14 January 2010

For Whom The Bell Tolls

Robert Jordan's orders are simple enough. At least on the surface they are, though he has his share of misgivings about them. Jordan, an American demolition expert who is fighting with Spanish Republicans versus the Fascists in the vicious Spanish Civil War, is assigned to destroy a key bridge with the aid of a band of a partisan band. Sound simple enough? However, unprofessional allies, bad weather, worse infighting, a budding romance, the threat of betrayal, and a growing realization that his orders are impossible to fulfil all collide to greatly complicate Robert's task. Will Robert succeed in his mission? Or will his obstacles get the better of him?

Ernest Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls, in addition to having a title that yours truly thinks is one of the coolest on the market, is one of the world's classic war novels and is widely considered Hemingway's best novel. I was particularly impressed with this novel's intense realism. Hemingway was a soldier in WWI and served as a war correspondent in the Spanish Civil War, so his portrayal of combat and partisan life behind enemy lines is authentic and gripping. (Warning: A few of the scenes describing brutal atrocities against civilians, though told through flashback, are a bit difficult to read. The chapter describing the liquidation of one town disturbed me profoundly. I thought my readings about Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia had made me hard to shock. I stand corrected.) The real treat for me, though, was the characters. Robert Jordan is not my favorite protagonist, but I do like how complex Hemingway makes him. He is practical and levelheaded, but a bit distant and isn't always sympathetic. Robert's personality quirks were refreshing, because they made him seem more real than the flawless hero of many books. The supporting cast is superb. Hemingway's Spanish guerrillas are so colorful that the come alive: the brutal, inscrutable guerrilla leader Pablo; his brash, willful wife Pilar; morally upright, noble guide Anselmo; foulmouthed, hotheaded Agustin. By the time I finished this book, I felt like I knew them all.

I enjoyed this book, but I thought the pacing was uneven. The first and last parts of the book focus on the complicated mission to destroy the bridge and were suspenseful and entertaining. The middle part, however, slows down to focus on Robert's romance with Maria, a traumatized young woman who the partisans rescued from the fascists. I thought the romance was overly simplistic and a bit too pat. I just couldn't buy the "I saw you and immediately decided to devote my life to you" aspect of their relationship. Part of my problem was that, despite the constant talk of how wonderful their relationship was, it seemed more like blatant lust than true love to me. Also, Maria struck me as being so bland, especially as compared to the other Spaniard characters, that I didn't find her that interesting. I didn't dislike her; on the contrary, I felt sorry for her, but she seemed one dimensional and didn't intrigue me. My only other problem (and this is an odd one) is the profanity. Hehe No, I don't mean that there is too much. In fact, there was too little of it, if that makes any sense. Hemingway, in order to make this novel more marketable, choose to use euphemisms in place of cursing, That didn't bother me, novels with really heavy cursing annoy me, but he also chose to use the word "obscenity" in place of cursing. This confused and distracted me, especially when it was used multiple times in one sentence! This caused me to stop and try to decipher what was being said, so it ended up just disrupting the reading experience. As long as language is not used gratuitously, I do not mind it and actually would have preferred it in this case, because it would have been easier to read.

Pacing and language aside, For Whom The Bell Tolls is a powerful war novel with an exciting story and compelling characters. I have always been fascinated by Spain, but I am not as familiar with the Spanish Civil War as I should be. (Most of my knowledge is about foreign involvement in the war, rather than the actual conflict itself.) Hemingway's realistic, well-crafted book intrigued me and made me want to learn more.
Announcement: I loved posting three times a week during my winter break, but, alas, I returned to school this week. I like school, but this means that I can only post once a week now. (Waaa!) I will continue to use Wednesdays as my day to post reviews, as I did last semester. (My apologies for being late! Life has been crazy lately.) Unlike last semester, my reviews will be posted in the afternoon or evening, rather than the morning. Thanks to all of you for reading! I will try to continue to give you at least one post a week while I am in school. The good thing is I am taking World Lit. II with my amazing professor, so I should get to blog on some of my assigned reading.

Next Week: I will try my best to review Terry Pratchett's Guards, Guards! I have fallen in love with Discworld and am looking forward to blogging about this combo of humorous fantasy and crime.


  1. I always get For Whom the Bell Tolls and O Brother Where Art Thou mixed up. I'm really not sure why.

    Hemingway was never very good at pacing. He can be abrupt to the point where it's frustrating, and then spend a long time describing something you don't care about. However, he does craft characters very well. :D I can't say whether I like him or not at this moment. I should probably read this novel before I make a judgment. I've only read one novel and a short story of his.

    Yay for Guards! Guards! Can't wait to read your take on it.

  2. Yes, I have mixed feelings on Hemingway. I love his characters and his distinctive narrative style, but I do have some issues with his pacing.

    Be warned: The ending of For Whom The Bell Tolls is very abrupt. It didn't irk me, because I kind of like that sort of thing, but it's quite sudden.

    As you well know, I prefer Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck to Hemingway, but I want to read a couple of more of Hemingway's novels before I make an official judgment. I like him better than I did, but he's still not my absolute favorite author, though I can understand why he's so highly regarded. (I envy his concise, precise, objective narration. Ol' wordy me needs to study his technique. :D )

  3. Hi, You seem to be a widly read person. Would you like to add my book onto your list? Title: Almi a Refugee. This is a biography of a woman and her family and how they survived being a refugee not only once but twice. An inspirational read. Check it out on Google or my blog - http://arefugeechild.blogspot.com and make a comment. Regards, Tiiu Kleyn

  4. My brother is reading Guards! Guards! at the moment. I bought it not long ago and really enjoyed it.

  5. Tiiu, Thanks so much for telling me about your book! :) I am going to get my library to order it for me and can't wait to read it. Thanks so much for commenting! :)

    Chairman, Are you a fellow Pratchett fan? I was introduced to the wonderful world of Discworld by Scott last year. I am so looking forward to reading it and blogging about it. Thanks for commenting! :)

  6. I've never read any Hemingway, except the quote about Mi mojito en la Bodeguita when I was in Cuba. I kind of feel as if I should get round to it, but so many people are so very sniffy about him. Your review is nudging me in the direction of giving him a try.

  7. Glad I could help, James! Hemingway is definitely not for everyone (as I said, I still am trying to make up my mind about him), but he is a talented writer. He is worth reading, in my opinion. :)

  8. Zella and Scott, hi! I started on Hemingway by reading The Sun Also Rises some years ago and never got any farther. Your discussion interests me, though. Do you have any thoughts on what lies behind the funky pacing? Maybe it's the journalist in him? I do think writers today have to be more mindful of storytelling than they once were.

  9. Eric, I believe you may have a point about his journalist background. I know that he was aiming for realism, so perhaps he sacrificed plot to describe the scenes? I am not sure. I plan on reading A Farewell To Arms and The Sun Also Rises, but more so I can say I read them than anything.