For Whom the Bell Tolls


For Whom the Bell Tolls is a novel loosely based on Ernest Hemingway's own experiences in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930's. Before I delve into the book itself, I thought it would be best to give some background information on Ernest Hemingway and on the Spanish Civil war and the circumstances surrounding it.
Hemingway was born July 21, 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois, and the second of six children. His father, Clarence Hemingway, was a physician and his mother was a devoutly religious woman with a talent for music. When he was young, Ernest acquired the nickname "champ," which he relished and felt it showed his rowdy, hard-nosed outdoor sense of adventure. He had garnered his father's passion for hunting and fishing in the north woods of Michigan, a period of his childhood which left important impressions later reflected in several of his short stories such as "Up in Michigan" and "Big Two Hearted River."
In high school, Ernest edited the school newspaper, excelled in football and boxing, and ran away from home twice. Upon his graduation, seventeen year old Hemingway headed to Kansas City to enlist in World War I, in outright defiance of his parents objections. However the army rejected Hemingway, despite his repeated efforts, due to permanent eye damage incurred from his years of boxing. Yielding finally to the army's rejections, he added a year to his age and was hired as a reporter for the Kansas City Star, a national newspaper. While working at the Star, Hemingway continued his efforts to participate in the war, and finally succeeded when he joined a volunteer Red Cross ambulance unit as a driver. In 1918 he was very seriously injured at Fossalta on the Piave River. Hemingway received twelve operations on his knee, an aluminum kneecap and two Italian Decorations. After a long period of painful recuperation in Milan, Ernest Hemingway joined the Italian infantry to fight again.
These vivid experiences provided the base for Hemingway's lifelong fascination with war. Surviving World War I, he later covered the Greek-Turkish War in 1920, World War II and the Spanish Civil War in 1937, the setting for For Whom the Bell Tolls. In 1928, Hemingway's father committed suicide. He did not reflect on this event in his writing until the thoughts of Robert Jordan, the main character in For Whom the Bell Tolls, in 1940.
The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) followed the failure of a military rebellion to overthrow Spain's democratically elected government. The war divided Spain both geographically and ideologically and it brought to power General Francisco Franco who ruled Spain from the end of the war until his death in 1975.
Following the Spanish American War (1898), Spain lost the remainder of its once great empire. This defeat greatly increased dissatisfaction and the demands for change grew. People disagreed on the changes needed, however and Spanish politics became dominated by factions. In 1936 the Republic was in power in Spain. A rebellion led by Francisco Franco and the Second Republic began and they received tremendous amounts of support from the people of Spain. They were known as the rebels. Robert Jordan fights on the side of the Loyalists in this novel, as did many Americans and other foreign volunteers, known as the International Brigades. As well as support from the people, the Second Republic had support from Germany and Italy. In the end these forces proved too much to handle for the weary Loyalists, and the war was lost to the Second Republic.
For Whom the Bell Tolls is the story of Robert Jordan, an American college Spanish professor, fighting for "the cause" with the loyalists as an expert in demolition. It is written in startlingly crisp, concise prose (something which Hemingway was know for), and is meant to show the horrors and cruelty of war and the endurance which it requires. It is also a love story.
The novel opens with a flashback of a conversation between Robert Jordan and General Golz, A Russian officer who is directing the forthcoming attack. We learn that Jordan is carrying explosives and that his mission is to blow up a bridge. Golz is interested in the offensive mainly as a military maneuver and he needs Jordan to blow up a bridge to hinder rebel reinforcements. He knows that Jordan will have to enlist the help