Barbara Vitelli and I decided to do a buddy read for this famous novel by Ernest Hemingway. If you aren’t familiar with Barbara’s lovely book blog, do hop over and take a look at it here: https://bvitelli2002.wordpress.com/.
Barbara also has a lovely YouTube channel where she chats about books and other bits and bobs. You can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCXNW3xz003GIWdT0SYOEU7Q. Barbara is also on Twitter here: Barbara Vitelli (@BookClubMom) / Twitter
Barbara has written a review of For Whom the Bell Tolls and an overview of the romantic relationship that develops between protagonist, Robert Jordan, and the beautiful Spanish woman, Maria. You can read Barbara’s post here: https://wp.me/p32mlf-3OK
This book starts with a quote from the prose writings of John Donne, as follows:
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Donne’s view on human death was that every death affects all humans, because none of us stands alone in the world. Every funeral bell, therefore, “tolls for thee.”
The title of this novel is apt as it prepares the reader for the scenes of brutality and killing that follow. The linking of this title back to Donne’s quote also prepares the reader for the underlying themes of the importance of community and fellowship in the book.
The protagonist of the novel, Robert Jordan, a young professor of the Spanish language in the USA has travelled to Spain to take part in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side. Robert’s backstory reveals his romanticised ideas about the Republicans and how he has to readjust his beliefs for the reality of incompetence and corruption among the Republican leadership.
He is trained as a dynamiter and the story starts with Robert heading into the mountains, under the guidance of the elderly and reliable Anselmo, to join up with a band of Republican guerrilleros under the leadership of Pablo. Robert has been tasked with blowing up a Fascist-controlled bridge as part of a larger Republican strategic operation.
The entire story is told within a four-day period and focuses on the various relationships the develop between Robert, a foreigner, and the members of the Spanish band of guerrilleros and how these relationships impact on each person.
Pablo is a man who showed great, albeit brutal, leadership skills at the commencement of the war, but he has become worn down and disillusioned and does not want to disrupt the relatively peaceful existence of his band in the mountains by undertaking the bridge operation in his local vicinity. Such an action would have significant repercussions and his band would have to move elsewhere. Pablo drinks to much and has become more concerned with holding on to his newfound wealth in the form of a small herd of horses, than continuing with the war effort. Pablo is a complicated character who vacillates between rejection of the plan, and an action of great betrayal, to support of the plan and assistance with the operation. He is an unpredictable force throughout the novel.
Pablo’s wife, Pilar, is an earthy and warm character. Part-gypsy, with some interesting mystical beliefs, she is the ‘pillar of strength’ for the band. Pilar is unwaveringly committed to the Republican cause and is the driving force behind ensuring the Robert Jordan does his duty and blows the bridge regardless of the cost in human lives. She displays a great understanding of people and encourages the romance between Maria, a young woman rescued from the Fascists, and Robert, who has never known love. She innately knows that their love and the consummation of their love will be their saving grace. It will enable Maria to recover from her horrific experiences at the hands of the fascists and allow Robert to experience all the passion of love within the four-day period before the attack on the bridge.
Maria is the beautiful and young love interest of Robert Jordan. She is the mechanism for his personal growth in the novel from a cold and unfeeling thinker with no interest in women or romance, to a man who recognises the greatness of human love and integrates his commitments to his work with his commitments to Maria. Outside of her role in the development of Robert’s character, Maria does not play a big role in the novel.
Robert Jordan is a fascinating character. He is typical of a young man who has a romantic notion of war and the nobility of his side’s beliefs and cause. His backstory highlights his religious-like belief in the cause and the brotherhood. At the commencement of the novel, he is already deeply disillusioned by the behaviour of the Republican leadership. Robert is a deeply conflicted character, and this is highlighted by is many interior monologues. He does not like killing others but sees this as a necessary part of his current circumstances and he attempts not to dwell on such things. Robert shows himself to be a great leader and a noble person.
Leadership as a theme
My research uncovered three themes for this novel. The loss of innocence in war, the value of human life, and romantic love as salvation. To these three, I would add a theme of leadership. For me, the role of leaders in conflict and other difficult situations was a big part of this novel and I think that the role of leaders is something that is enduring and of vital importance in our current world.
Leadership is vital to provide clarity of purpose, motivation, and guidance and now, more than ever before, this is of great consequence to humanity.
I believe that Robert Jordan was a good leader within the context of the band member’s general belief in, and support of, the Republican cause. He knew he had a job to do that was vital to the strategy of the Republicans. He also comes to realise that he has a responsibility to the members of Pablo’s band, the men, and women he is leading into conflict. He does his best to melt these two responsibilities with the best outcome for the individuals involved.
Robert must make some difficult calls and leadership decisions over the four-day period of the novel.
These are a few of the situations that I thought were most notable in this regard and a few supporting quotes from the book:
When Pablo first declares his lack of support for the blowing of the bridge and the altercation between him and Pilar takes place over who is the leader of the band. Robert has to decide whether or not to kill Pablo. He decides against it. Ultimately, this was the best decision for the band as Pablo’s support eventually sways the potential success of the operation in the guerrilleros favour.
“If it is true, as the gypsy says, that they expected me to kill Pablo then I should have done that. But it was never clear to me that they did expect that. For a stranger to kill where he must work with the people afterwards is bad. It may be done in action, and it may be done if backed y sufficient discipline, but in this case I think it would be very bad, although it was a temptation and seemed a short and simple way.”
When Robert had to decide whether to kill the four Fascist soldiers when the came into his range while looking for their missing compatriot.
“Then they came into sight trotting along the edge of the timer in columns of twos, twenty mounted men, armed and uniformed as he others had been, their sabers swinging, their carbines in their holsters; and then they went down into the timber as the others had.
“Tue ves? Robert Jordan said to Agustíne. “Thou seest?”
“There were many,” Agustíne said.
“These would we have had to deal with if we had destroyed the others,” Robert Jordan said very softly.”
When Robert had to decide not to assist Sordo when his band was attacked by the Fascists.
“The firing was rolling in overlapping waves. Then they heard the noise of hand grenades heavy and sodden in the dry rolling of the automatic rifle fire.
“They are lost,” Robert Jordan said. “They were lost when the snow stopped. If we go there we are lost, too. It is impossible to divide what force we have.””