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.