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.