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You Are Here: Home > Essay Topics > Literature Essays and Research Papers > Ernest Hemingway  > Essay on For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

  Ernest Hemingway

Essay on For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway's Spanish civil war novel, takes place in the mountains of Spain over the course of three days. Hemingway's protagonist, Robert Jordan, a young American college professor fighting on the side of the republic, finds himself enmeshed in both war strategy (blowing the bridge at the right time and under the right conditions) as well the inner workings of a group of guerrilla fighters. As Rena Sanderson points out, the importance of Jordan's mission magnifies his individual role in the war, making apt the epigraph (and title) of the novel (Sanderson, 1) in which John Donne reminds, "No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine . . . any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."

Nor could Hemingway be an island. His connection with Spain and Spanish politics was personal--he served as a correspondent there intermittently from 1937 to 1939. For Whom the Bell Tolls, his self-proclaimed "best goddamn book" (quoted in Sanderson, 4), demonstrates his investment in the outcome of the Spanish civil war. Hemingway commented, "For a long time both me and my conscience have known I had to go to Spain" (quoted in Donaldson, 235). Hemingway followed his conscience and went to Spain, taking his pen with him; his time in Spain proved prolific, he returned from overseas with numerous syndicated news dispatches, magazine pieces, a film narration, and a play, in addition to For Whom the Bell Tolls (Donaldson, 235). Like his author, Jordan's connection to the war also becomes personal, surpassing the liberal, antifascist ideology that initially brought him to Spain. Jordan falls in love with Maria, a young Spanish woman who experienced the cruelties of the war firsthand and was adopted by the Spanish fighters Jordan enlists to help him blow the bridge. Her cropped hair serves as a constant reminder of her personal stake in the war--the humiliation and rape she suffered at the hands of the Fascists who killed her mother and her father, the Republican leader of a small town. Maria looks to the Ingles, the name the fighters call the outsider who joins their band, to erase her past and help her begin a new life. Jordan's love for Maria complicates his sense of obligation to the Spanish republic. While manning the machine gun and awaiting a Fascist attack, Jordan begins to doubt the depth of his commitment to his mission: "You're not a real Marxist and you know it. You believe in Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. You believe in Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Don't ever kid yourself with too much dialectics. They are for some but not for you" (305).

Jordan's sense of obligation extends beyond Maria to include the fighters' leader, Pablo; his wife, Pilar; and the men in their charge. Early in the novel, Jordan debates the level of responsibility he should feel for leading these fighters to probable death. Once more, Jordan debates the issues in his mind, trying to convince himself he lacks culpability: "You have no responsibility for them except in action. The orders do not come from you. They come from Golz. And who is Golz? A good general . . . But should a man carry out impossible orders knowing what they lead to?" (162). The difficulty of reconciling the personal and ideological runs through Hemingway's novel, dominating Jordan's many internal dialogues as well as the conflicts surrounding the other characters, especially Pablo. Pablo suffers as Jordan does, torn between abandoning the men who try to accomplish the virtually impossible and fighting for the republic in which he so believes.

In his essay "Hemingway's Spanish Sensibility" in The Cambridge Companion to Hemingway, Allen Josephs remarks that "Robert Jordan is Hemingway's most complex character and only genuine hero, a man who sacrifices himself for a cause and for the love of a woman" (239). In the mountains, Jordan meets another hero in the wife of Pablo, Pilar. Writing about Hemingway's complex relationship to gender, Rena Sanderson discusses Pilar in "Hemingway and Gender History": "Jordan respects Pilar for her solidity and endurance--he compares her to a mountain . . .--but he also fears her as a rival. Her experience makes her a superb teacher, mentor, and leader to the guerrilla band. She epitomizes the mannish woman whose superiority threatens the man's performance" (Donaldson, 187). Sanderson's observation connects Jordan with the protagonists from Hemingway's other fiction, men who are often preoccupied with potency and masculinity. But Jordan accepts that it is Pilar who leads the guerrillas and he gains respect for her as she recounts to him the beginning of the movement in a gruesome tale detailing the slaughter of the town's Fascists. Pilar's tale not only serves to explain her and Pablo's experiences at the start of the war, but also gives the reader the only real taste of the brutality of the war. The tale serves to further complicate Jordan's involvement in the war, as both the Republicans and the Fascists prove themselves capable of unspeakable brutality.

Ultimately, Jordan remains committed to the cause and to the people who fight with him, and they blow the bridge successfully. Although many are killed in the process, the group remains driven by their liberal ideology, reaffirming the fighter Anselmo's observation that "We must teach them [the Fascists]. We must take away their planes, their automatic weapons, their tanks, their artillery and teach them dignity" (328). Jordan proves what he confessed to Maria before the blowing of the bridge: "I love thee as I love all that we have fought for. I love thee as I love liberty and dignity and the rights of all men to work and not be hungry. I love thee as I love Madrid that we have defended and as I love all my comrades that have died. And many have died" (348). In sacrificing himself--for Maria, for Pablo, Pilar, and the other survivors of the raid on the bridge, for the cause--Jordan negotiates his commitment to the personal with his liberal ideology.



Donaldson, Scott, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Hemingway. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Hemingway, Ernest. For Whom the Bell Tolls. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995.

Sanderson, Rena, ed. Blowing the Bridge: Essays on Hemingway and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Strychacz, Thomas. Hemingway's Theaters of Masculinity. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003.

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