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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
In front of the cave that functions as the headquarters
of Pablo’s camp, Robert Jordan meets Rafael, an old gypsy who traps
rabbits. They drink wine, smoke Robert Jordan’s Russian cigarettes,
and await their food. Robert Jordan tells the others that Kashkin
committed suicide when he was captured, but he conceals the details. Robert
Jordan thinks to himself that Kashkin did more harm than good because
he let the fighters know that he was nervous.
A young, short-haired woman named Maria brings food out
of the cave. Self-conscious about her haircut, she explains that
she once had long hair, but that Fascists cut it short when they
captured her recently. She was on the Fascist train that Pablo and
Kashkin blew up, and afterward she rejoined the guerrilla fighters.
Robert Jordan feels drawn to Maria and finds out that she is not
After Maria leaves, Rafael tells Robert Jordan about their
seven-man, two-woman camp and their machine gun. Rafael says that Pilar,
Pablo’s “woman,” insisted that they take in Maria. Rafael recounts
how exhilarating the train operation was and describes the engine
hurtling through the air like a “great wounded animal.” Rafael says
that he manned the machine gun.
The half-gypsy Pilar, stocky and brusque, emerges from
the cave. She makes Robert Jordan promise to take Maria with him
when he leaves. Pilar then reads Robert Jordan’s palm and seems
troubled by what she sees. Despite his claims not to be superstitious,
he wants to know what Pilar sees. Pilar says that a nearby guerrilla
band, led by a man named El Sordo, will be able to help with the
bridge. Anselmo and Robert Jordan prepare to leave to inspect the
Together, the title and the epigraph, from which the title
comes, announce two of the main themes of For Whom the Bell
Tolls: the role of an individual within a community and
the value of human life, especially in a time of war. The funeral
bell of the title and epigraph introduce the idea of human mortality,
a reminder that all human beings are destined to die. Because everyone
belongs to humanity, the metaphorical bell that announces one individual’s death
also announces the death of something within everyone. Humankind
is inextricably united in this way, so that the loss of any one
part affects the whole. The fear of death looms large in the novel,
for the characters are involved in a wartime guerrilla operation
that is up against considerable odds. The reminder of death inherent
in the title and the epigraph sets the tone for the characters’ anxieties
about death and the novel’s celebration of life.
The conflict between Pablo and Robert Jordan, which arises
virtually from the moment they first meet, develops into one of
the central thematic conflicts of the novel. Pablo, a man of reckless individuality,
proudly announces that his primary responsibility is to himself.
He will not participate in bridge-blowing, regardless of how important
the operation may be for the Republic. Robert Jordan, in contrast,
has voluntarily left a cushy life in America to fight in a foreign
war. Even though he also has reservations about the bridge operation,
he nevertheless is committed to carrying it out. He feels it is
his duty, he knows his general is counting on him, and he retains
some hope despite all odds that the larger Republican offensive
will be a success. Just as Pablo and Robert Jordan disagree over whether
or not to blow up the bridge, the larger ideas that the two men
represent—individualism versus community involvement—come into conflict
throughout the novel.
Kashkin, Robert Jordan’s predecessor in the forest,
functions as a foil (a character whose actions or attitudes contrast
with those of another, highlighting the differences between them)
to Robert Jordan. Whereas Robert Jordan is steady and in control,
Kashkin was nervous, especially about his own death—in the guerrilleros’
terminology, Kashkin had “gone bad.” The differences between the
two men make Robert Jordan’s cool-headedness more pronounced. Kashkin
functions as a cautionary figure for Robert Jordan, making him aware
that, as a leader, his attitude affects those he leads. Kashkin’s
nervousness rubbed off on his guerrillas, so he did more harm than
good. Also, Kashkin’s capture and death remind us of the danger
of Robert Jordan’s work and suggest that a similar fate might befall
The opening of the novel strips Hemingway’s famously uncluttered,
simple writing style even more bare than usual. Initially, we know
neither the names of the two characters nor what they are doing
in the forest. The narrator makes no comment on the action and restricts
observations to the physical world—what an observer might see, hear,
or smell. The names Anselmo and Roberto (as Robert Jordan initially
calls himself) are revealed to us on a need-to-know basis, at the
same time as they are revealed to the characters. The impression
that we are eavesdropping, watching a scene unfolding here and now,
creates dramatic tension because we want to figure out what is going
on. Typical of Hemingway’s style, the characters seem to leave very
much unsaid. It is not until Anselmo leaves and Robert Jordan is
alone that we are allowed to enter Robert Jordan’s head to know
Throughout the novel, Hemingway uses older English vocabulary
and a number of grammatical structures that are more typical of
Spanish than English. These word choices and structures recreate the
spirit of the Spanish language, emphasizing its deep connection with
the past and giving the novel a distant and heroic flavor. Odd-sounding
phrases like “the woman of Pablo” and “I informed myself from the
gypsy” give the impression that the novel was written in Spanish
and has been translated word for word, retaining Spanish grammar.
Hemingway’s Spanish was not particularly strong—the Spanish in For
Whom the Bell Tolls is notoriously riddled with errors—so
he uses the language in order to evoke the spirit of his setting
rather than to add authenticity to the novel. The older English
forms that Hemingway uses—words like “thou,” “art,” “dost”—lend
a pre-modern, natural aura to the characters in Robert Jordan’s
band of guerrilleros and to the novel as a whole.
Ace your assignments with our guide to For Whom The Bell Tolls!