Review: Ernest Hemingway: “For whom the bell tolls”

I must confess that I am not an unbiased reader of Hemingway as he is one of my favourite authors. His direct and distinctly lyrical style, even when documenting the violent and harsh side of life, is inspired. Frequently whilst reading Hemingway, I imagine his gravelly grey head reading each line aloud. On a recent business trip to London, I re read “For whom the bell tolls”. As with so much of his writing, it is impossible to separate Hemingway the man from the story. Robert Jordan is surely a personification of his experiences fighting Franco’s fascists in Spain.


The dehumanising effects of war:


We learn that people cannot think to a sufficient extent during times of war. They are reduced to focusing on surviving the daily onslaught of violence. Robert Jordan tries to ruminate and intellectualise events, but is always brought back to the base task of living. “Turn off the thinking now, old comrade. You’re a bridge blower now. Not a thinker”. Pre-war, he could contemplate life, evolve, conceive, create, write. During war time: exist.

Robert Jordan frequently sees himself as an artist, a thinker. His interaction with Pilar is important. He feels a duty to articulate her story “If that woman could only write. He would try to write it”. Hemingway tries to salvage a speck of humanity in the war by writing about the whole mess and sorting through it.

Anselmo, the moral centre in “For whom the bell tolls”, predicts the type of justice that would latterly be created in the form of the International Criminal Court, supposing that there must be a “great penance done for the killing” that has taken place on both sides throughout the war. He continues that “all may be cleansed” after the war. A devout Christian – and good man, Anselmo despises violence in all forms saying that “There was no purity of feeling for those who survived the fighting and were good at it”.

The gypsy character represents how war seeps into every part of society. There is no escape. We know that he is a “conscientious objector” but are told that “they aren’t exempted in the war. No one was exempted. It came to one and all alike”. Peaceful people are tied down on the rail tracks as the train of violence hurtles towards them.

Jordan has an ongoing battle with himself throughout the novel to decipher how to act ethically in a time of bloodshed: “But you have behaved O.K. So far you have you have behaved all right” he ponders, again trying to employ his intellect to interpret the war-mongering he encounters throughout.




Hemingway is scathing about religion throughout. It is a damning indictment of the Spanish Catholic Church that they allied with fascists and he is not short of decrying them for it. How could a religion that teaches people to do good ally with Franco and co?

Hemingway was a firm believer in democracy as a just political system: “Muck everybody but the people and then be damned careful what they turn into when they have power”. After a year in which the liberal world order was turning, spinning, spiralling on its head, these words are more relevant than ever. Democracy is crucial, but just as much – holding people in power to account.

On communism: “You’re not a real Marxist and you know it. You believe in Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. You believe in Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”. Hemingway is clear that communism’s ideals are laudable but do not work. It stifles the individual.


Absinthe Escapism:


Robert Jordan must imbibe copious amounts of absinthe, his chosen tipple, to cope with the senselessness surrounding him. “It cures everything” he says, describing the liquor. “If you have anything wrong, this will cure it”. His description of drinking it is striking, both in its style and intent: “One cup of it took the place of the evening papers, of all the old evenings in cafes, of all chestnut trees that would be in bloom now this month, of the great slow horses of the outer boulevards, of book shops, of kiosques, and of galleries, of the Parc Montsouris, of the Stade Buffalo, and of the Butte Chaumont, of the Guaranty Trust Company and the Ile de la Cite, of Foyot’s old hotel, and of being able to read and relax in the evening: of all the things he had enjoyed and forgotten and that came back to him when he tasted that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming stomach-warming, idea-changing liquid alchemy”. This is one of my favourite pieces of prose from the man. A good friend of mine brought back a bottle of absinthe from Prague while I was in London. We shared a couple of shots before going to Fabric. I must admit that I do not get his romanticizing of absinthe. It tastes like an alcoholic cement mixer to my tongue – give me Guinness any time! Yet his wonderful description of how it “curls around inside of you” typifies the genius of the man.


Writing Style:


One of my favourite put downs of all time is when Hemingway introduces the superb character Pilar into the novel: “What are you doing now, you lazy drunken obscene unsayable son of an unnameable unmarried gypsy obscenity”. Also, cogitate Joaquin’s retort to her after she says “I shoot no one”. “You don’t need to. You scare them to death with your mouth”.

The opening of Chapter 13 is mesmerising, hypnotic and absorbing: “They were walking through the heather of the mountain meadow and Robert Jordan felt the brushing of the heather against his legs, felt the weight of the pistol in the holster against his thigh, felt the sun on his head, felt the breeze from the snow of the mountain peaks cool on his back”. Visceral.

His depiction of the cave where the rebels live reminds me of the end of the “The Dead” by Joyce: “It was so quiet in the cave, suddenly, that he could hear the hissing noise the wood made burning on the hearth where Pilar cooked. He could hear the sheepskin crackle as he rested the weight on his feet. He thought he could almost hear the snow falling outside. He could not, but he could hear the silence where it fell”.




Ultimately, at the end of “For whom the bell tolls”, Hemingway concludes that fighting is only half the solution. “We cannot destroy them. But we can educate the people so that they will fear fascism and recognize it as it appears and combat it”. Timely words. Even if society labels many non-fascists as such, thereby making it difficult to identify the truly dangerous ones, For whom the bell tolls serves as a reminder that education, discussion and peaceful dialogue remain the best ways to stop the birth of true tyrants and totalitarian regimes.


About Mick Gilbride

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