For Whom the Bell Tolls opens with an epigraph, a short quotation that introduces the novel, sets the mood, and presents a theme. This epigraph is from a short essay by the seventeenth-century British poet John Donne. Donne writes that no person stands alone—“No man is an island, entire of itself”—because everyone belongs to a community. As a result, the death of any human diminishes Donne himself because he is a part of mankind. Donne admonishes us not to ask who has died when we hear a funeral bell toll, for it tolls for everyone in the human race.
On a Saturday afternoon in May 1937, a young man and an old peasant named Anselmo survey the Spanish countryside from the side of a hill. The young man is Robert Jordan, an American university instructor fighting on the Republican side against the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Anselmo is guiding Robert Jordan behind enemy lines to join a small band of guerrilla fighters near the bridge that Robert Jordan has been instructed to blow up.
Anselmo leaves Robert Jordan near a stream outside the camp and goes ahead to warn the other guerrilla fighters that a stranger is approaching. As he waits for Anselmo to return, Robert Jordan thinks back on the night before, when he received his bridge-blowing assignment from the Russian General Golz. Golz explained that the bridge operation is part of a larger Republican offensive to take the city of Segovia. The bridge must be blown up on Tuesday morning, after aerial bombardment begins. Both Golz and Robert Jordan understood that the assignment was difficult.
Anselmo returns with Pablo, the leader of the guerrilla camp. Pablo is openly hostile to Robert Jordan, who shows the illiterate Pablo identification papers that Pablo cannot read. Pablo challenges Robert Jordan’s plan to blow up the bridge and refuses to help carry the packs full of dynamite until Anselmo scolds him.
At the top of the mountain, the three men pass Pablo’s makeshift corral of five horses that his guerrilla band has found or stolen. Pablo tests Robert Jordan’s knowledge of horses by asking him to identify which of the five horses is lame. Anselmo recalls the last major guerrilla operation, the bombing of an enemy train, which Pablo and a Russian operative named Kashkin carried out. Robert Jordan reveals that Kashkin is now dead. Pablo says that he doesn’t want to follow Robert Jordan’s orders.
Robert Jordan thinks to himself that Pablo’s sadness is a sign that Pablo is losing his loyalty to the Republican cause. Robert Jordan predicts that Pablo will betray the Republican cause. Robert Jordan believes that he will know when Pablo has made a decision to betray the guerrillas because Pablo will suddenly start to be nice. Robert Jordan dismisses his thoughts and looks forward to dinner.
In front of the cave that functions as the headquarters of Pablo’s camp, Robert Jordan meets Rafael, an old gypsy who traps rabbits. They drink wine, smoke Robert Jordan’s Russian cigarettes, and await their food. Robert Jordan tells the others that Kashkin committed suicide when he was captured, but he conceals the details. Robert Jordan thinks to himself that Kashkin did more harm than good because he let the fighters know that he was nervous.
A young, short-haired woman named Maria brings food out of the cave. Self-conscious about her haircut, she explains that she once had long hair, but that Fascists cut it short when they captured her recently. She was on the Fascist train that Pablo and Kashkin blew up, and afterward she rejoined the guerrilla fighters. Robert Jordan feels drawn to Maria and finds out that she is not married.
After Maria leaves, Rafael tells Robert Jordan about their seven-man, two-woman camp and their machine gun. Rafael says that Pilar, Pablo’s “woman,” insisted that they take in Maria. Rafael recounts how exhilarating the train operation was and describes the engine hurtling through the air like a “great wounded animal.” Rafael says that he manned the machine gun.
The half-gypsy Pilar, stocky and brusque, emerges from the cave. She makes Robert Jordan promise to take Maria with him when he leaves. Pilar then reads Robert Jordan’s palm and seems troubled by what she sees. Despite his claims not to be superstitious, he wants to know what Pilar sees. Pilar says that a nearby guerrilla band, led by a man named El Sordo, will be able to help with the bridge. Anselmo and Robert Jordan prepare to leave to inspect the bridge.
Together, the title and the epigraph, from which the title comes, announce two of the main themes of For Whom the Bell Tolls: the role of an individual within a community and the value of human life, especially in a time of war. The funeral bell of the title and epigraph introduce the idea of human mortality, a reminder that all human beings are destined to die. Because everyone belongs to humanity, the metaphorical bell that announces one individual’s death also announces the death of something within everyone. Humankind is inextricably united in this way, so that the loss of any one part affects the whole. The fear of death looms large in the novel, for the characters are involved in a wartime guerrilla operation that is up against considerable odds. The reminder of death inherent in the title and the epigraph sets the tone for the characters’ anxieties about death and the novel’s celebration of life.
The conflict between Pablo and Robert Jordan, which arises virtually from the moment they first meet, develops into one of the central thematic conflicts of the novel. Pablo, a man of reckless individuality, proudly announces that his primary responsibility is to himself. He will not participate in bridge-blowing, regardless of how important the operation may be for the Republic. Robert Jordan, in contrast, has voluntarily left a cushy life in America to fight in a foreign war. Even though he also has reservations about the bridge operation, he nevertheless is committed to carrying it out. He feels it is his duty, he knows his general is counting on him, and he retains some hope despite all odds that the larger Republican offensive will be a success. Just as Pablo and Robert Jordan disagree over whether or not to blow up the bridge, the larger ideas that the two men represent—individualism versus community involvement—come into conflict throughout the novel.
Kashkin, Robert Jordan’s predecessor in the forest, functions as a foil (a character whose actions or attitudes contrast with those of another, highlighting the differences between them) to Robert Jordan. Whereas Robert Jordan is steady and in control, Kashkin was nervous, especially about his own death—in the guerrilleros’ terminology, Kashkin had “gone bad.” The differences between the two men make Robert Jordan’s cool-headedness more pronounced. Kashkin functions as a cautionary figure for Robert Jordan, making him aware that, as a leader, his attitude affects those he leads. Kashkin’s nervousness rubbed off on his guerrillas, so he did more harm than good. Also, Kashkin’s capture and death remind us of the danger of Robert Jordan’s work and suggest that a similar fate might befall him.
The opening of the novel strips Hemingway’s famously uncluttered, simple writing style even more bare than usual. Initially, we know neither the names of the two characters nor what they are doing in the forest. The narrator makes no comment on the action and restricts observations to the physical world—what an observer might see, hear, or smell. The names Anselmo and Roberto (as Robert Jordan initially calls himself) are revealed to us on a need-to-know basis, at the same time as they are revealed to the characters. The impression that we are eavesdropping, watching a scene unfolding here and now, creates dramatic tension because we want to figure out what is going on. Typical of Hemingway’s style, the characters seem to leave very much unsaid. It is not until Anselmo leaves and Robert Jordan is alone that we are allowed to enter Robert Jordan’s head to know his thoughts.
Throughout the novel, Hemingway uses older English vocabulary and a number of grammatical structures that are more typical of Spanish than English. These word choices and structures recreate the spirit of the Spanish language, emphasizing its deep connection with the past and giving the novel a distant and heroic flavor. Odd-sounding phrases like “the woman of Pablo” and “I informed myself from the gypsy” give the impression that the novel was written in Spanish and has been translated word for word, retaining Spanish grammar. Hemingway’s Spanish was not particularly strong—the Spanish in For Whom the Bell Tolls is notoriously riddled with errors—so he uses the language in order to evoke the spirit of his setting rather than to add authenticity to the novel. The older English forms that Hemingway uses—words like “thou,” “art,” “dost”—lend a pre-modern, natural aura to the characters in Robert Jordan’s band of guerrilleros and to the novel as a whole.