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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1941) by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway at work.

Book Review
For Whom the Bell Tolls (1941)
 by Ernest Hemingway

   The idea that a novel might be ignored upon initial publication and revived years or decades later by a critical audience has been explored multiple times here.  The waxing and waning of artistic reputations over centuries is a concern very much at the heart of this project.  Less significant is the reverse situation:  A work which is a huge hit upon initial publication, garnering a huge popular and critical audience, only to suffer in later years in whole or in part BECAUSE of the size of the initial audience.

  For Whom the Bell Tolls seems like it might be a good example of this second situation.  For Whom the Bell Tolls sold out an initial print run of 75,000 in days, was selected as a "book of the month" selection at a time when that meant something, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.  Set during the height of the Spanish Civil War,  For Whom the Bell Tolls tells the story of Robert Jordan, a Spanish instructor from Montana who is serving as an irregular soldier in the mountainous area beyond Madrid, behind enemy lines.  His job is to blow up a bridge in support of a planned attack by Republican forces against the Fascists.

  For those unfamiliar with the facts of the Spanish civil war, the "sides" can be confusing. The Republican forces were a mix of traditional democrats, Socialists, Communists and Anarchists, with each faction contributing both regular and irregular forces.  Robert Jordan is a Communist, and the doubt he feels about his commitment to both the Republican and Communist cause is a major theme of this book.

  Technically, For Whom the Bell Tolls is an advance for Hemingway in several dimensions.  For the first time, he uses a kind of stream-of-consciousness narrative technique, letting the reader inside the head of Jordan.   Scenes of actual combat and gunplay are actually depicted.  His descriptions of battle carry a ring of authenticity.  If you compare the war scenes from For Whom the Bell Tolls to his earlier novel about World War I in northern Italy, Farewell to Arms, this book trumps that one.

 The only element of For Whom the Bell Tolls that hasn't aged well is the romantic plot between Jordan and Maria, a young woman freed by the Republican guerrillas after suffering a heinous violation at the hands of Fascist irregular forces (the phlangists).  Even by the standard of poorly drawn Hemingway female characters, Maria is weak, she barely seems to be more then a pair of pert breasts pressing against Jordan in his tent.  Better drawn are his pack of mountain gypsy guerrillas, though he chose to translate the Spanish "Tu" and "Usted" as "thee" and "thou" giving the dialogue an antiquated feel.

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