Review: ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, by Ernest Hemingway

for whom the bell tolls

A stunning and picturesque critique on the futility and irony of war, in the beautiful mountains of Spain – Hemingway at his very best. 

The main characters in FWTBT, from Robert Jordan to Pablo and Pilar, constantly struggle to repress the fear of potential failure throughout the book, in deference to their loyalty to the cause. Hemingway beautifully portrays a hope of a better future burning brightly, as well as the same flame flickering in the face of adversity, and settling once again. This must have been one of the most prevalent emotional conflicts for people fighting in the ideological wars of the time; the very real fear of failing and the future such a failure would hold, and Hemingway’s creation of this internal strife, particularly in Jordan, is masterful.

The scene where Andres is travelling to deliver Jordan’s message and muses on the fact that he could just as easily have been a fascist soldier as this red guerillero, is so casually executed, that it demonstrates that many of the faceless people lost to wars, are no different as those standing and firing directly against them. The story of the football match in no man’s land between German and British troops springs to mind. This theme arises again and again, when Jordan and Anselmo survey the enemy sentries, during the siege of Sordo’s band and again at the very end. “There but for the grace of God, go we”, perhaps.

However, the main success of FWTBT is in the intricate and detailed narration of such a short period of time – “less than four days [sic]” – which again speaks of war in the way that modern films, such as Hurt Locker, have also done; in war, so many small, individual and often inconsequential battles are fought constantly, and these many tiny pixels are what fill in the lines of the larger political image.

Where Hemingway succeeds with this novel, is the balance between this individual experience, and the wider political context, referenced expertly in the scenes toward the end of the book, as the generals and officials discuss the impending attack.

From the first words to the last, a true 20th Century masterpiece.

5 stars

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