Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Posted on January 17, 2010
by Adam Burgess
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For Whom the Bell Tolls is the fifth of Hemingway’s works (not including short stories) that I’ve gotten through. Out of two novellas (The Torrents of Spring and Old Man and the Sea) and two other novels (The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms), I would say this is absolutely my second favorite, so far.
I could go on and on about Hemingway’s use of language and dialogue in this novel. He breaks somewhat from his tradition of minimalism and gives real thought and feeling to his descriptions. He plays with automatic-writing (probably heavily-influenced by his time with the prominent modernists of the time, most of whom didn’t think much of him as a writer, aside from his journalism). I see Hemingway taking risks in this novel that I don’t think he managed – either to attempt or to accomplish – in his earlier works. He also does a brilliant job of translating Spanish into English, re-translated into Spanish. It’s hard to explain this, especially for mono-linguists, but all of the action and dialogue in For Whom the Bell Tolls is enacted in Spanish, then written in English (of course), but when it is written, it is written to preserve the distinct voice, dialect, idioms, etc. of the original language. I’ve never encountered a writer who was able to accomplish this so well, so brilliantly, and who could convince their publisher not to re-work it into standard English for the readers. The honesty to the story of the Spanish Civil War, the people, the relationships, the many cultures involved. I’m no historian, granted, and I don’t know much about the Spanish Civil War or the anti-fascist movement, but Hemingway certainly seems to understand it, and his simple, 72-hour exploration of a small group of mountain bandits, of a budding love, and the emphasis on “living and learning your life” regardless of having 20 years or 20 hours in which to do it – it’s masterful and moving and truly well done.
The ending was beautiful, until the final line! Yes, it was incredibly simple, plain-spoken, and (no pun intended) down-to-earth. But, after such an incredibly well-delivered, beautifully rendered final few pages of a novel, to be left with such a blunt, non-ending just almost seemed heartless. Of course, this doesn’t seem to be Hemingway’s intent. Also disturbing are the many references to suicide by shotgun – both in the case of the main character, Robert Jordan, and that character’s father. Though the novel was written well before Hemingway’s own suicide (by shotgun), the parallels to his life are there and they are haunting. It made it painful to read, at times, because the inner-turmoil becomes so personal to a reader who is familiar with Hemingway’s life, history, and legacy.
The Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 5.0
Despite the sudden (almost seemingly unfinished, to be honest) ending, For Whom the Bell Tolls is a brilliant and honest novel. Certainly one of the most thoughtful, well-written, and purposeful Hemingway works that I’ve encountered. While I find Hemingway’s earlier A Farewell to Arms more effective as a war novel (simply due to taste – in A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway writes a war novel which doesn’t even include much “war” at all, and I found that appealing and genius), For Whom the Bell Tolls is certainly an accomplishment in terms of plot and language, in particular. Recommended for those interested in Spanish history, modernism, Hemingway, or just a good, classic American read.