Sunday, June 19, 2011

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls after spending time in Spain as a news correspondent in the Spanish Civil War. The main character, Robert Jordan, is a professor from Montana who volunteers in order to live out his political beliefs. It took me many chapters to get straight in my head who was fighting whom, in part because the Republicans form the political left and are supported by the USSR, which is opposite of what I, a 21st century North American, expect from Republicans. But the other reason-and this is critical-that it was difficult to differentiate between the two sides, is that Hemingway doesn't portray them as good vs. evil dualistic opposites. Neither side is right; neither side is wrong. At first they fight because they disagree politically, and eventually they continue to fight because they're already fighting. Whether taunting their enemies or facing their own deaths, characters from opposite sides act in similar ways. The Nationalists have better technology and more highly trained soldiers, but neither that nor the reader's knowledge that they eventually win the war makes them correct.  We all know the saying that history is written by the winners, but Hemingway writes as a third person omniscient narrator who conveys his story before history has chosen a winner. Even though Robert Jordan fights for the guerilla resistance, the reader never gets the sense that they are more ethical or correct, or that the Nationalists are in any way morally inferior. Even the most villainous character, Pablo, is morally ambiguous and performs a few noble actions which shine in contrast with his frequent betrayal and violence. This leaves the reader with the message that, in war, neither side is right.
     The entire novel takes place over the course of a few days, but by the end, Robert Jordan has encountered the transformative power of love and has discovered something to live for. I especially enjoyed Hemingway's decision to begin and end the novel with Robert Jordan lying on the pine needle floor of the forest. Despite his having come full circle positionally, at the novel's close Jordan feels his heart beating against the forest floor, while the novel's opening contains no such observation.  During these few short days, Robert Jordan has begun to truly live.

Wise old crone: Pilar
Judas: Pablo
Grudge match: Nationalists vs. Republicans
aka: Fascists vs. Communists
Object of Jordan's affection: Maria
Sense of place arises from: the forest, the soil, the earth
Best scene: El Sordo's last stand
Hemingway's odd pseudo-swearing: "I obscenity in your obscenity." 
There was a lot of: hiding, planning, waiting, discussing,
There should have been more: discussion of characters' thoughts and beliefs
Jordan's thoughts on the transience of life: What we do not have is time. Tomorrow we must fight. To me that is nothing. Bu for the Maria and me it means that we must live all of our life in this time."
This book makes you want to: appreciate each day you have, be aware of the futility of war, have a life that you want to keep living
This book makes you glad you don't have to: engage in guerilla warfare, cook rabbit stew all the time, endure military bureaucracy, trust someone who isn't trustworthy

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