First published in 1940, Ernest Hemingway’s renowned classic For Whom the Bell Tolls is a book with important themes that still hold relevance today. The book is semi-biographical as Hemingway took inspiration for some of the characters and events from his own experiences in the Spanish Civil War.
Brief Synopsis of the Plot
The story is centered around American-born Robert Jordan, a dynamiter, who is tasked with blowing up a bridge near the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range that is located between Segovia and Madrid. The plot is tight as the action occurs over the course of just four tense days and three sleepless nights.
Wrought with the brutality of war, For Whom the Bell Tolls contains imagery and themes that reveal the even deeper meanings of an already complex and rich story:
Relevant Themes in the Text
Like any great work, For Whom the Bell Tolls has been analyzed by literary scholars. Most agree on central themes to the story. As a reader, you can look for each theme in your own reading of the text, seek out your own as well, and take personal lessons from the messages Hemingway intended.
Camaraderie based on loyalty
A key theme in the text is friendship and love or more broadly camaraderie based around shared ideals, shared loyalty to those ideals, and ultimately shared loyalty to one another due to common goals. In the brief span of the time depicted in the text, Robert Jordan experiences intense friendship with his comrades and an intense relationship with his newfound love, Maria.
On the one hand, this theme can all read as romanticized. After all, it seems lovely to think of a group of people quickly banding together over a shared mission. It might be easy to scoff at the way things play out. However, research does show that when placed in life and death situations, brain chemistry does allow for these fast and furious bonds. It aids survival after all.
Sacrifice for the greater good of all
If a main theme of For Whom the Bell Tolls is the coming together of different peoples over a common goal to promote the survival of each, it may be surprising to learn that another theme of the text is personal sacrifice. Indeed, the characters of the book are putting themselves at risk not just for their own personal survival but to promote greater ideals and a greater good.
The goal for Robert Jordan and his comrades is not just their own survival but the survival of something much greater than themselves. That is war. No person ever went to war just hoping to make it out alive. They knew they risked their life, but they did it with the hopes of making the world a better place. Hemingway illustrates this perfectly through the plot of the text.
Defeat and death of one’s ideals
Sadly, camaraderie and personal sacrifice do not always mean success. Throughout the text, Hemingway also weaves a theme of defeat, which is illustrated with repeated instances of hopelessness and inevitability for a less desired future. This is first illustrated when Robert Jordan visits the palm reader, whose prophecies serve to foreshadow the rest of the book.
Death in a literal sense is also a key theme in the book. This is to be expected based on the title alone. Being set in a period of messy war tactics only increases the odds. The characters each know the risks they face in their situation, with death by enemy or self being the ultimate one. There is no skirting around it and Hemingway does not even try to. In fact, he highlights it.
Analysis of Writing Style
For Whom the Bell Tolls was lauded during its initial publishing. Today, however, there are millions of books to choose from and it might not be the first option you would turn towards. The book does contain some antiquated stylings that might make it seem less relevant and accessible to today’s reader.
In writing the book, Hemingway nearly treated it as though it was a true account of the war, even “translating” the content from Spanish into English. As such, there are some phrasings that might make little sense to the common reader. Although, that can also reasonably happen with any aged book, wherein some phrases have simply been lost to changing styles that occur over time.
Further, despite depicting the brutalities of war, Hemingway was simultaneously mindful of the sensibilities of the time-period he was writing in. As such, he modified “foul” language, often replacing those words with the terms “obscenity” or “unprintable.” This makes reading the book akin to watching a show with words ‘bleeped’ out but the reader can still discern meanings from context clues.
Relevant Themes for Today
Despite its somewhat antiquated language and styling, For Whom the Bell Tolls still has great relevance to today. The text is considered a classic after all because the themes that Hemingway included and highlighted are ones that every generation will face in some form.
Any person who has been in school, a club, a job, or some other setting will know the force that can come along with camaraderie and allegiance to others. It can make people do amazing things they could not have done on their own or engage in unspeakable acts under the guise of anonymity.
When you watch the news and see that an innocent person has stepped in front of a gun to protect another innocent person, you know that personal sacrifice still abounds. Yet, when you watch the news too much, seeing death and destruction, you may also be met with the same feelings of hopelessness and inevitability about a dismal future that the characters in For Whom the Bell Tolls faced.
Ultimately, the question is whether you should take the time to read Hemingway’s classic novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. The answer is yes, you absolutely should. This book is a classic for a reason. It contains a piece of history not often depicted in books and movies. It also contains timeless themes.
At the least you will be a more learned person for adding this classic to the bookshelf of your mind. You may also learn some valuable lessons about the human spirit. You may even learn more about what people (including yourself) are willing to do to protect the people they love and their shared ideals.