The Transformations of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (2022) (2022)

It’s not inaccurate to say that Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is “A Farewell to Arms” with the background, instead, the Spanish Civil War. The hero, Robert Jordan, a young American Loyalist sympathizer, recalls to mind Frederic Henry. Like Henry, he is anti-heroically heroic, anti-romantically romantic, very male, passionate, an artist of action, Mercutio modernized. Though the heroine, Maria, reminds one rather less of Catherine Barkley, the two women have much in common. Also, in both books the mounting interplay of death and sex is a major theme, the body’s intense aliveness as it senses its own destruction.

But there, I think, the resemblance ends. For this book is not merely an advance on “A Farewell to Arms.” It touches a deeper level than any sounded in the author’s other books. It expresses and releases the adult Hemingway, whose voice was first heard in the groping “To Have and Have Not.” It is by a better man, a man in whom works the principle of growth, so rare among American writers.

The story opens and closes with Robert Jordan lying flat on the pine-needle floor of a Spanish forest. When we first meet him he is very much alive and planning the details of his job, which is to join forces with a band of Spanish guerrillas and with their aid blow up an important bridge at the precise instant that will most help the Loyalist advance on Segovia. When we last see him he has fulfilled his mission and is facing certain death. Between the opening and closing pass three days and three nights. Between the opening and closing pass a lifetime for Robert and Maria and something very much like a lifetime for the reader. “I suppose,” thinks Robert, “it is possible to live as full a life in seventy hours as in seventy years.” The full life lived by Robert and Maria spills over into your own mind as you read, so the three days and three nights are added to your life, and you are larger and more of a person on page 471 than you were on page 1. That is one test of a first-rate work of fiction.

“For Whom the Bell Tolls” is about serious people engaged in serious actions. The word “serious” (a favorite among Spaniards) occurs again and again. The thoughts of Robert, even at his most sardonic, are serious thoughts. “There are necessary orders that are no fault of yours and there is a bridge and that bridge can be the point on which the future of the human race can turn. As it can turn on everything that happens in this war.” It is a stern and grave reflection, sterner, graver than anything in “A Farewell to Arms.” The title itself is part of a grave reflection, from the sermons of John Donne. That we may see on what a new and different level of emotion Hemingway now works, I quote the sentence from which the title is taken: “No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

This utterance (I suppose it is one of the greatest sentences in English) is about death and says yes to life. That men confer value on life by feeling deeply each other’s mortality is the underlying theme of the novel. Here is something other than Hemingway’s old romantic absorption in death, though growing out of it. Remember that “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is an anti-Fascist novel. “Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde.” All of what the dictator most profoundly and religiously disbelieves is in that sentence. Hemingway is no fool. He portrays many of the Loyalists as cowards, brutes, and politicians—as they undoubtedly were. He portrays some of the Fascists as men of twisted nobility—as they undoubtedly were. But he knows that the war, at its deepest level (the first battle of the war now on your front pages), is a war between those who deny life and those who affirm it. And if it is not yet such a war, it must become so, or it will, no matter who wins, have been fought in vain. I take that to be the central feeling of “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and that is why the book is more than a thrilling novel about love and death and battle and a finer work than “A Farewell to Arms.”

It is interesting to watch in this new book a certain process of etherealization. Just as the Wagnerian death fascination of “Death in the Afternoon” changes here into something purer, so the small-boy Spartanism and the parade of masculinity which weakened the earlier books are transformed into something less gross, something—Hemingway would despise the word—spiritual. And yet this is by far the most sensual of all his books, the most truly passionate. This process of purification extends even to minor matters. In the other books, for example, drinking is described as a pleasure, as a springboard for wit, as a help to love, as fun, as madness. There is much drinking in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and none of it is solemn, but it becomes at times a serious thing. Liquor, drunk by these Spanish guerrillas before a battle, is a noble and necessary pleasure. Drinking has dignity.

Dignity also is what each of the characters possesses, from Fernando, who wears it like another skin, down to Augustín, whose every third word is an obscenity. Each has his own dignity, which means worth, and that dignity is gradually lifted to the surface by the harsh touch of death, as the grain of a fine wood reveals itself with polishing. Anselmo, the Shakespearean old man who fears his own cowardice (“I remember that I had a great tendency to run at Segovia”) and comes through at the end to a good and sound death; Rafael, the gypsy, unreliable, gluttonous, wild; El Sordo, the deaf guerrilla leader; Andrés, the Bulldog of Villaconejos; Pablo, the sad-faced revolutionary with the spayed spirit, the treacherous heart, and the subtle, ingrown mind; Pilar, the greatest character in the book, with her ugliness, her rages, her terrible memories, her vast love for the Republic, her understanding and envy of the young Robert and Maria; Maria herself, knitting her spirit together after her rape by the Falangists, finding the purpose of her young life in the three days and nights with her American lover—each of these (all of them flawed, some of them brutal, one of them treacherous) has a value, a personal weight that Hemingway makes us feel almost tangibly, so that their lives and deaths are not incidents in a story but matters of moment to us who are “involved in Mankinde.”

