Thursday, 16 December 2010

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway is a big name in American (and in world) literature. He is one of those authors of whom you have most definitely heard a million of times and you think you must have read something by him. I thought so too but it turned out I hadn't. While searching through my library and looking for a book I haven't read I saw three heavy volumes by Ernest Hemingway. That is when it hit me - I hadn't read anything by him and I didn't have even the slightest idea about his writing style. Having to correct this error, I started with For Whom the Bell Tolls

The novel tells the story of Robert Jordan, an American attached to a republican guerrilla in the Spanish Civil War. He is assigned to blow up a bridge during the attack of the city of Segovia and thus stop the offense of the enemy's troops. In this case, the enemies are the Fascist (having in mind of course that the year is 1939, a little bit before the beginning of World War II). For Whom the Bell Tolls comprises exactly 4 days and 3 nights, throughout which Jordan together with several Spanish partizans prepares the blowing of the bridge.

Hemingway wrote the novel in Cuba in 1940 inspired (or should we say disillusioned) by the outcome of the Spanish Civil War. In 1939 Madrid falls under Fascist rule and Hemingway exclaims: "There is nothing left for me to do but write". And indeed he does. The events in the novel are inspired by the author's own experiences in the Spanish Civil War.

In For Whom the Bell Tolls the author discusses the theme of death, and especially the theme of sacrifice for the greater good. The protagonist, Robert Jordan, and the other partisans are faced with a difficult task, which will most probably lead to their death. The story is told from a third person point-of-view but throughout it we get acquainted with Jordan's feelings and thoughts about war and sacrifice. The protagonist is faced with an awful choice - he has just met the love of his life Maria in the partisan's group but he knows he is meant to finish up his mission. Jordan realizes he has experience the peak of his life by spending several days with Maria. An interesting trivia fact is that the relationship between the two is claimed to be one of the greatest love stories written in the 20th century. When you get acquainted with the novel, though, you will find that the way Robert and Maria talk is strange - their conversations are characterized by an extensive use of archaisms and medieval way of talking. You will hardly expect people in the 20th century to talk that way. Yet, Hemingway amazingly portrays this love story in the middle of war, violence, and death. Suicide, the alternative of being captured and tortured is considered weakness by Jordan, mainly because his father committed suicide. Jordan considers him a coward but at the end of the novel injured in the face of the enemy Robert makes one last desperate attempt to contribute to the cause and then kill himself. The author does an amazing job in depicting brave and strong men, who faced with death act with dignity and sense of purpose for a greater cause.

Hemingway faces both appraises and criticisms for his novel. Some accuse him of being a communist, while others claim it to be among his greatest works. Understandably, he is nominated for a Pulitzer price in 1940 but the award is never given. The title is rather interesting and deserves mentioning. For Whom the Bell Tolls is a citation by John Donne. What's more, initially Hemingway wrote two more chapters to describe what happens to the guerilla and the generals that attacked Segovia. Later, the author chose to delete them and instead finish off with the destiny of Robert Jordan, the main protagonist.

I quite enjoyed For Whom the Bell Tolls. Even though it is a war story (and I am not particularly fond of war stories) Hemingway's style is easy and enchanting to read. And he is definitely a must-read author, whom I will continue to explore.

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