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For Whom the Bell Tolls Novel Summary Analysis

by Suleman

For Whom the Bell Tolls is called a fantastic novel about the American War in Spain. The book, though, focuses on a tiny squad of guerrilla warriors whose goal is to blow up a bridge. There is no sense of the larger picture, or of war-related policy. The book does not warn the reader of the war itself, but also tells the reader of the effects of the war on a community of individuals. Therefore, it is a microcosm that brings intimacy to the days, while not necessarily offering the reader an appreciation of the situation’s politics. As seen below, the real-life dispatches from this war by Hemingway have most of the same speech and sound. Descriptions of people are fleshed out in one, whilst some include a combat arms-length definition. Information regarding the core problems concerning the conflict, including why the powers are battling, is not in either of the dispatches. The dispatches have something in common with the novel in this sense, and, one may say, all are representative of each other.

All of this is quite shocking, given that Hemingway started as an ardent supporter of the Republican side. In Fire, he did propaganda work for Spain, deemed a pro-Republican film, and collaborated with a Dutch communist producer, Joris Ivens, on a film called The Spanish Earth (Josephs, 1994, p. 30). He wrote a letter to critic Edmund Wilson, stating that “There is no use in arguing the history of the Spanish Republic now. But it was something I believed in deeply long before it was an American Communist cause…I had believed in the Republic and known the people who worked for it since the early twenties” (Josephs, 1994, p. 30).

For Whom the Bell Tolls Novel Summary Analysis

However, in reading Hemingway’s dispatches, one gets a sense that this is the writing that was typified in his novel. The novel is more of a character study than a war novel, per se. The characters in For Whom the Bell Tolls, while being a part of the action that is surrounding the characters, nonetheless does not interact in such a way that one gets a sense of the war and what it is all about. The brutality of some of the people in the war is recounted, such as with the story that Pilar recounted about the villagers who savagely beat a group of fascists to death and threw them off the cliff (Hemingway, 1940, pp. 97-130).  There is always talk about the main character, Roberto, blowing up a bridge and there is some talk of Roberto’s forays into Gaylord’s, which seems to be political bar in Madrid where one meets “famous peasant and worker Spanish commanders who had sprung to arms from the people at the start of the war,” (Hemingway, 1940, p. 229) but these are anecdotes and not foundational scenes for the war that is going on. Therefore, one does not get a true sense or picture of the war from the novel, as the novel is so character driven, as opposed to action driven, for much of it.

          The main characters are Robert Jordan, who goes by Roberto, Maria, the young girl with whom Robert falls in love and Pilar, a gypsy lady who is encountered in Pablo’s cave, where Jordan goes to make arrangements to blow up the bridge. All of the concerned are either guerrillas, or in the case of Maria, a hanger on, as she was saved in the woods by Pilar.  So, the novel is not told by the perspective of a soldier or somebody who is involved in the politics of the war, which might account for its arms-length treatment of the war itself. 

          At the heart of the novel is the love story between Robert and Maria, a love at first sight tale that obviously moves quickly, due to the time span that this novel takes place, which is a matter of days. And, there is a sense Robert knows that the love affair would be compressed in this manner, for his interior monologue is obsessed with the fact that the love affair would not last long  – “so if your life trades its seventy years for seventy hours I have that value now and I am lucky enough to know it. And if there is not any such thing as a long time, nor the rest of your lives, nor from now on, and there is only now, why then now is the thing to praise and I am very happy with it” (Hemingway, 1940, p. 166). In other words, Robert knows that the present is all that they are going to get to have, and that there would be no long lifetime for the two of them, so the present is what he will enjoy. This central relationship is the important one to the novel, which further underscores that this novel is not necessarily a war novel, but a romance novel that is set with the war in the backdrop.

          As indicated above, there was a gruesome tale that was recounted by Pilar that somewhat underscored the war, but even that tale did not deal with the actual politics of the situation. In this tale, the fascists in Pablo’s village were rounded up by Pablo and put into the city hall, then two lines of Republican men waited for them outside.  Then, one by one, the men came out. At first, the Republican men were timid and nobody did anything, but, after a little while, this changed and the bloodbath begins. The first man comes out, and the lines of men eventually set upon him and beat him to death. And so it went, until the crowd becomes more and more unruly and drunk. Then, the gauntlet ends the crowd, now a mob, storms into the place where the rest of the men are still praying and clubbed all the men to death (Hemingway, 1940, pp. 97-125). 

