thyself!”
He uses “thees” and “thous” to reflect the Spanish use of “tu,” which is the informal “you” (as opposed to the formal “usted” version of “you”). I’ve seen that in other translations from Spanish also, but that’s always struck me as peculiar, because to me “thee” and “thou” and “thy” and all that Biblical talk sounds more formal. So I’d think those would be used for “usted,” not for “tu.”
The Spanish characters see little relevant difference between Englishmen and Americans, so they routinely refer to Jordan as an “Ingles.” Or they just use “Ingles” as his name, rarely saying “Robert” or “Roberto.”
I actually find the quirky language kind of interesting and funny. I get a kick out of the convoluted swearing, and Pilar referring in a mock dismissive way to Maria’s boyfriend as “your Ingles.”
I’m sure there are plenty of war novels that depict war much more thoroughly and accurately—describing each type of weapon down to the last detail and such—but for the human side of war, For Whom the Bell Tolls is deservedly regarded as a classic.