Hemingway’s depiction of the Spanish Civil War in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is, as he himself put it, “the most important thing” he has ever done in his life. Drawing inspiration from his personal experience as a newspaper journalist reporting the revolution from Spain, he merges chilling realism and fiction into a compassionate and touching story about love, courage, and tragedy.
There has always been certain controversy surrounding the novel because of how blurry the line between imagination and factuality can be at times. This, however, by no means strips it from the honor of being one of the most important and influential novels about the Spanish Civil War and one of Hemingway’s most successful and best-selling books of all time.
The story begins in the Spanish mountains with the mission of Robert Jordan – a young American teacher and a volunteer for the Republican resistance forces. He has been given three days’ time to establish contact with a local rebel group in order to blow up a strategic bridge and cut off fascist reinforcements. A bold and dangerous mission that unfortunately sets off on the wrong footing.
The contact person is Pablo – the leader of a guerrilla party controlling the mountain area. There is immediate tension between the two and Pablo is quick to turn Robert down with the excuse of the mission being too risky. This is when Pablo’s wife – Pilar, steps in by convincing the rest of the group to join the resistance efforts. Among the volunteers is Maria – a fascists rape victim, who is instantly drawn to Robert, marking the beginning of a passionate but ill-fated love.
Without the help of Pablo, the party sets off to seek support from El Sordo and his men. He is more than willing to hurt the fascist forces and even volunteers to infiltrate one of their camps in order to steal horses for the retreat of the group. And just when all pieces seem to be falling into place, things turn horribly wrong.
Apparently, the fascists have managed to track El Sordo down after stealing the horses and execute him on the spot along with his entire unit. Meanwhile, Pablo, who is bitterly disappointed for being let down by his men, has been following the party, seeking to steal the detonators from Robert to sabotage the mission. As if that wasn’t enough, the fascists seem prepared for the impending attack and Robert isn’t even sure if his warning would reach the resistance on time.
The attack goes on as planned, but fortunately, Pablo undergoes a change of heart at the very last moment and returns with the detonators and some reinforcements.
Bombs start falling and bullets start flying. The resistance is suffering heavy losses but Robert and his party manage to take the bridge down. With not enough horses for the retreat of everybody, however, Pablo is forced to gun down his own men, giving Robert and the rest a fighting chance. Just when the surviving guerillas are about to escape the nightmarish bloodbath, Robert’s horse is toppled by a tank shell. Suffering a broken leg in the middle of the battlefield, he demands his comrades to leave him behind and save themselves.
With his heart filled by his burning love for Maria and the just cause of fighting the oppression, he finds strength and courage to stand tall in the face of his impending doom.
1. Hemingway had a special personal connection to the town of Ronda and it is believed to be the location of the execution in Chapter 10. Despite the event being fictional, it refers to actual war crimes that took place in the city during that period.
2. Two popular songs carry the name of the book, both being focused on entirely different aspects of the novel. Metallica’s song pays tribute to the heroism and brothership, whereas Be Gees’ is a take on the topic of tragic love.
3. The title “For Whom The Bell Tolls” is based on a 1623 poem by John Donne who wrote: “Send not to know – For whom the bell tolls – It tolls for thee”
4. The 1943 movie adaptation became the highest-grossing movie of the year winning 9 academy awards.
5. As a field reporter for the North American Newspaper Association (NANA), Hemingway sent 28 news reports on the Spanish Civil War that got published between March 13, 1937, and May 11, 1938.
“There’s no one thing that’s true. It’s all true.”
“I loved you when I saw you today and I loved you always but I never saw you before.”
“The world is a fine place and worth fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.”
“This was a big storm and he might as well enjoy it. It was ruining everything, but you might as well enjoy it”
“For what are we born if not to aid one another?”