…And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee. – John Donne-
For Whom The Bell Tolls is first and foremost a war novel. Spanning a scant three days, the novel is the story of Robert Jordan – a young American professor – who is attached to an antifascist guerilla unit in the mountains of Spain. Jordan’s mission is to blow up a bridge which is guarded by the fascists. He enlists the aid of a band of Communist guerillas, spending several days with them at a cave in the mountains. Hemingway introduces a broad range of characters, including Maria – the beautiful Spanish girl with a tragic history – who Jordan falls in love with practically on sight. The novel has all the makings of a classic, and in fact has been called Hemingway’s greatest work. Despite this, I found myself struggling to continue reading through the first half of the story.
Hemingway spends a great deal of time inside his character’s heads, repetitively showing us their thoughts and motivations. The dialogue tends to plod along, filled with ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and odd phrases such as:
“Go and obscenity thyself,” Pablo told him. -From For Whom The Bell Tolls, page 211-
I found myself tempted to scan through large portions of the book during the early going, and only hard-nosed determination kept me reading.
Luckily, the book redeems itself around page 270, when finally the reader gets to experience some action. It is the latter pages that Hemingway shows his skill as a writer, painting the tragedy of war in broad strokes and revealing the humanity of his characters.
I wanted badly to love this book. I have enjoyed other Hemingway novels (The Old Man and The Sea, for example), and have been captivated by Hemingway’s short stories. But, I’m afraid I cannot recommend this one. Had I not been reading this for a challenge and a group read, I would have quit less than 50 pages in. If the reader is diligent and can wade through the dryness of the first half of the book, they will be tragically rewarded in the end.