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.