For Whom the Bell Tolls is Ernest Hemingway's story of an American volunteer helping the Spanish peasant militias fight the fascist "rebels" in the Spanish Civil War. It is a compelling and educational tale that is at once a picture of a particular time coupled with keen insight into one lucid moment of class warfare. I loved this book and highly recommend it as a literary classic and as an insight into an important time in human history.
The endnotes in the edition of For Whom the Bell Tolls that I read say that Ernest Hemingway "reported on the Spanish Civil War." He must have reported well on it because his novel has the gritty feel of action spiced with the politics and personalities of the partisan and fascist fighters. Indeed, the term, "Spanish Civil War" is never used in the book and while it isn't necessary to realize that this is the war being fought to appreciate Hemingway's story, it helps to have some historical knowledge of it.
The story is mostly told from the viewpoint of its primary protagonist, Robert Jordan. Jordan is an American teacher of Spanish who has joined the fight against fascism in Spain, circa 1937. He has become an expert in using explosives and is on a mission to support an attack of Russian units against the fascists (or "Nationals") by blowing up a bridge. He enlists the aid of a guerrilla band of Spaniards in the mountains. This band is lead by Pablo, who has apparently lost his courage from the early days of the war when he was ruthless against the fascists. Pablo's woman, Pelar, is with them. She is wise and an effective storyteller who gives Jordan a vivid picture of the early days of the war when Pablo was at his best. Then there's Maria, a fugitive from the fascists who was rescued by Pablo's group. Love quickly blossoms between Jordan and Maria.
The telling of Jordan's story occurs over about four days. In the telling, Hemingway relates attitudes and beliefs not often portrayed in Hollywood war movies. Take Robert Jordan's reason for joining the fight. Like most of those who volunteered to defend the progressive government against the fascists (who were comprised of the Spanish military, Spanish conservative oligarchs, and German and Italian military units), Jordan is idealistic and fighting for the common man's freedom against oppression. He says of himself:
You learned the dry-mouthed, fear-purged, purging ecstasy of battle and you fought...for all the poor in the world, against all tyranny, for all the things that you believed and for the the new world...
I love liberty and dignity and the rights of all men to work and not be hungry.
Fascists prefer that people stay hungry, controlled through fear, and not worried with dignity so they'll be a compliant workforce that will work for next to nothing and so increase profits. Hollywood never gives us the corporate foundation of fascism, but it was well understood in the 1930's and Hemingway certainly understood it in this book.
Hollywood tells us that the 20th century fascists (especially the Nazis) were simply a power-hungry evil. They were that, but there were also good businessmen. Spain was a country of huge income inequality, where the vast majority were desperately poor peasants who worked the fields of agricultural estates. The rich estate owners grew richer off the labor of the peasants who worked for a bare subsistence. The peasants were aware of their oppression, and of who their oppressors were.
When the war erupted, the peasants formed militias and many took their revenge. Hemingway describes one such vengeful episode through the eyes of Pelar as she tells Robert Jordan how Pablo handled a set of executions. In a small village (possibly his home village) Pablo had the local fascists run off a cliff to be dashed on the jagged rocks below. Those so executed were described as landowners, merchants, traders, insurance agents, and bankers. That list might be surprising to Americans brought up on movies where fascists are Nazis in the German army or bureaucrats in the German government. The association with businessmen and corporations is never made.
But Hemingway's characters are not black-and-white stereotypes. He deals with the gray areas of political associations and how basic human drives and fears touch everyone, especially under the pressures of war. Thus the fascists driven to their deaths by Pablo first seek absolution from a priest. Their defiance breaks down into fear. They part in sorrow from loved ones who mourn their loss of parents and spouses without political considerations. Indeed, we get the feeling that the executions are too harsh a punishment in at least some cases. In telling the story, Pelar notes that:
Don Guillermo was a fascist but otherwise there was nothing against him.
But Don Guillermo died anyway.
The crowd of peasants facilitating the deaths, are reluctant to do so at first. They are not killers by nature, even when confronted with those who oppressed them. But they can be led, and as a few get into the "sport," the crowd follows their lead until it becomes a jeering mob, delighting in killings absolved by being a group effort.
Hemingway makes people reconciling themselves to killing and to facing death a major theme. The crowd's reluctance to kill in Pelar's story is mirrored at a personal level by nearly every major character. Most kill because they are in a war and have to, but with varying degrees of reluctance and ways of absolving themselves. Even Pablo, who is described as heartless in ordering the fascist executions, is later seen to have lost his nerve and doubtful of being able to kill again. Robert Jordan, who is in many ways a technician and approaches killing as a technical necessity, cannot bring himself to kill Pablo even when the consensus is that he should.
Such nuances of characters facing hard decisions and coping with war make the story gripping as the action progresses towards the blowing of the bridge. In the midst of it all is the love story between Robert Jordan and Maria. Their relationship is often cited as a notable literary romance, but I saw it as mostly a device to give Jordan something to live for. His love relationship with Maria is probably true to the time, but it struck me as a bit condescending towards Maria. She has her strengths, but she is too deferential to Jordan and he treats her as a child. He calls her his "rabbit" which I couldn't really relate to, and their future plans are actually his future plans (though he shows signs of a growing appreciation of her). Still, their love is a legitimate literary device and it serves its purpose.
For Whom The Bell Tolls is like an eyewitness account of the Spanish Civil War, but the account goes beyond a relating of events and into how the participants related to those events. The internal struggles of the characters feed into and are fed by the violent struggles around them. How they cope is instructional for us in considering how we would in a similar situation. Sometimes such instruction is best done in fiction, especially when it's infused with a reality witnessed by the author.
Hemingway entitled this novel from a passage in John Donne's Meditations, and prefaces it with that "never send to know for whom the bell tolls" quote. Donne's point is that "we're all in this together" and so we all ultimately go down together whether circumstances make it appear that way or not. I think that is Mr. Hemingway's point as well, and is why he gives names and some backstory for even the most secondary of minor characters before they are killed. He wants us to see that it is people losing their lives.
John Donne said there is no need to ask for whom the funeral bell is ringing, because we should know. Likewise, there was no need for the fascist commander who beat Sordo's unit to take heads to identify the fallen. They are all of us.