For Whom The Bell Tolls
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Loss of Innocence in War
Each of the characters in For Whom the Bell Tolls loses his or her psychological or physical innocence to the war. Some endure tangible traumas: Joaquín loses both his parents and is forced to grow up quickly, while Maria loses her physical innocence when she is raped by a group of Fascist soldiers. On top of these tangible, physical costs of the war come many psychological costs. Robert Jordan initially came to Spain with idealism about the Republican cause and believed confidently that he was joining the good side. But after fighting in the war, Robert Jordan becomes cynical about the Republican cause and loses much of his initial idealism.
The victims of violence in the war are not the only ones to lose their innocence—the perpetrators lose their innocence too. The ruffians in Pablo’s hometown who participate in the massacre of the town Fascists have to face their inner brutality afterward. Anselmo has to suppress his aversion to killing human beings, and Lieutenant Berrendo has to quell his aversion to cutting heads off of corpses.
War even costs the innocence of people who aren’t involved in it directly. War journalists, writers, and we as readers of novels like For Whom the Bell Tolls have to abandon our innocent expectation that wars involve clean moral choices that distinguish us from the enemy. Hemingway shows in the novel that morality is subjective and conditional, and that the sides of right and wrong are almost never clear-cut. With no definite sides of right and wrong in For Whom the Bell Tolls, there is no sense of glorious victory in battle, no sense of triumph or satisfaction that good prevails and evil is defeated.
The Value of Human Life
Many characters die during the course of the novel, and we see characters repeatedly question what can possibly justify killing another human being. Anselmo and Pablo represent two extremes with regard to this question. Anselmo hates killing people in all circumstances, although he will do so if he must. Pablo, on the other hand, accepts killing as a part of his life and ultimately demonstrates that he is willing to kill his own men just to take their horses. Robert Jordan’s position about killing falls somewhere between Anselmo’s and Pablo’s positions. Although Robert Jordan doesn’t like to think about killing, he has killed many people in the line of duty. His personal struggle with this question ends on a note of compromise. Although war can’t fully absolve him of guilt, and he has “no right to forget any of it,” Robert Jordan knows both that he must kill people as part of his duties in the war, and that dwelling on his guilt during wartime is not productive.
The question of when it is justifiable to kill a person becomes complicated when we read that several characters, including Andrés, Agustín, Rafael, and even Robert Jordan, admit to experiencing a rush of excitement while killing. Hemingway does not take a clear moral stance regarding when it is acceptable to take another person’s life. At times he even implies that killing can be exhilarating, which makes the morality of the war in For Whom the Bell Tolls even murkier.
Romantic Love as Salvation
Even though many of the characters in For Whom the Bell Tolls take a cynical view of human nature and feel fatigued by the war, the novel still holds out hope for romantic love. Even the worldly-wise Pilar, in her memories of Finito, reveals traces of a romantic, idealistic outlook on the world. Robert Jordan and Maria fall in love at first sight, and their love is grand and idealistic. Love endows Robert Jordan’s life with new meaning and gives him new reasons to fight in the wake of the disillusionment he feels for the Republican cause. He believes in love despite the fact that other people—notably Karkov, who subscribes to the “purely materialistic” philosophy fashionable with the Hotel Gaylord set—reject its existence. This new acceptance of ideal, romantic love is one of the most important ways in which Robert Jordan rejects abstract theories in favor of intuition and action over the course of the novel.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Rabbits and Hares
Animal imagery pervades For Whom the Bell Tolls, but rabbits and hares appear most frequently. Robert Jordan’s nickname for Maria is “Rabbit.” When Robert Jordan first meets Rafael, the gypsy is making traps for rabbits. Later, Rafael, distracted by trapping a pair of hares that he has caught mating in the snow, leaves his post. The guerrilla fighters have a somber meal of rabbit stew after the Fascists slaughter El Sordo’s men. And shortly before his death, El Sordo invokes the image of a skinned rabbit when thinking about how vulnerable before enemy planes he feels on his hilltop.
The association of the guerrilleros with rabbits underscores their fragile position relative to the Fascists. Throughout the novel, we get the impression that the Fascists are the hunters and the guerrilleros the hunted: much like rabbits, Robert Jordan and his band are prey rather than predators. Like rabbits, the guerrilleros live in close contact with the natural world: they are a small, vulnerable group, in sharp contrast to the well-equipped Fascists with their incessant plane patrols and threatening, industrial war machinery.