          It is this kind of anecdote that sets the tone for the novel, not the actual reporting on the war itself. There is very little, if any, talk about the ideologies of the two sides. There is very little, if any, talk about the leaders who are in power during this time. The reader does not get a very good sense about the war from reading this novel.  When did the war begin, and what precipitated it? What did each side believe?  What was the cause of the violence in Pablo’s village, other than the fact that the men involved were fascists?  What is a fascist?  What is a republican? There is some sense that republicans are associated with communists, as Robert frets that he would had a rough time getting a career back in the United States, due to being labeled a communist in his home country, but there is not a real explanation of the connection between communism and the republicans. There is no explanation of the fascists of the day, in particular Mussolini, who would go on to be one of the central figures of World War II, nor the fact that this Spanish Civil War led up to World War II. In short, this novel could barely even be called a historical novel so much as a character study of how individuals react to the events that surround them. 

          Hemingway’s dispatches have a similar feel to them.  Some of them are not necessarily a report on the war, but a report on individuals. For instance, one of the dispatches, titled “Spanish Fatalism Typified by Driver” concerns a series of limousine chauffeurs that Hemingway had during his time in Spain (Hemingway, 1937, p. 1). The first one was Tomas, a chauffeur who had a hard time starting the car when there was bombing taking place and Hemingway asked to have replaced because he wanted somebody “braver.”  Then came David, a chauffeur who could not really drive, as he was a driver who could “sneak along in second speed and hit practically no one in the streets…he could also drive with the car wide open, hanging to the wheel, in a sort of fatalism that was, however, never tinged with despair” (Hemingway, 1937, p. 2). Hemingway then goes on to say that they solved the problem of David’s inability to drive by doing to the driving himself. Then Hipolito, a believer in the republic, who actually embodied the war spirit, for Hipolito made Hemingway realize “why Franco never took Madrid when he had the chance. Hipolito and the others like him would have fought from street to street and house to house as long as any of them was left alive, and the last one left would have burned the town. They are tough and efficient” (Hemingway, 1937, p. 3).

          This particular dispatch captures the spirit of For Whom the Bell Tolls, to it the tale of the war is revealed by the perspective of the people who are experiencing it without putting the larger context into view. As with the novel, there is a sense that a war is going on around these men, due to the descriptions tanks that were bombed and Hipolito’s republican leanings, and there is a description of an incident Hemingway and Hipolito were caught in a firestorm of three hundred shells that are raining in Madrid. Yet there is not a sense of the larger picture. As with the novel, the dispatch is a microcosm of what is happening in Spain at the time, which gives the reader a certain intimacy with the people who are affected by the war without really telling the reader what the war is all about.

          Which is not to say that For Whom the Bell Tolls does not get into the meat of what is going on, which is the fighting. The fighting is guerrilla fighting, because, as indicated above, the protagonist and other characters are guerrilla, not state-sanctioned soldiers. There is much description of this fighting, especially towards the end of the novel, as the fascist forces invade the territory where Robert and his fellow guerrillas are holed up. The ensuing battle is described, by Maria, as a “far off storm with a dried, rolling rattle in it and irregular beat of the bombs was simply a horrible thing that almost kept her from breathing” (Hemingway, 1940, p. 449). 

          Another dispatch by Hemingway, titled “Heavy Shell-Fire in Madrid Advance” (Hemingway, 1937, p. 1) was similarly descriptive of the fighting that occurred in the war, only this description concerned the governmental attack on rebel forces. This particular piece was heavily descriptive of fighting, with one night being described as such – “all night the heaviest insurgent artillery, mortar and machine-gung fire seemed close enough to be outside the window” (Hemingway, 1937, p. 1). Tight descriptions of other incidents round out this dispatch, such as a description of government infantry advancing down a hillside, and a “drone of planes coming over…three government bombers shining in the sun. As they unladed on Insurgent positions sections of the clearly seen mud trench line disappeared in great towering black flowerings of death” (Hemingway, 1937, p. 3). Also included is a description of a “snub-nosed government biplane [that] was wheeling low over the center of the city and the Junkers was seen no more” (Hemingway, 1937, p. 3).

