Roberta Writes – For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway buddy read with Book Club Mom

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

My review

Ernest Hemingway - For Whom The Bell Tolls

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.””

77 thoughts on “Roberta Writes – For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway buddy read with Book Club Mom

    1. Hi Liz, I haven’t enjoyed every book of his I’ve read. I loved The Old Man and the Sea and Farewell to Arms. This book was also fantastic, Hemingway has a marvelous way of making his characters so vivid and read. I found this book very compelling.

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      1. HI Phil, some people like reading books they are supposed to read [smile]. I enjoyed Hemingway’s writing in this book very much. I studied how he built tension and I take my hat off to him, although I don’t think modern youngsters would like it … to slow, but it is fascinating to study.

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    2. Wanted to chime in with Liz and Phil and R on this because I have noticed that reading some classics in older years means allows for completely different takes on a book. We might always not enjoy certain authors – but I have noticed that our cognitive filters change so much – as does our entire outlook and so I at least skim some titles to see if anything fresh or new jumps out –

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      1. Hi Yvette, you are 100% correct about our appreciation of certain books increasing as we get older. I put it down to gaining life experience with people and in love and work. It changes your outlook a lot from the strong and unyielding viewpoints we often have as youngsters.

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      2. Hi! I like what you wrote (such good points and I see that too) but I was more referring to how we change as people.
        And speaking of leadership – I have an example from a leadership book I was given as a manager.
        In 1999, Kyle reed (best boss ever) gave his management team ken blanchard’s One Minute MAnager book.
        He gave a nice intro to it and we all talked it about it at two meetings. We cleaned poijts about giving on the spot praise and this active type of involvement with employees – etc it was all new and so I saw later it was more digesting
        I read the book again about six years later and totally different things stood out to me. Rather than digesting so much like the first read – I was assessing and even questioning the simple pages and how so many things were not explained out. A mom at that time and with many more years of working with people under my belt- I took away different things – then – around 2012 I ended up with a series of books related to one minute manager and skimmed them and re read the main one. This time I had published two books already and so I was considering the authors approach In a different way and different words jumped out at me.
        I recently (two years ago) realized I cannot stand that book! Lol
        I see its value and am glad I had it introduced to me and then had the changes in view of it.
        And with less miserables from victor Hugo I take away so many different things because I am so different –

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  1. Tremendous review, Robbie, of what might be Hemingway’s masterpiece. You covered MANY bases. I read “For Whom the Bell Tolls” with particular interest because my wife’s father was one of the people fighting the fascists during the Spanish Civil War as part of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

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    1. HI Dave, having a personal interest in a war would definitely bring it closer to home. My husband is a descendant of Andries Pretorius, the Afrikaner leader for whom Pretoria, the administrative capital city of South Africa, is named. It made my research on the Second Anglo Boer War more interesting for me. Admittedly, I knew little about the Spanish Civil War and found this portrayal, particularly Pablo’s murder of the Fascists in his home town, absolutely brutal and awful. It upset to a point where I had to put the book aside for a few days. If a writer can make you feel that much, he has to be extraordinary.

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      1. Totally agree, Robbie, that a personal connection (such as your husband’s) to history and/or a war can stir extra fascination!

        And a novel like “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is indeed highly disturbing even as it’s compelling.

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    1. HI John, yes, I have only read four Hemingway books. The Old Man of the Sea, Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, and this one. I didn’t enjoy The Sun Also Rises so it put me off attempting another for a while. I did enjoy Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls very much.

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  2. I haven’t read this one yet, though I’m a Hemingway fan. Between you and Barb, I’m convinced that I’d better add it to my pile. I enjoy how you focus on the themes in your reviews. It’s fascinating. Happy Reading.

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      1. Thank you, Robbie. And the same to you. The wartime strategy was also very interesting to me. Robert’s decisions and the dynamic between him and Pablo was fascinating. Also, the battle on the mountain with El Sordo – he knew he would die, yet still strategized. We should do this again!

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  3. I read this book many years ago, as a teenager. I’d love to read it again as an adult. I am a huge Hemingway fan. He was the master of human psyche. Thank you for sharing, Robbie!

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  4. Thank you, Robbie. It’s been ages since I read this book but reading your review brought back vivid images. Thank you for sharing.

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  5. This is probably the only Hemingway novel I haven´t read. I must read it, especially as I am now living in Spain and the civil war is still talked about. Thanks for the great discussion about it.