“For Whom the Bell Tolls” rises above “A Farewell to Arms” in still another way. The love story in “A Farewell to Arms” is the book. Chapters like that describing the retreat from Caporetto or that beautiful scene of the conversation with the old man at the billiard table are mere set pieces and might conceivably have been used in some other book. But the love of Robert and Maria is a structural part of “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” It is not “love interest,” nor is it the whole story, either; it is an integral portion of three days and three nights of life lived by two young people facing death. Furthermore, though this love does not rise above passion, it endows passion with an end and a meaning. In the great scene just before Robert goes out to blow up the bridge, knowing that he will almost surely die, when he makes love to Maria, describing, his heart breaking, the fine life he knows they will never lead, he arrives at an identification of which Hemingway’s other heroes were incapable: “I love thee as I love all that we have fought for. I love thee as I love liberty and dignity and the fights of all men to work and not be hungry.”

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For Whom the Bell Tolls next line? ›

'Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

For Whom the Bell Tolls book ending? ›

At the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Jordan is in a forest, looking down at the bridge he was sent to destroy. His leg is broken and he tells his young lover, Maria, that she must go on without him. And then, alone, lying there on the pine needles, he faces his death.

What does the bridge symbolize in For Whom the Bell Tolls? ›

Ultimately, when the bridge collapses—the physical structure and symbol that was connecting the two groups—all hope for reconciliation or peace between the two groups is destroyed.

Is For Whom the Bell Tolls anti war? ›

Moving: A still from the 1943 movie adaptation starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. With two world wars, the 20th century, not surprisingly, saw a profusion of anti-war books.

What is the message of John Donne's no man is an island? ›

“No Man Is an Island” Themes

Donne argues that every human being is connected to every other human being by comparing humanity itself to a vast landmass. No one is “an island” in the sense that no one is separate from this metaphorical “continent”; just by being human, everyone is part of humanity.

What does any man's death diminishes me mean? ›

Donne says that because we are all part of mankind, any person's death is a loss to all of us: “Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” The line also suggests that we all will die: the bell will toll for each one of ...

Who is Golz in For Whom the Bell Tolls? ›

Golz is the Russian general responsible for leading the Republican offensive, of which Robert Jordan's mission is a part, though he insists it's not "his attack." Robert Jordan lets us know that he's a good general, which isn't that common the Republican side, but he's usually given more menial tasks by the higher-ups.

For Whom the Bell Tolls moral lesson? ›

By Ernest Hemingway

Many of the characters in For Whom the Bell Tolls find their moral beliefs troubled by the war in which they're fighting. Winning a war requires the use of violence to defeat or eliminate one's enemies; that much everyone agrees. But even if violence is necessary, it's not clear that makes it right.

What is the main theme of For Whom the Bell Tolls? ›

Romantic Love as Salvation. Even though many of the characters in For Whom the Bell Tolls take a cynical view of human nature and feel fatigued by the war, the novel still holds out hope for romantic love.

Why did Hemingway write For Whom the Bell Tolls? ›

In 1936 and 1937, Hemingway wrote and made speeches for the purpose of raising money for the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War.

What is the historical background of For Whom the Bell Tolls? ›

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) takes place during the Spanish Civil War, which ravaged the country throughout the late 1930s. Tensions in Spain began to rise as early as 1931, when a group of left-wing Republicans overthrew the country's monarchy in a bloodless coup.

Who won the Spanish Civil War? ›

The Nationalists won the war, which ended in early 1939, and ruled Spain until Franco's death in November 1975.

Why does Robert Jordan leave the US? ›

The protagonist of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan left his job as a college instructor in the United States to volunteer for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.

What is the summary of For Whom the Bell Tolls? ›

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a novel by Ernest Hemingway published in 1940. It tells the story of Robert Jordan, a young American volunteer attached to a Republican guerrilla unit during the Spanish Civil War. As a dynamiter, he is assigned to blow up a bridge during an attack on the city of Segovia.


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