Book Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway – buddy read with Roberta Writes

For Whom the Bell Tolls
Ernest Hemingway

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Lately I’ve been in the mood to return to the classics. I’ve always loved Hemingway, but had never read For Whom the Bell Tolls, published in 1940. I’m sure you’ve all either read it or heard of it. Maybe you’ve seen the 1943 movie starring Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman and Akim Tamiroff.

You may not know that the title refers a line of prose by the poet John Donne which begins with, “No man is an island, entire of himself.” Donne wrote those lines in 1624 as part of a larger work entitled Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. The last lines read, “Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” The gist of Donne’s words is that we are all part of a greater whole. And Donne’s bell metaphor reminds us of the short time we have on earth.

These lines are especially meaningful in Hemingway’s story about Robert Jordan, a young American member of the International Brigade who has volunteered to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. The story begins in 1937 and takes place over three days as Jordan contemplates his role in the war and his job to blow up an enemy bridge in the Guadarrama mountains. To blow up the bridge, he must join forces with guerrilla fighters who have camped behind enemy lines. There he meets the group’s leader, Pablo, whose notorious brutality has won them many battles. Although respected for his earlier leadership, Pablo has become disillusioned and jaded. He drinks all day and his unpredictable behavior may prove dangerous to them all.

When Jordan arrives at the camp, he also meets Maria, a beautiful young Spanish woman rescued from enemy capture where she was raped and tortured. Jordan is taken by Maria’s vulnerability and the two form an immediate, intense connection. Pablo’s wife, Pilar, senses the shortness of time and tells them they must take advantage of the time they have together. She knows that the future holds no guarantees.

Jordan also knows this. In his thoughts, he says, “So, if your life trades its seventy years for seventy hours I have that value now and I am lucky enough to know it.” He later tells Augustín, one of the fighters, “What we do not have is time. Tomorrow we must fight. To me that is nothing. But for the Maria and me it means that we must live all of our life in this time.”

Throughout the story, I felt a building sense of urgency, punctuated by waiting, for the bridge must be blown at a precise time, no earlier and no later. Pablo opposes the bridge-blowing, thinking it not enough. He argues that his own success in blowing up trains achieved better results. During the tense discussions, a new and dangerous dynamic emerges between Pablo and Pilar. Pilar, now a leader, would sacrifice her husband to guarantee the success of Robert’s mission.

On the last day, Jordan and the band carry out the plan to destroy the bridge. With success comes casualty, however, and soon Jordan, who is badly wounded, must contemplate his own mortality. “I hate to leave it, is all,” he thinks. “I hate to leave it very much and I hope I have done some good in it.”

I can’t tell you how engrossed I was in Hemingway’s portrayal of a time and place I knew little about. It’s a love story, of course, but it’s also one of war, politics, ideology and culture in which many of its characters think deeply about the value of human life, their purpose in the world and their connections to others.

I had a wonderful time reading this book with my buddy reader, Robbie Cheadle. She has posted her thoughts today, too, with an interesting perspective on leadership. Robbie is a terrific blogging friend and author and posts on two blogs, Roberta Writes and Robbie’s Inspriation. You can find out more about her here. And of course, be sure to check out her review of For Whom the Bell Tolls here!

Have you read For Whom the Bell Tolls? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

49 thoughts on “Book Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway – buddy read with Roberta Writes

  1. Reblogged this on Book Club Mom and commented:

    Hi Everyone, I’m reblogging this because I published it too early! I hope you enjoy this review and that you’ll stop by Robbie’s blog, too, to read her thoughts on For Whom the Bell Tolls. All links are live now 🙂

    1. Thank you to you, too, Robbie. It was a challenging read, but I enjoyed it very much and I especially enjoyed reading your perspective. Hope you’re having a fun weekend too! 🙂

      1. I am trying to rest a little, Barbara. The past 8 days have been stressful as my family was exposed to Omicron last week Friday through my sister. Her family all got symptoms on Sunday and my sons were with her kids at another sister’s house on the Friday. I have been very worried this past week but all good so far. Only two days of quarantine left. I was very happy to have this review to take my mind of work and worrying.

