For Whom the Bell Tolls
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.
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