The protagonist of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan left his job as a college instructor in the United States to volunteer for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Initially, he believed in the Republican cause with a near-religious faith and felt an “absolute brotherhood” with his comrades on the Republican side. However, when the action of the novel starts, we see that Robert Jordan has become disillusioned. As the conflict drags on, he realizes that he does not really believe in the Republican cause but joined their side simply because they fought against Fascism. Because he fights for a side whose causes he does not necessarily support, Robert Jordan experiences a great deal of internal conflict and begins to wonder whether there is really any difference between the Fascist and Republican sides.
Robert Jordan’s interior monologues and actions indicate these internal conflicts that plague him. Although he is disillusioned with the Republican cause, he continues to fight for that cause. In public he announces that he is anti-Fascist rather than a Communist, but in private he thinks that he has no politics at all. He knows that his job requires that he kill people but also knows that he should not believe in killing in the abstract. Despite his newfound love for Maria, he feels that there cannot be a place for her in his life while he also has his military work. He claims not to be superstitious but cannot stop thinking about the world as giving him signs of things to come. These conflicts weigh heavily on Robert Jordan throughout the bulk of the novel.
Robert Jordan resolves these tensions at the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls, in his final moments as he faces death. He accepts himself as a man of action rather than thought, as a man who believes in practicality rather than abstract theories. He understands that the war requires him to do some things that he does not believe in. He also realizes that, though he cannot forget the unsavory deeds he has done in the past, he must avoid dwelling on them for the sake of getting things done in the present. Ultimately, Robert Jordan is able to make room in his mind for both his love for Maria and his military mission. By the end of the novel, just before he dies, his internal conflicts and tensions are resolved and he feels “integrated” into the world.
Pablo, the exasperating leader of the guerrilla band, is a complex character and an unpredictable force in the novel—a man who is difficult to like but ultimately difficult to condemn unwaveringly. Pablo and Robert Jordan view each other with mutual suspicion and dislike from the start: Pablo adamantly opposes the bridge operation and views Robert Jordan as a threat to the guerrilleros’ safety, while Robert Jordan senses that Pablo will betray the guerrilleros and sabotage the mission. Hemingway uses a variety of unflattering imagery to highlight Pablo’s uncooperative and confrontational nature, often comparing Pablo to a bull, a boar, and other stubborn and unpleasant animals.
In virtually all of his actions, Pablo displays a selfish lack of restraint, an irresponsible individualism that contrasts with Robert Jordan’s pragmatic and morally motivated outlook. Pablo rashly follows his impulses, whether in the cruel slaughter of the Fascists in his hometown or in the theft of Robert Jordan’s explosives. Although this self-indulgence made Pablo a strong and courageous fighter when he was younger, it now proves a liability, for it sows dissent within the guerrilla band and jeopardizes the mission. As Pilar says, Pablo once would have sacrificed anything for the Republican cause but has “gone bad” as the war has dragged on and now wavers in his loyalties.
Despite Pablo’s disagreeable characteristics, however, he is not an evil man, and we cannot label him a villain. Although he is stubborn, rash, and sometimes brutal, Pablo displays a clear sense of conscience and realizes when he has done something wrong. He wishes he could bring back to life the Fascists he massacred in his town, and he characterizes his theft of Robert Jordan’s explosives as a “moment of weakness.” At the same time, however, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Pablo feels remorse over a deed only after it’s too late to do anything about it. Above all, Pablo fears death and is exhausted with the war. He simply wants the war to end so that he may live a peaceful life in the country along with Pilar and his horses—a sentiment that is difficult to judge harshly. Ironically, it is Pablo, not Robert Jordan, who survives at the end of the novel. However, although Pablo stays alive, he does so without the moral strength that Robert Jordan maintains and develops throughout For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Arguably the most colorful and likable character in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Pilar embodies the earthiness, strength, and wisdom of the Spanish peasantry. A large, robust, part-gypsy woman, Pilar exercises great influence over the band of guerrilleros—in fact, we quickly become aware that Pablo leads the band in name only. The strong and stable Pilar provides the motivating force behind many of the novel’s events. She pushes Robert Jordan and Maria’s romance, commands the allegiance of the guerrilla fighters, and organizes the guerrilleros’ brief alliance with El Sordo. She acts as the support structure for the camp as she unites the band of guerrilla fighters into a family, cooks for all, and sews Robert Jordan’s packs. In short, Pilar manipulates the most important characters in For Whom the Bell Tolls and sets in place many of the encounters that drive the plot.
Pilar, though practical, often relies on intuitive, mystical, gypsy folk wisdom. Shrewd and worldly-wise, she claims a deep connection to the primitive forces of fate. She claims to be able to smell death, and she describes the smell in repulsively naturalistic detail. She reads palms and interprets sexual experiences. Despite Robert Jordan’s cynicism, Pilar’s predictions do come true. Pilar exhibits the inevitable sadness that comes with knowledge: “Neither bull force nor bull courage lasted, she knew now, and what did last? I last. . . . But for what?” In the end, the only aspect of Pilar’s personality that seems not to show wisdom is her unswerving commitment to and belief in the Republican side, which ultimately loses the war.
The young, gentle Maria catches Robert Jordan’s eye from the moment he meets her. She exudes a natural, glowing beauty, despite the fact that she has recently suffered a traumatic rape and has had most of her hair shorn off. Though she is vulnerable and lays her emotions bare, she exhibits an inner strength, determination, and resilience that enable her to bear her difficult circumstances. Some critics contend that Hemingway intends Maria to represent the land of Spain itself, ravaged by the warring forces beyond her comprehension, yet always enduring, beautiful, and loving. Indeed, Hemingway frequently uses earth imagery to describe Maria, comparing her hair to the “golden brown of a grain field” and her breasts to “small hills.” In this light, Robert Jordan’s closeness with Maria mirrors his closeness with Spain, his adopted country.
As Robert Jordan’s love interest, Maria provides the impetus for his personal development from an unfeeling thinker and doer to a romantic individual. In his conversations with General Golz and with Maria early in the novel, Robert Jordan reveals his belief that he does not have time for women during the war. Even after Robert meets Maria, he remains closed to extreme emotion or romance. Though in love with her, Robert Jordan still shuts her out whenever he must think about his work. However, by the end of the novel, Robert Jordan thanks Maria for everything that she has taught him and faces the day of his mission noting that he has integrated his commitments to work and to love. Maria, determined to embrace their love fully, teaches Robert Jordan how to resolve his tensions between love and work.
Some critics of For Whom the Bell Tolls consider Maria a weak link in the novel because her characterization depends so heavily on the effect she has on Robert Jordan rather than on her own motivations and conflicts. These critics argue that Maria’s submissiveness and the speed with which her affair with Robert Jordan progresses are unrealistic. They assert that Maria is not a believable character but rather a stereotype or the embodiment of a male fantasy. Some feminist critics have blanched at Hemingway’s treatment of Maria’s rape, especially at the fact that sexual intercourse with Robert Jordan appears to heal Maria instantaneously. But although Maria does come across as a rather static character, this flatness renders her symbolic importance all the more apparent. Maria’s lovely image endures beyond the last pages of the novel, an emblem of a land that maintains its beauty, strength, and dignity in the face of forces that threaten to tear it apart.