    1. Hi Diana – I’ve read a lot of his books, but I’d somehow missed this one. I also loved A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises. His writing style really moves me. Thank you for stopping by.

  2. It’s been decades since I read Hemingway, and reading your review tells me it’s time to reacquaint myself with him. Wonderful review, by the way. Thank you!

  3. I have read a number of Hemingway´s books and short stories. I love his writing. But, I haven´t read this one. I need to read this one as I live in Spain and the effects of that terrible civil war are still felt here. Thanks for the great review.

    1. Hi Darlene, I highly recommend it. I’m embarrassed to say I knew nothing about the Spanish Civil War. I imagine your experience living in Spain would enhance your perspective when reading it. Thanks for the visit.

    2. A wonderful book, Darlene, but very sad too. I read another book about the Spanish Civil War recently and then Barbara mentioned she was going to read this one which was also about the same war so I was very keen to do a buddy read. I have learned a lot about the war and also gained from Hemingway’s exquisite writing.

  4. It’s been years and years since I read that book but I remember liking the Sun Also Rises a little bit more. To me Hemingway really didn’t get women and that comes through in the Sun.

    1. Hi JT, I think that’s a valid point. And Hemingway was certainly hard on the women in his life, maybe not truly understanding them. Robert is very much a caretaker with Maria because she is so broken, so maybe not an equal relationship in that sense. I did find their relationsip moving, though. And it’s hard to know how it might be in such an intense situation. I liked The Sun Also Rises a lot – my son and I always joke about how much those Lost Generation folks sat around at cafes and argued, and then went on long walks! Thank you for reading and commenting.

  5. Good review, Barbara. I enjoy Hemmingway’s writing. The Old Man and the Sea is still one of my favorite books. But For Whom the Bell Tolls was beyond my young, small world when I read it. I knew next to nothing about Spain. I need to read it again!

    1. Hi Priscilla. I would not have understood this book had I read it in high school. I’m glad I waited because I think I got a lot out of it. Different author but I remember reading Of Mice and Men in 8th grade and not understanding a word of it. Definitely had to re-read that later.

  6. I read this in high school! and remember how powerfully it struck me! Hemingway had such a talent, and we hardly have his equal today. It also brought to mind all the other Hemingway books I read.

    1. Hi Noelle – he’s one of my favorite writers. There is hardly an equal, I agree. I feel the same way about Truman Capote. Thanks for the visit. Hope you are doing well. How’s your cat doing? I always enjoyed those posts. Heading over now to catch up.

  7. I do like Truman Capote, but he’s not at the top of my list. Have you ever read Country of the Pointed Firs? It was written by Srah Orne Jewel in 1896, and Willa Cather said Jewell was a great inspiration.
    It’s an oldie but I’ve probably read it three times, not the least because it is set in Maine. I highly recommend it!

  8. Enjoyed your review – and Robbie’s!
    And really like how you summed up this

    “love story, of course, but it’s also one of war, politics, ideology and culture”
    Because those elements are what makes authors get inside our mind and heart!
    Also, seeing the year published makes me a little sad because of what was going on with the Nazis at that time – too bad more folks didn’t read books like this (as opposed to getting fired up by Mein Kampf)

    And then to imagine Donne writing in 1600s reminds me that so many of these human themes are timeless

    1. Hi Prior – I admit I had forgotten how long ago Donne lived. Reading his prose and realizing that he wrote them in the 1600s had the same effect on me. And I agree, the great books include all the elements of the story’s surrounding influences. Thank you so much for stopping by to read my post and for jumping over to read Robbie’s. I hope you are doing well 🙂

      1. the buddy read was a lot of fun to peek in on. Trent and I did a buddy read last spring – good ol’ Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit – it was a lot of fun and we might do it again this year

        Have a great day

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