For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway

review by Gabriel

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

For wanna-be writers, Hemingway is a brutal read.  His writing style is deceptively simple and the compulsion to imitate him is irresistable.  But the depths of his insight into humanity and his skill with characterisation and dialogue set a standard that is impossible to attain.  Then there’s the fact that the man himself had a damn (and I’ve become addicted to that word since reading Hemingway) interesting life.  Served in WWI, covered the Spanish Civil War, won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Loved bullfighting, big-game hunting and deep-sea fishing.  If it wasn’t for the alcoholism, mythomania and suicide, it would be an enviable life.  And in For Whom the Bell Tolls, all of his skill and experience converge to make a near perfect novel.Set during the Spanish Civil War, the story follows a young American, Robert Jordan, who volunteers to fight with the loose coalition of Repubicans.  To carry out a vital bridge blowing mission, he enlists the aid of a small band of guerillas high in the mountains, where, over the course of three days, he experiences a lifetime’s worth of comradery, betrayal and love.  The plot is packed with so much tension, intrigue and foreshadowing that the nearly 500 pages of dense text blur by.

At the heart of great novels are great characters, and For Whom the Bell Tolls has some of my most loved literary creations.  The hero, Robert Jordan, is admirable for his cool headedness and resourcefulness, and sympathetic for his conflictedness and struggles to overcome fear.  Then there’s Pilar and Pablo.  Pilar is a mile aged woman who earns her place as the leader of a guerilla group full of men.  She is abrasive and vain, but stoic and mysterious in her ability to read the fates of others.  Pablo is a treacherous drunkard who creates much of the conflict in the novel, and remains compelling throughout due to his unpredictable nature.  Anselmo, Rafael, Agustin – all of the characters are complex and as real as if they had actually lived.  Maybe some readers will be frustrated by the submissiveness of the love interest, Maria, but a novel is merely a product of its times.

Sure, there are some sections that dragged.  The novel gets bogged down in a chapter referencing historical figures, and the conclusion  is frustratingly broken up with an account of a fruitless quest.  Although the latter works towards the novel’s theme of the ignobility of war, I had to fight the urge to skip back to the action.  But these are minor quibbles with an otherwise amazing piece of fiction.

I could go on all day about how much I love this book.  If you haven’t read For Whom the Bell Tolls, go read it now.  If you have read it, read it again.  Just put down whatever you’re reading and go read it.  Wait, don’t really, I can’t stand leaving books unfinished (unless they’re really, really bad.  A Confederacy of Dunces, I’m looking at you).  After you’ve finished what you’re reading, and made yourself a sandwhich, and cleaned the house a bit, read For Whom the Bell Tolls.


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