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For Whom the Bell Tolls

If this novel had just hit the bookstores, I’d pass it by in a minute. The subject matter is not a natural for me. That being said, I read Norman Mailer’s Naked and the Dead and thought it the definitive exposition on why war is hell and no one should willingly go.

Ernest Hemingway’s, For Whom the Bell Tolls, is quite different, but for me, carries the same message. While Robert may have found a reason for dying in Spain, I still fail to see how war ever accomplishes anything but death and destruction.

Let’s face it, in any political movement there is only a core of true believers, those who are willing to risk all because of a principle they believe is worth dying for. The rest are varying levels of hangers-on, who have just as many reasons as there are layers of them, for being engaged in the cause.

Robert discovers this as he plays the blowing up of a bridge. His guerrilla team run the gamut from true believers to those whose motives are almost unknowable. Robert moves from indifference about them, to hate, and ultimately to a real love for them all.

Hemingway  give something about how Robert came to be Robert in the recollections Jordan has about his grandfather who fought in the Civil War, and his father who committed suicide. We are clear from this peek inside the family history, that Robert is deeply affected by the courage and seeming cowardice of his male ancestors.

That of course forces us to look at our own lives and how we have been changed, molded, pushed and held back by the actual history of our families, and our perceptions of that. Much of that, as Hemingway I think infers, we are unconscious about.

The love story between Robert and Maria tells us much about what real love is. More, it tells us how much love can be condensed into hours and days, rather than months and years. Hemingway’s brilliant writing about the physicality of their encounters, simply translates the act of love in a way that is utterly true, real and vivid to anyone who has actually encountered pure love and pure physical expression of that love.

Pilar tells a story of how Pedro and his band handled the killing of the fascists in his home town. The men are lined up to the edge of a cliff and supplied with switches to strike those who are condemned to die. At first, no man can bring himself to do so. But in the end, the blood lust is aroused, and they storm the building where the prisoners are kept and engage in a slaughter than is inhuman.

Nothing is so stark as the realization that seemingly human civilized people can be brought to such a state in an hour or so. That is shocking to realize, and we wonder just how much inducement would be required to turn on our violent switch. We learn that there are those for whom killing is something of a hunt and those who require some absolution (in the form of an “order”) to aim and shoot at a person.

 And we learn that there is not so much difference between the two as we might suppose. With that, we are forced to re-examine the fine distinctions we all draw between evil and good. Hemingway shows us perfectly that the line is blurred at best, and that most is grey.

War is hell, it will always be such. But we also discover that it is in the times of most distress in our lives, that we are poised to learn the most–the most of who and what we are.


You can read an online version of the book here. It is most awful to read it in straight long type, but it is the only online copy I could find.


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