Book Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls

for whom the bell tollsAuthor: Ernest Hemingway

Publish Date: October 21, 1940

About the Author: Arguably one of the greatest American literary figureheads, Hemingway produced 10 novels, 10 short story collections, and 5 non-fiction pieces in his lifetime. Beginning his writing career as a journalist, Hemingway wrote extensively on matters pertaining to a plethora of places and life experiences, namely: World War I, Toronto, Chicago, Paris, Key West, the Caribbean, the Spanish Civil War, Cuba, and World War II. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954 and later died by suicide in 1961.

Synopsis: This story is primarily told through the eyes of the book’s protagonist, Robert Jordan, who describes his thoughts and experiences as a dynamiter for the pro-Republic, anti-Fascist International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. The majority of the story describes the rising action leading up to the book’s climax of a small band of fighters and friends working together with Jordan to blow a bridge in Segovia in order to prevent the Fascists from responding to an upcoming offensive.

Throughout the course of the story, Jordan becomes romantically involved with a member of the group, Maria, who suffered the violence of the Fascist regime in her youth. The band’s leader, Pablo, almost destroys the group’s ability to complete the mission when he disposes of the explosives to be used for it out of fear for the the team’s safety during their execution of the explosion. He later returns, committed to aiding  with the operation, despite the grim foreshadowing of another anti-Fascist band being killed before the group is to carry out their mission.

The novel ends with the death of an elderly, dedicated group member, Anselmo, who lost his life due to the dangerous nature of the improvised plan he and Jordan were forced to use because of Pablo’s meddling with the explosives. Jordan himself is nearly killed when he is trampled by his horse. The final pages describe his agony and his last intention to kill an enemy officer before dying. The story ends before the reader can discover if he was successful in his attempts to do or not.

My Review

I’ll admit that I feel too uneducated on Hemingway’s work to write a knowledgeable review of any of his pieces, let alone one of his greatest novels. Nevertheless, I’ve compiled some praises and criticisms for this book based on my personal experience reading it.

It’s obvious that Hemingway had spent time in Spain during the midst of its Civil War, as seen in the complexity and level of detail in the novel’s dialogues and monologues. The unique personalities of each character that were developed with each progressing chapter also increase the reader’s intrigue.

One of my favorite aspects of this book was the relationships between characters from various cultures. The protagonist is a Spanish-speaking American, who has Russian friends, and works alongside Spaniards. Their interactions highlight the perceptions that one nation has of another during the first half of the twentieth century, demonstrated in the matter-of-fact, everyday conversation between characters.

The characters speak to each other using formal addresses, replacing “you” with “thou” and “thee.” While this language isn’t necessarily difficult to read, it makes every minor discourse come across like a speech, thus dragging out the pace of the novel. My biggest complaint for the book as a whole is how drawn-out every scene and thought sequence is. I found myself trudging through every chapter wondering at what point in the novel the mission of blowing the bridge was going to happen.  While the depth of detail is certainly admirable on Hemingway’s part, I feel that it prevented the book from being a page-turner.

I greatly appreciate how this work by an American novelist discretely educates American and other non-Spanish readers on a subject that many (like myself) might be uninformed about, namely the war. Through the lens of wartime drama with a romantic twist, Hemingway is able to underscore the war’s historical significance and impact on individuals and families. Perhaps with formal education on either Spain’s history or Hemingway’s work, I’d be able to extract even more value from this piece.




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