The Forest Floor
For Whom the Bell Tolls opens with Robert Jordan lying “flat on the brown pine-needled floor of the forest.” We see him amid the evergreens on the forest floor at several points throughout the novel, implying how he literally embraces the Spanish land. On the second night, after it snows, Robert Jordan makes a bed of spruce branches for himself and Maria to share. His embrace of Maria and his closeness to the ground becomes a physical act of love both for the woman and the country. Toward the end of the novel, Robert Jordan assumes his post as he awaits the start of the attack on the bridge. On he is again “on his belly behind the pine trunk” and feels the “give of the brown, dropped pine-needles under his elbows.” His literal closeness to the earth highlights the natural, pre-civilized lifestyle that the guerrilla fighters lead in the wilderness. Robert Jordan takes this position one final time, at the very end of the novel, when he again lies behind a tree and feels “his heart beating against the pine needle floor the forest.” Comparing his position at the end of the novel to his almost identical position at the beginning reminds us of the ways in which Robert Jordan has changed over the course of the novel. There is a new element at the end—his beating heart, which he has reawakened through his relationships with Maria and with the guerrilla fighters.
Signs and Omens
Omens abound in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the belief in them indicate closeness to a pre-civilized, natural way of life. For example, the worry Pilar feels after reading Robert Jordan’s palm is borne out when Robert Jordan is wounded at the end of the novel. Even characters who claim not to believe in signs often rely on them subconsciously. Although Robert Jordan professes not to believe Pilar’s superstitions, he plays games with himself and repeatedly interprets natural phenomena as signs. His framing of other people’s behaviors as good signs or bad signs further undermines his claim not to believe in omens. At the end of the novel, however, as Robert Jordan faces death and comes to terms with his life, he grudgingly admits that gypsies do indeed “see something . . . feel something.” Ultimately, Hemingway implies that the wisdom associated with the natural, Spanish way of life trumps the other characters’ cynical rationality and skepticism.
Throughout For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway characterizes suicide as an act of cowardice by associating it with characters who are vulnerable or lack strength of spirit. A number of characters contemplate suicide: Karkov always carries pills to use to kill himself if he is ever captured, and Maria carries around a razor blade for the same purpose. Robert Jordan’s father committed suicide—an act that Robert Jordan says he understands but nonetheless condemns. The traits of these characters who contemplate suicide connect the act of suicide to weakness. Robert Jordan’s father is characterized as weak, Maria is young and female, and Karkov is a man of ideas, not action. At the end of the novel, Robert Jordan contemplates suicide but rejects the idea, preferring to struggle to stay awake despite the pain. Robert Jordan’s reliance on inner strength in his rejection of suicide contrasts the other characters’ weakness, which demonstrates that the will to continue living requires psychological strength.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Planes, Tanks, and Mortars
The rumble of Fascist war machinery often jars the serenity of the Spanish mountains in For Whom the Bell Tolls, usually in the form of Italian and German observation and bomber planes that fly overhead. The military threat from the Fascists is both physical and moral: the planes menace not only with their bombs but also with their intimidating rumble. The planes move like “mechanized doom,” conveying a sense of automation and industry that contrasts sharply with the earthy, close-to-nature lifestyle of Robert Jordan’s relatively helpless band of guerrillas. The fact that the planes move like “mechanized doom” highlights the Fascists’ superior technology. At the time of the Spanish Civil War, industrialization threatened the natural lifestyle of the peasants who lived off the land not only in Spain but also in many other countries. Hemingway saw Spain as one of the last places where small community life was still possible, and he saw the Spanish Civil War as destroying this possibility.
Robert Jordan’s flask of absinthe (a green liqueur flavored with anise, a substance similar to licorice) embodies his deep appreciation for sensory pleasures—food, drink, smells, touch, sex, and so on. For Robert Jordan, absinthe “[takes] the place of the evening papers, of all the old evenings in cafés, of all the chestnut trees that would be in bloom now in this month . . . of all the things he had enjoyed and forgotten.” Although Robert Jordan uses absinthe to buy trust and build relationships with the guerrilla fighters, he cannot help begrudging every drop. In the novel’s wartime setting, absinthe represents the attitude that one should take advantage of carnal or sensory pleasures while one has the chance.
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