Summary: Chapter Eighteen

You felt that you were taking part in a crusade. . . . It gave you a part in something that you could believe in wholly and completely.

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Robert Jordan feels that his confrontations with Pablo recur as though they were on a merry-go-round. He finishes drawing up plans for blowing up the bridge. He imagines going to Madrid after blowing up the bridge, staying at the Florida Hotel, and dining at Gaylord’s, the gathering place for important Russian expatriates in Madrid. It was at Gaylord’s that Robert Jordan began to learn insider information, such as the fact that many Spanish Republican leaders had been trained in Russia or came from more privileged backgrounds than they let on. Although these deceptions and the opulence at Gaylord’s initially made Robert Jordan uncomfortable, he has come to understand that the deceptions are necessary and that the opulence is nice.

At Gaylord’s, Robert Jordan met Karkov, an intelligent journalist for the Russian newspaper Pravda with great taste in women. The two men became friends. Robert Jordan remembers that Karkov was at one point responsible for three wounded Russians who were being held captive in the city. If Madrid were taken by the Fascists, Karkov was to poison the three men so that no evidence of Russian involvement would remain. Karkov said that it was not a difficult task to poison someone if you were used to always carrying poison you might have to use on yourself.

Thinking of Karkov, Robert Jordan remembers another scene. During an attack on Madrid, Robert Jordan dragged a dead man out of a car only to abandon him in the street as the dead man’s partner wanted. He abandoned the body in order to go assist a third man who was dying of an arm wound nearby. Moments afterward, Robert Jordan was stopped by a well-known British economist named Mitchell, whom Robert Jordan recognized but had never met before. Mitchell offered a cigarette and asked for information about the war, but Robert Jordan swore at him, disgusted with his academic airs. Robert Jordan remembers discussing Mitchell with Karkov. Karkov suggested that Robert Jordan read up on philosophy. Karkov also said that he read Robert Jordan’s one published academic book and said that he liked its writing style. Robert Jordan resolves to write another book about the things he knows now, the things he has come to learn in the war, which are “not so simple.”

Summary: Chapter Nineteen

Maria interrupts Robert Jordan’s musings. In front of everyone, Pilar says that Robert Jordan shot Kashkin. Pilar claims that Kashkin had a premonition that he would die, and that he smelled of death. Robert Jordan, who claims that he does not believe in superstitions, says it was more of a self-fulfilling prophecy for the nervous Kashkin.

Pilar describes the smell of death, which has four main components: the brass on a ship in danger of sinking, the taste of the kiss of an old woman who has drunk the blood of a slaughtered animal, dead flowers in the trash, and dirty water from a brothel. The snowstorm ends.

Summary: Chapter Twenty

Outside, Robert Jordan makes a bed out of a spruce tree. He lies in the bed, thinking about soul-calming smells, and waits for Maria. She comes barefoot through the snow wearing her nightgown, which she calls her “wedding shirt.” Their pillow-talk revolves around the idea that they are one and share the same heart. They make love, and Maria says that this coupling was different from the afternoon’s. In the middle of the night, Robert Jordan wakes up and embraces her, then moves away and thinks.

Analysis: Chapters Eighteen–Twenty

The merry-go-round image that Robert Jordan uses to describe his frustrations with Pablo is just one of many cyclical structures in For Whom the Bell Tolls. One critic has called this merry-go-round “the wheel of human conflict.” The novel as a whole follows a circular path. As we see in the final chapter, the story ends in the forest where it began, with Robert Jordan lying on the pine needle-covered ground, watching and waiting. The novel marks a cycle in Robert Jordan’s life—a fact Robert Jordan calls attention to in his musings that he’s living the whole of his life in the three days portrayed in the novel. Indeed, a circle is a particularly apt shape to symbolize many of the novel’s events. Robert Jordan’s encounters with Maria, for instance, follow a cyclical pattern—they come together at night and part during the day. The circle also describes the structure of many natural phenomena observed in the novel, such as the movement of the earth during the course of a day and the falling and melting of late-May snow. The merry-go-round image represents a literal version of these cycles that run throughout in the novel.

Robert Jordan’s memories of Madrid, especially the incident with the British economist Mitchell, illustrate Robert Jordan’s inner tension between abstract theories and concrete action. Robert Jordan was rude when Mitchell asked for information about the war because Mitchell, busy with his theories far from the difficult physical realities of the war, couldn’t possibly have had any conception of what the true experience of the war was like. In contrast, Robert Jordan, just before the conversation with Mitchell, had abandoned one dead man in order to save another wounded man. The contrast between Robert Jordan’s competent actions backed by difficult moral decisions—abandoning one man’s body in order to help another—and the economist’s detached, academic interest is jarring. This incident illustrates that, at heart, Robert Jordan is a man of action, even if he often gets stuck in thinking about theories. In his impatience with Mitchell and his rejection of Karkov’s suggestion that he read up on philosophy, Robert Jordan shows that he favors action over theory. We see this trait grow in Robert Jordan as the story progresses, and it is a major part of the development of his character over the course of the novel.

The conversation about the smell of death gives the novel an air of belonging to an older, earthier, pre-Christian time, when people believed the natural cycles of life to have mystical powers. In Pilar’s graphic description, the ingredients for the smell of death all relate to primordial human experiences: nausea, fear of death, killing, the decay of beauty, and sex. Pilar says that the final ingredient contains “the smell that is both the death and birth of man”—experiences shared by all humans. Just like her earlier belief in palm-reading and the movement of the earth, Pilar’s belief in a particular smell associated with death ties her to that older, pagan world. Also, many cultural traditions consider women to be more engaged with nature and its mysterious processes, at least in part because of their ability to give birth. Hemingway establishes these connections with nature in order to set up a framework for interpreting the development of Robert Jordan’s character. In the growth of his relationship with Maria and in his acceptance of Pilar’s gypsy superstitions, Robert Jordan turns away from the constraints imposed by modern society and moves toward nature and natural values.