Book Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

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For Whom the Bell Tolls tells the tale of a band of communist guerrillas, led temporarily by American Robert Jordan, who have been tasked with blowing up a bridge during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. The writing style took some getting used to, but I ended up really liking it.

I read For Whom the Bell Tolls as part of the 12 Months of Reading Goodness challenge. July’s challenge was to read a book by Hemingway (this post is a day late – gosh, where did July go?). While he was alive, Hemingway published only seven novels, a fact which surprised me and also made the selection of this month’s read pretty easy since I had already read two of the seven. I recalled that an American character in Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility also went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War and it intrigued me. What motivates someone to fight in someone else’s civil war? By choosing For Whom the Bell Tolls, I was hoping to gain further insight. (Note: Hemingway also published six short story collections and two nonfiction books while he was alive, and several more were published posthumously.)

I feel foolish critiquing classics so instead I’ll just give you some of my primary reactions to the novel.

First, I really had a tough time of it for the first several chapters. The book is heavy on dialogue. In fact, I’d estimate that about half the story is told through dialogue. Hemingway has his characters speaking in a way that simulates a direct translation of the dialect of Spanish they speak. Spanish has both a formal and informal version of the pronoun “you.” Being good communists, the band of guerrillas used the informal version of you, signifying that they were all equals. Unfortunately, thee/thou/thy is the English equivalent (thank goodness we dropped that somewhere along the way), which means the dialogue was full of gems like this, “Then after thou hast studied thy bridge we will talk tonight with El Sordo.” Eventually, I got used to it and started to enjoy the story rather than be distracted by a dialogue technique. Understandest thou?

Second, I’m still not sure why someone would, on their own, go fight in someone else’s civil war. It’s not something the US government was involved in. This was just an individual US citizen who decided to take a leave of absence from his college teaching job to go fight in the Spanish Civil War. And he wasn’t alone. By one estimate, 2800 Americans volunteered and fought on the communist side. It’s an oversimplification, but the Spanish Civil War was essentially communists versus fascists, so I imagine ideology was a big factor in noncitizens deciding to fight. Germany and Italy had recently fallen under fascist control and people wanted to help Spain avoid the same fate. In Robert Jordan’s case, he just really loved Spain and he thought it would do best in communist hands.

The Hemingway House in Key West, Florida.

Hemingway had a cunning sense of humor. He really captured some of the inane arguments that crop up among people that have been in close quarters too long. Funny, funny stuff. I wish I could hear some of the dialogue professionally performed because, like when I see Shakespeare performed versus just reading him, I imagine that would further and greatly magnify the humor. Additionally, funny Mr. Hemingway self-censored the swear words because he knew he wouldn’t be able to get them through the real censors. Here’s one example of the results, “What are you doing now, you lazy drunken obscene unsayable son of an unnameable unmarried gipsy obscenity.” Hoo boy. I genuinely thought I had gotten a hold of a censored version until I did a little research.

A couple of additional thoughts:

War can bring out the best and worst in people. Mobs just bring out the worst in people.

Insta-love doesn’t work for me as a plot device, no matter how skilled the writer.

I started out not liking For Whom the Bell Tolls and ended up enjoying it. I cared about the characters, I was pulled in by the suspense, and I was riveted by the action. The novel also made some insightful comments about the nature of conflict, relationships, power and the human conscience. Glad I read it!

Did you read a book by Hemingway in July? Tell us about it. And if you’ve read For Whom the Bell Tolls, I’d love to hear thy thoughts.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

  1. I’ve read this book, and yes, I struggled with all the thees and thous. I also don’t think I was very clear in my head about Jordan’s motivations. Overall, not my favorite Hemingway.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Like you, I had difficulty getting through For Whom the Bells Tolls when I first read it, probably because it is so slow in the beginning. But there is something fascinating about the complex themes discussed in the story. Your review makes me want to reread it about!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Maybe I should have chosen the For Whom the Bell Tolls; I could have used the humor. I read The Old Man and the Sea. Being a woman in the desert who doesn’t eat fish, it was certainly not my similar to my life. I do have friends who sail, though, and I can’t help but think they’d have cut line and turned around for mimosas long before things got worse! Quite an adventure and a good ending that left me imagining he’d go out to sea again with better luck (plus help and the respect of other fishermen).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, the humor was only sprinkled in here and there. There were many parts that were quite grim and sad.

