For Whom the Bell Tolls

by Ernest Hemingway

 

So I was at a bar a while back, books came up because I talk about stupid shit a lot, and it came out that I’d never read anything by Hemingway. I was made to feel bad about this, so I decided I’d give it a shot. I spent half an hour searching my brother’s room (sorry John) and found For Whom the Bell Tolls.

I actually liked it, in some ways more than I expected to. I went in to it knowing nothing about either Hemingway or the book, except that both were connected to the Spanish Civil War. Truth be told, I kind of figured it would be a war-is-horrible tirade from the days when people were just beginning to realize that war is horrible. Upon reading it, I found that it was not concretely anti-war, and contained no moral certitude. Though the main character, Robert Jordan, occasionally reflects on the virtue of his cause and the necessity of war, he waffles on both points so much that it is difficult to know where he, much less Hemingway himself, stand. It’s like, ambiguous and stuff, man.

The aforementioned Jordan is an American with the International Brigades sent by the Republic to destroy a bridge with the help of local sympathizers. If you don’t know about the Spanish Civil War, it was fought in the thirties between Fascists and Republicans, who each had international backing, making it something of a prequel to World War II. (Like the Clone Wars were to the Galactic Civil War.) Jordan notes that his commanders are mostly Soviets, and that even many of the supposedly Spanish peasant leaders mysteriously speak Russian. He claims that he himself is simply a Republican rather than a Communist, though he often seems to compromise his beliefs when they conflict with his duties.

While the book is pretty linear, Jordan finds plenty of time to reflect upon all of this. Many of the themes are conveyed this way; I could feel Jordan’s creeping cynicism when he thought about the cruelties the Republic was capable of, and his renewed faith when he would rationally consider the alternatives. Hemingway, through Jordan, often gives a fair assessment of situations, with surprising emotional detachment.

In fact, some of the most powerful parts of the book were very straightforward passages simply describing events as they happened. I couldn’t stop reading a passage in which a peasant leader, Pilar, explains what happened when the revolutionary movement showed up in a small Spanish town. The tale was long and violent, to say the least, but neither side is demonized, either by characters or through the author’s commentary. It neither reinforces nor undermines the characters’ dedication to the cause; it simply happened.

It was refreshing, for me, to read a war novel that could relate the horrors and contradictions of war without sounding preachy. For Whom the Bell Tolls is so clearly from the heart, and so powerfully written, that it would be difficult for me to imagine disliking it. That being said, it is something of a commitment, and as much of the dialog is a faux Spanish translation, it is not the easiest read. In a way I’m glad I didn’t have to read it in high school. Many books are meant to be enjoyed at one’s own pace, and for an undisciplined high school student such as I was, falling behind meant Sparknoting the second half. Reading it now, I could reflect on the themes at my own pace, without having to listen to analysis of Chapter Sixteen before I’d even started. Yes, I was a lazy student, but in this case I dodged a bullet, because I was able to enjoy Hemingway on my own terms, at an age where I can (hopefully) understand him a little bit better.

If you do have the time and the commitment, For Whom the Bell Tolls is excellent. Take it from a latecomer, Hemingway is definitely worth it.

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