          Similary, “Lerida is Divided by Warring Forces” was descriptive of how Franciso Franco’s troops were able to conquer Lerida. The piece describes the Moors who “can lash the roads with machine-gun fire” and talks about the troops that were holding eastern Lerida, describing them as “veterans of the siege of Madrid and already hav[ing] constructed ditches and communication trenches, taking advantage of every fold of the ground that would mean the difference between being sniped through the head and being able to go about their business calmly and quietly” (Hemingway, 1938, p. 1). 

          However, as with the previous dispatch about the chauffeurs, there is still no sense of the big picture in these dispatches. There are stories, very descriptive, of fighting, but there is not any sense of the politics behind the war or the ideology. The reader cannot gain a sense of what the war is about from this dispatch anymore than they can from the descriptions of the chauffeurs.  It is thus with the novel, as it is driven by the characters and somewhat by the action, but the politics and ideology are missing. 


          For Whom the Bell Tolls is a critically acclaimed novel that is ostensibly about the Spanish Civil War. The reader does not, however, get a feel of the about the war by reading this novel.  There are stories of brutality, stories of action, stories of treachery, stories about bull-fighting, a love story, and some action towards the end. But missing from the novel is the motivation of the characters, because missing is the motivations behind the war itself.  Perhaps this is not surprising, for Hemingway wrote the novel after he had been involved with the war effort and saw his enthusiasm for the Republican side wane in the face of defeat. Perhaps he did not want to revisit the politics of the situation because he was drained. At any rate, the novel works on the level that it is on, which is to provide the reader with a personal portrait of the lives of a group of people who are affected by the conflict. It does not work as a historical novel, however, because of the lack of the big picture presented. 

          Hemingway’s dispatches from the front lines of the war were much the same. They concentrated on the lives of individuals, such as the piece about the chauffeurs. They also concentrated on descriptions of fire fights and battles. What they did not concern themselves with were the politics of the situation, and why the two sides were fighting. This is true of all the archived dispatches published by the New York Times. 

          Perhaps, in the end, For Whom The Bell Tolls is Hemingway doing what he does best, which is create characters that move the readers. The object of the novel is obviously not to inform about the bases for the war, nor to necessarily get the reader on one side or the other. The republicans are seen as sympathetic, as they are exemplified by the main characters, yet the most brutal scene of the novel, that of the murder of the fascists by the gauntlet of men, are perpetrated by the republicans.  Therefore, all sides are portrayed as deeply flawed, and, hence, the novel fails as a propaganda piece for the republican side. The object of the novel is to show, in an intimate way, the affect that the war had on individual lives. Some of Hemingway’s dispatches, notably the one about the chauffeur, is much the same. And, the parts of the novel that go into detail about the fighting correspond with some of Hemingway’s other dispatches. In this way, the dispatches serve the same purpose as the novel – to inform about pieces and pieces of what’s going on while avoiding the big picture or taking sides in the politics of the situation.

  • Hemingway, Ernest. For Whom the Bell Tolls. New York, NY: Simon &  Schuster, 1940.
  • Josephs, Allen.  For Whom the Bell Tolls: Ernest Hemingway’s  Undiscovered Country.  New York, NY: Twayne Publishers.
  • Hemingway, Ernest.  “Lerida is Divided by Warring Forces.” The New York  Times 20 April 1938: http://www.nytimes.com/books/ 99/07/04/specials/hemingway-lerida.html
  • Hemingway, Ernest.  “Heavy Shell-Fire in Madrid Advance.”  The New York Times 10 April 1937: http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/07/04/specials/hemingway-advance.html
  • Hemingway, Ernest.  “Spanish Fatalism Typified by Driver.”  The New York Times 23 May 1937: http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/07/04/specials/hemingway-fatalism.html

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