Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
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.
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.
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.