      I read The Old Man and the Sea in either high school or college. I recall having a visceral reaction to it – frustration? Pity? Sadness? I can’t remember which emotion it was. I only remember my reaction was uncomfortable enough to make me not want to re-read it. But maybe now that I’m “all grown up” I would handle it better.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I was excited to read For Whom the Bell Tolls for many reasons: my family and I lived in Spain for three years and loved living there; I have read other books about the Spanish civil war so the topic is of interest; oh, and Old Man and the Sea is quite possibly my favorite novel (apparently I’m the only one on this thread who loved it!)

    BLUF: I thought it was an interesting book that did lots of things well. On the downside, I too just couldn’t get past the premise of instant love and that tainted the novel for me.

    I will be the first to admit that I didn’t get the Thee, Thy, and Thous until half way through the book. Then, there was a sentence in Spanish followed by the English with the Thee. Ah ha! Hemingway was not writing as a Puritan but in the “tu” in Spanish! He was emphatic that the characters all spoke in “tu” instead of “usted,” Having learned Spanish in Central and South America where usted is used much more frequently and is more formal, it was noticeable to our family living in Spain that everyone uses the “tu” with everyone – elders and dignitaries alike. What I am most curious about now is whether current day Spain’s use of the “tu” is a result of the Spanish civil war or simply the way everyone spoke, including the Fascists? But, he captured the essence of Spain with this grammar.

    He also adequately captured the essence of the Spanish people. Living there, I was astounded at the self-centered, arrogant, and braggadocios attitude of many Spaniards. (Example: Attending a celebration for Columbus Day where a Spanish dignitary claimed that Spain was responsible for the ascent and success of the US because of Columbus. Yep, that really happened…). This brought a chuckle to me on a few occasions in this book and also again demonstrated Hemingway’s authentic experience in Spain. He just wasn’t writing about some far off place that he had researched. And lest you think I don’t like the Spanish, we have been back and plan to go back again!

    Another thing that was noticeable about how Hemingway wrote was that he must have had a great command of the Spanish language and wanted a direct translation to English as opposed to how most people would translate the Spanish to English. Examples: there were many times where he wrote “the Maria” or “the Pilar”. I don’t know about you but I would never say that. But in Spanish, La Maria or La Pilar could be said. Also, el viejo which may sound derogatory would be quite common to describe and older person. Again, this was fascinating to me that Hemingway would choose to write this way for an English audience. It almost seems to me that the book was written to be published in Spanish instead of English.

    It was refreshing how Hemingway wrote about the war. There were good and bad people on both sides and no one side was “right” and the other “wrong.” In our society today where everything is politicized, I found his presentation of the war a nice change. Gracias Ernesto!

    On the downside, I just couldn’t get behind the 3 day lifelong love story. It was 3 days for heaven’s sake! On the contrary, I found the relationship to be quite shallow and self serving. Robert wants to take her to Madrid but make her wait in the room. Then he decides that she wouldn’t have to wait there but he will change her clothes, change her hair, heck change her altogether. Uh, that don’t sound like love to me… Good luck with that relationship.

    I’m glad I tackled this one but I’ll keep The Old Man and the Sea at the top of my Hemingway list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, the George weighs in!

      Thank you for that insightful commentary! Only someone fluent in Spanish could have provided that. You gave me some additional things to think about. Random question – do you speak Spanish with a South/Central American accent or just a straight up American accent? I was wondering if any Spaniards commented on that.

      Yeah, that was a very shallow love story and you picked up on the things I noticed, too. Sheesh. I couldn’t figure out if Hemingway was trying to make the statement that war greatly accelerates and amplifies emotions like love? Regardless, I just wasn’t buying what he was selling.


      • Ahh….my accent in Spanish. It would have to be whatever is considered redneck. Actually, I think we kind of adopt whatever accent we are around. In Uruguay, we definitely took on some of the distinct words and pronunciations. But after being in Spain for 3 years, we adopted more of the Castilian pronunciations, even though I butchered those pronunciations equally as well. Since our kids learned Spanish in Spain, the clearly have an accent that is identified as being from Spain. Me? Simply from the barrio.

        Liked by 1 person

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