For Whom The Bell Tolls
By Ernest Hemingway
First Published: 1940
Review © 2009 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Classic, Historical War, Thriller
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway is one of the best novels about war that’s ever been written. It’s also one of the best books of any kind. It provides realistic insights into the thoughts and motivations of men and woman during the extreme situations encountered during war. It’s filled with action, suspense, romance, tragedy, and bravery. It’s also simply a great read.
For Whom the Bell Tolls focuses tightly on one mission within the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. Robert Jordan is an American explosives expert sent to meet up with a small band of guerilla fighters in order to carry out a dangerous mission behind enemy lines in support of an upcoming major offensive action. Robert has to gain the confidence of the guerillas, convince them of the importance of the operation, train them, and carry out the mission in less than four days. Within this short time span, he finds more challenges than he bargained for as he must deal with gypsies, treachery, bad luck, the legacy of his forefathers, and perhaps most difficult of all, love.
Robert has joined the war effort in Spain because he believes strongly in the cause and he has grown to love the people thanks to the time he’s spent in Spain both before and during the war. He is very dedicated and when on a mission he focuses completely on it. One of his primary rules is to not even think about girls when on a mission but right at the beginning of this novel, he meets a young woman who is a war refugee that has been nursed back to health by the guerillas. Robert is immediately stricken with his first case of love and he soon realizes his mission is going to be much more difficult than he could have imagined.
Hemmingway does a masterful job of conveying the thoughts and feelings of Robert, as well as of the key members of the guerilla band. Most of the story is told through Robert but occasionally we get the perspective of other characters. There are lots of conversations which are written in English as if they had been translated from Spanish so the English is often a bit broken but this makes the conversations seem all the more realistic. There are also quite a few flashbacks where we learn more about Robert, some of the history of this band of gorillas, and some of the horrors of war. Be warned that there are some very unpleasant scenes involving the worst aspects of war but these scenes are generally not described too graphically.
All the characters in For Whom the Bell Tolls come alive on the pages. The individuality of each character is emphasized, all having their own strengths and weaknesses. Among the guerilla fighters, the wife of the leader, Pilar, seems to be the glue that holds the band together. While known for her lack of beauty, she is obviously intelligent, perceptive, and extremely brave and she becomes one of the most powerful characters in the book.For Whom the Bell Tolls is one of the best novels I’ve ever read and I think it’s the best of Ernest Hemmingway’s many good books. I think everyone aged teen and up should read it. For Whom the Bell Tolls not only gives great insights into what a war is really like, it explores the nature of mankind as it describes the passions of a few men and women caught up in the clutches of war.