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    1. Hi Darlene, I was a little concerned about reading this one and had put it off. I had heard so much about it, I was worried I’d be disappointed. But I really wasn’t. A great book. Anyone who has a leader in their life, should read this book.

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  6. Hemingway can be larger than life and command an ensemble cast with the best. His characterizations, particularly of complex and unpredictable thorn-in-the-side types are his real gifts. Not to put a damper on the overall review, which was neither too academic or pedestrian, but dayum y’all had some real head snapping continuity switchbacks in there.

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  7. Another excellent book review, Robbie. I echo all the great comments and follow-up discussion. Ernest Hemingway’s writing remains fresh and new generations are discovering his books. Your foray into For Whom the Bell Tolls pointed me in a different direction – to look into the background of Hemingway’s wives. I have started my mini-research exploration into Martha Gellhorn, his third wife, who travelled and reported on every major world conflict that took place over her 60-year writing career. The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism is named after her. I love her quote: “Nothing is better for self-esteem than survival.”

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    1. Hi Rebecca, That is interesting research and I hope you will share about it. That quote is definitely spot on. I tried to focus on Hemingway’s writing style, way of developing characters and tension buildings so I can learn from it. I already have some new ideas.

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      1. I just read that Hemingway’s writing was short, concise and brought readers quickly to the story. It was a ‘less is more’ philosophy. I am looking forward to hearing how Hemingway’s writing has influenced yours. Exciting stuff! I will let you know about my research project as it evolves…

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      2. This style of writing was most evident in Farewell to Arms, Rebecca. For me, the style seemed different in For Whom the Bell Tolls. There was a lot of internal reflection, description, and discussion. It was quite a different reading experience from the three other books of his I’ve read.

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  8. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this important piece of literature, Robbie. I had to read it in school when I was about 14. It was way over my head. The only thing I could truly get from the book was “war sucks.” I need to re-read it!

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      1. Indeed. Most lit has multiple layers. The underlying message or agenda impression and the human condition that drives it home. “War sucks” stands alone. Things like For Whom the Bell Tolls and O’Brien’s The Things They Carried put faces on it.

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    1. Hi Priscilla, war sucks is a very important principle in the book. The romance and the idea of living in the moment and experience all of the love of your life in four days is very compelling. I think you would enjoy it much more now that you have more experience of life and love to draw on.

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    1. HI Jacquie, I was surprised when I researched the themes of this book to not find leadership mentioned. For me it was so strong and so important. I remember when I went on a leadership centre early in my career (I was just pregnant with Greg) and I was told that I was a strong leader and that it brought big responsibility with it as youngsters would “follow me off a cliff” [their words not mine]. I was surprised, as I don’t see myself like that, but the words made a big impression on me and I watch the leaders of the world and think that they do not live up well to their responsibility for leader others who are impressionable and opinionated in their beliefs [especially if they are young and still learning about life, love, and empathy.]

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  9. I read it many years ago in one night in my hotel room in Hawaii – when I couldn’t put it down and did not sleep a wink. Your review brought it back – but now, being older and wiser, I want to read it again. I have read several of his other books, they are sometimes boring or slow – but always interesting. http://www.giselleroeder.com

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    1. Hi Kerfe, I am glad you enjoyed this review. I had not read this book before. I have read The Old Man of the Sea twice, once in my early twenties and again about three years ago. I appreciated it far more when I read it more recently. Hemingway certainly tackles difficult topics.

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  10. Great review – as always, Robbie. It’s a brilliant book (so much so, I’ve read it twice). I was never ‘forced’ to read Hemingway, and I discovered his writing when I was in my 30s. Reading through the comments I wonder if perhaps you need a certain maturity and life experience to appreciate his work.

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    1. Hi Chris, you may be correct about needing maturing and life experience to enjoy the works of a writer like Hemingway. The same probably applies to many of the great authors. When you are young you don’t have the empathy or kindness, developed through life’s knocks, to relate to the messaging in these sorts of books. That being said, I did read many at a very young age so that is a general observation and doesn’t apply to everyone.

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  11. Thanks for your mindful review, Robbie — and the comments it sparked. Also for including the quotes.
    I remember when I was young, on a television program someone said that Hemingway once wrote a book in just 3 days — and he was on a drunken bender the whole time. LOL, I can’t help wondering what it would be like to do that. Hugs on the wing!

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  12. Thoughtful and insightful review, Roberta! I read this book far too long ago to be able to add anything meaningful – but I do recall that it was very much about leadership during times of great stress and danger.

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