What does the novel’s title mean? For whom does the bell toll? What bell?
The phrase “for whom the bell tolls” comes from a short essay by the seventeenth-century British poet and religious writer John Donne. Hemingway excerpts a portion of the essay in the epigraph to his novel. In Donne’s essay, “For whom does the bell toll?” is the imaginary question of a man who hears a funeral bell and asks about the person who has died. Donne’s answer to this question is that, because none of us stands alone in the world, each human death affects all of us. Every funeral bell, therefore, “tolls for thee.”
Thematically, the title For Whom the Bell Tolls emphasizes the importance of community and fellow-feeling—the values that initially incited Robert Jordan to leave his home country to fight a foreign war. Over time, however, Robert Jordan has seen these values become complicated by war-won cynicism and a lack of moral clarity in the corrupt and inept Republican leaders. Yet by the end of the novel, Robert Jordan learns to embrace these same values again, through the deep connections he establishes with the guerrilla fighters during his short time with them. Robert Jordan undertakes his very last living effort—to hold off the approaching Fascist cavalrymen—not because he subscribes to a particular ideology but because he wishes to aid the escape of a group of people whom he has grown to love.
More literally, the novel’s title helps focus our interpretations of the scenes of brutality and killing that Hemingway portrays. The cruelty of the executions in Pablo’s village left a moral scar on all those who witnessed or participated—Pilar, Pablo, and his mob. Likewise, Lieutenant Berrendo feels the effects not only of his friend’s death but of the slaughter of El Sordo’s men as well. Even Robert Jordan, who kills out of duty because he must, is unable to emerge unscathed. Hemingway neither judges the murderer not justifies the murder. Rather, the moral scars these murders leave are simply the necessary toll of a difficult war.
Politically, the title reflects Hemingway’s stance, which, like Robert Jordan’s, is anti-Fascist as opposed to pro-Communist. Like many western intellectuals at the time, Hemingway saw the Spanish Civil War as a symbolic struggle between authoritarianism and a more humanist and liberal alternative. In this light, the title underscores Hemingway’s and his characters’ sympathies in the war.
The earth moves four times during the course of the novel—twice at moments of destruction and twice during Robert Jordan and Maria’s lovemaking. What connects these different moments? What does the connection say about human nature according to Hemingway?
Characters mention that the earth moves four times in For Whom the Bell Tolls—twice in moments connected with sex and twice in moments connected with violence and death. In addition to the two times the earth moves when Robert Jordan and Maria make love, Rafael recalls the moment during the train operation with Kashkin when the train exploded and “all of the earth seemed to rise in a great cloud of blackness.” Likewise, when El Sordo’s hill is bombed, Joaquín feels “the earth roll under his knees and then wave up to hit him in the face,” then “roll under him with a roar,” and finally “lurch under his belly.” The similar imagery used in these four instances establishes a strong connection between sex and death.
This connection between sex and death runs both ways. On the one hand, orgasm is a moment of sensory obliteration akin to dying. Maria gives voice to this experience when she tells Robert Jordan that she “die[s] each time” they make love. The word “nowhere,” which Hemingway uses repeatedly in describing Robert Jordan and Maria’s sexual encounter after visiting El Sordo, recalls the nothingness against which the Hemingway code hero struggles. Hemingway further supports the connection between death and sex through several other metaphors. After seething over Pablo’s betrayal, Robert Jordan feels his “red, black, blinding, killing anger” die, leaving him “as quiet . . . sharp, [and] cold-seeing as a man is after he has had sexual intercourse with a woman that he does not love.”
In the opposite direction, several characters express the idea that the excitement of killing is akin to sexual pleasure. Rafael, Agustín, and Robert Jordan all admit to feeling excitement or thirst for the kill. After the mass executions of the Fascists that Pablo stages in his hometown, he tells Pilar that he does not want to have sex—the excitement of the kill has used up his sexual charge. The most vivid description of the connection between bloodlust and sexual lust comes in Andrés’s memories of his bull-baiting days in Chapter Thirty-four. Andrés explicitly makes a connection between the euphoria of bull-baiting and the sensation aroused by killing people, and the language he uses to describe his struggle with the bull has undeniable sexual connotations.
Together, these parallels Hemingway draws between death and sex form a strong statement about human nature. But in recounting Andrés’s and Robert Jordan’s experiences, Hemingway offers a partial solution. Unlike Pablo, those who have had the opportunity to experience the thirst for blood in a controlled setting (like Andrés) can admit to these impulses and control them. Likewise, those who engage in enough introspection about their past violent deeds (like Robert Jordan) can notice the pattern and control their urges as well. The courage of the Hemingway code hero lies not in never experiencing fear, but in acting bravely despite the fear. Likewise, Hemingway implies that the full human being does not deny his bloodthirstiness but recognizes it and learns to live with honor and self-awareness.
Robert Jordan, a foreigner in Spain, fights for a cause that he claims not to believe in. What does he believe in? What is he fighting for?
Robert Jordan went to Spain voluntarily to fight because of his love of the Spanish land and its culture. He believed in pragmatism, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which he thought would be impossible under a Fascist regime. Accordingly, he decided to fight against the Fascists, which meant he joins the Republican side. Initially, he experienced something like a religious faith in the Republican cause and felt an “absolute brotherhood” with his comrades-in-arms. As the war drags on, however, Robert Jordan realizes that he does not necessarily believe in or espouse the values of the Republicans—he realizes that he joined their side simply because they were the ones fighting against the Fascists. Because he fights for a side whose causes he does not necessarily support, Robert Jordan experiences a great deal of internal conflict. Disillusioned with the Republican cause and its leaders, he wonders what difference there is between the Fascist and Republican sides—if there is any difference at all.
The other major factor motivating Robert Jordan to fight is that his grandfather, whom he admires very much, fought in the American Civil War. Robert Jordan is embarrassed by his weak father, who committed suicide. In this light, fighting in a war provides a way for Robert Jordan to link himself to his grandfather. Like a number of other characters in the novel—such as Maria, who must work to overcome the traumatic memories of her rape—Robert Jordan must work actively to overcome the burden of his past. Only by enlisting in a war does he believe he can exorcise his embarrassment about his father’s cowardice and match the bravery of his grandfather.
1. One of the most frequent criticisms of for whom the bell tolls is that Hemingway portrays Maria as too submissive and eager to please to be a believable character. Do you agree with this critique? What is the role of women in the novel?
2. The novel ends with Robert Jordan near death but still alive, feeling his “heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.” What is the effect of this ending? How would the novel be different if it ended after his death? Which ending do you prefer?
3. Some have criticized Hemingway for romanticizing the Spanish peasantry, especially in passages such as “They are wonderful when they are good, he thought. There is no people like them when they are good, and when they go bad there is no people that is worse.” Find at least one other passage that takes a similar tone. Do you agree with this criticism of Hemingway? If so, does his romantic portrayal of the peasants detract from the novel? If not, why not?
4. Robert Jordan projects a jaded, seen-it-all attitude throughout much of the novel, yet he also believes that “one thing done well . . . may make all the difference.” Is Robert Jordan a cynic or an idealist? Does his view of the world change during the course of the novel? How does his attitude differ from the narrator’s?
5. Many characters in for whom the bell tolls remember or tell stories about their pasts. Pilar remembers her life with the toreador Finito and tells a long story about the brutal beginning of the war in Pablo’s home town. Robert Jordan remembers his father and grandfather and meeting his friend Karkov in Madrid. Maria talks about the day the Fascists killed her parents and cut off her hair. Andrés remembers baiting bulls in his village. In a novel in which the action happens over a scant three days, what is the role of the past? How does it affect the present?