For Whom the Bell Tolls
When reading an Ernest Hemingway novel, one must try very hard to focus on the joy and encouragement found in the work. For Whom the Bell Tolls is full of love and beauty, but is so greatly overshadowed by this lingering feeling of doom–a feeling that does not let you enjoy reading, for you are always waiting for the let down, a chance for human nature to go horribly awry. This feeling is broken up into three specific areas. In Ernest Hemingway’s novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, humanity is exploited through brutal violence, unnecessary courage, and hopeless futility. Hemingway has the uncanny gift of imagery, and he possesses a brilliant mastery of the English language. He is adept at manipulating words and weaving complex sentences; furthermore, “Meticulous description takes its placeFor Hemingwaydescription is definition.” (Tanner 228) All of this genius can show the ultimate beauty and grace of existence, but the flipside to that is the same devices used to show all of the wonder and greatness in life can also be used to show to many hardships and painful truths we must endure, such as violence and gory injustices: “Then some one hit the drunkard a great blow alongside the head with a flail and he fell back, and lying on the ground, he looked up at the man who had hit him and then shut his eyes and crossed his hands on his chest, and lay there beside Don Anastasio as though he were asleep. The man did not hit him again and he lay there and he was still there when they picked up Don Anastasio and put him with the others in the cart that hauled them all over to the cliff where they were thrown over that evening with the others after there had been a cleaning up in the Ayuntamiento.” (Hemingway 126). The mob-violence that is portrayed in that passage is one inspired by ignorance, weak wills, and alcohol. All through Pilar and Robert Jordans flashbacks, one cannot help but be overwhelmed with feelings of disgust towards humankind. These stories are not uncommon, either. Most of the people fighting against the fascists in this novel have similar stories. It is absolutely horrid to hear these anecdotes in which people tell in great detail how they saw their parents, siblings, cousins, and so on, die is extremely heart wrenching ways. One little girls family was murdered in a particularly gruesome manner. The story goes that the socialists took control of her town and broke into the little girls house. The fascists then rounded up all of her family and shot them one by one in the back of the head, letting her live just to tell the tale to whoever tried to stop them. This forces you to try and remember that this is just a fictional story and that things like this dont really happen in ordinary life, but the unfortunate reality is that these things happen all the time, especially while peoples are at war. To snuff this horrendous use of violence is much easier, but, sadly, is far from a realistic notion. Why is there all this violence going on? Sometimes one thinks that had the hero in this story not been so brazenly courageous, maybe the sadness and disgusting malice may not have occurred, for if you dont start a fight you cannot get beaten up, and also, if one hides instead of shouting, he can usually get away. Regardless, Robert Jordan must do both of the following two acts in order to cope inside this story: build up his life to apex at one final showdown, and to trap himself in a never-ending tunnel of beatings and ultimately destruction (Frohock 167). Robert Jordan must make a final stand in For Whom the Bell Tolls if for no other reason, to save his manhood. John Wain explains: “To make a last standfor if defeat is accepted in Hemingways world, humiliation and rout are not. His fictions present moments of violence, crisis and death, yet these become occasions for a stubborn, quixotic resistance through which the human capacity for satisfying its self-defined obligations is both asserted and tested. “Grace under pressure”: This becomes the ideal stance, the hoped- for moral style, of Hemingways character.” (Wain 233) This last stand is in no way rational, and in no way necessary in the normal persons mind. To Hemingways heroes, though, this last stand is the only imaginable way one can leave this earth with a facet of dignity. It is the final penance, a last forgiveness of sins. “If I have the guts to do it, Ill be all right.” kind of mentality. This last gung-ho attempt to show ones valiance is a gift in the minds of Hemingways heroes. But the interesting thing is to ponder what would have happened to this person had they not “bravely” risked their lifes and decided rather to find another way out of this situation, to lead a normal life instead. Would the character still come to an untimely death in a similar situation just further down the line? Or could he possibly turn the corner? W. M. Frohock believes that regardless of the situation, the character is forced to do this insane, courageous act, for he has no choice in the matter. “For Hemingway courage is a permanent element in a tragic formula: life is a trap in which a man is bound to …..be beaten and at last destroyed, but he emerges triumphant, in this full stature, if he manages to keep his chin up.” (Frohock 169) Again we see this hope that if he just “manages to keep his chin up” he has a chance at rise from this situation with honor and distinction. Although the character is made out to thrive in this kind of condition, it is clear that he has no choice. The characters are set up to be an out of control freight train going through whatever is has to, to reach the end of the line; but, like the freight train, the hero has no capacity as to how to stop this action, so the tunnel grows ever longer and darker. Although the biting violence and uncompromising courage clearly show how wonderfully Hemingway can portray the dark side of human nature, there are some good aspects of these two subjects. Although it is frowned upon, violence can be used to force good situations. Take the American Revolution. The colonists learned that if they violently revolt against the overbearing English, they can bring liberty to their homes. The same is true with over-the-top courage. The tale of William Wallace in the novel/motion picture Braveheart accurately shows that one mans complete disregard for his own bodily good can very successfully tip a wavering situation in your favorable position. But there is no way imaginable that a sense of futility can benefit a scenario. Hemingway uses this final idea to further exploit the crudeness of human nature. From the launch of the novel, the reader cant help but believe that Robert Jordan will perish. “As usual, Hemingway gives away the end of the book at the beginningWe also learnor are encouraged to expectthat Robert Jordan will be killed.” (Tanner 81) To start a novel by planting the seed of death in the readers mind is nothing short of morbid. It is such a sick, yet interesting approach to writing. “While it promises the most life, For Whom the Bell Tollsdelivers nothing but loss.” (Tanner 76) As if it isnt bad enough that the books set up is one of futility, the subject matter is just as bad if not worse. In a private conversation, Gavino Villapiano said to me while picking out my primary source, that For Whom the Bell Tolls in a provoking pick, primarily because, “you think that everything is right in the world, but you know that somewhere down the line it is going to get worse. Not just worse, though, but much, much worse.” (Villapiano 1) From the get-go you feel this lingering black cloud shrouding every aspect of the story, but try not to think about it, and hence use the classic “ostrich syndrome” (if I cannot see it, it isnt there). The characters in the story can sense this as well. The dwindling nature of Pablo worries the gang half to death. They realize that their once ruthless, faithful leader now cares more about horses than destroying fascism. Pilar is going through the same thing. While it is apparent that she is wise and brave, it too seems that she is drifting into senility. But perhaps the most dreadful aspect of this futile category is that the reader is aware of it the whole time. It isnt some surprise that Robert Jordan dies at the end, they had basically told that to you through Pillars palm reading earlier in the novel. The only thing that is more desperate than the characters in this novel is the reader, who is in constant doubt that anything will harm our beloved characters. This novel is indeed a great work of art. It is one of Hemingways more critically acclaimed and talked about novels. (Howe 66) He uses this natural gift of linguistics to tell a severely long tale that takes place in a ridiculously short period of time. Through word weaving and vivid imagery, he lets you feel every modicum of emotion, smell, taste, touch, and sound that the characters do. This gift does come with a price, too. For every time that something remotely positive starts to occur, a more horrible situation comes along to undermine the readers faith in human nature. From his meticulously descriptive anecdotes, to his realist narratives, in his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway exploits humanity through brutal violence, unnecessary courage, and hopeless futility.
Works Cited Frohok, W.M. “Ernest HemingwayThe River and the Hawk.” The Novel of Violence in America. Mississippi: Beacon, 1957. 166-98. Hemingway, Ernest. For Whom the Bell Tolls. New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1940. 1-471. Howe, Irving. A World More Attractive: A View of Modern Literature and Politics. New York: Horizon Press, 1963. 65-70. Tanner, Stephen L. “Hemingways Islands.” Southwest Review. Winster: Southern Methodist University Press, 1976. 74-84. Tanner, Tony. “Ernest Hemingways Unhurried Sensations.” The Wave of Wonder: Naivety and Reality in American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965. 228-57. Villapiano, Gavino. Interview. Off-Camera Conversation with my Father. By Nicholas Gavino Villapiano. New Jersey: 1999. 1-2 Wain, John. “The Conflict of Forms in Contemporary English Literature.” Essays on Literature and Ideas. St. Martins: Macmillan, 1963. 230-35
For Whom The Bell Tolls
For Whom the Bell Tolls