For Whom the Bell Tolls is a novel by Ernest Hemingway published in 1940. It tells the story of Robert Jordan, a young American in the International Brigades attached to an anti-fascist guerilla unit during the Spanish Civil War. As an expert in the use of explosives, he is assigned to blow up a bridge during an attack on the city of Segovia. The title and epigraph are drawn from "Meditation XVII" of Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, an essay by metaphysical poet John Donne. This novel is widely regarded to be amongst Hemingway's greatest works, along with The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea, To Have and Have Not and A Farewell to Arms.
While behind enemy lines with a band of disillusioned Republican guerrillas, Robert Jordan meets María, a young Spanish native whose life has been shattered by the outbreak of the war. Robert Jordan's strong sense of duty clashes with both Republican leader Pablo's unwillingness to commit to a covert operation and his own joie de vivre that was acquired through his relationship with María.
The novel graphically delineates the unutterable brutality of civil war.
A related theme is the vivid sense of camaraderie in the face of death and the surrendering of one's self for the common cause and the good of the people. Robert Jordan, Anselmo and others are ready to do "as all good men should" - that is, to make the ultimate sacrifice. The oft-repeated embracing gesture reinforces this sense of close companionship in the face of death. An incident involving the death of the character Joaquín's family serves as an excellent example of this theme. Having learned of this tragedy, Joaquín's comrades embrace and comfort him, saying they now are his family. Surrounding this love for one's comrades is the love for the Spanish soil. A love of place, of the senses, and of life itself is represented by the pine needle forest floor - both at the beginning and, poignantly, at the end of the novel - when Robert Jordan awaits his death feeling "his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest."
A companion theme to that of death is that of suicide. Many of the characters, including Robert Jordan, would prefer death over capture, and are prepared to kill themselves, be killed, or kill to avoid it. As the book ends, Robert Jordan, wounded and unable to travel with his companions, awaits a final ambush that will end his life. He prepares himself against the cruel outcomes of suicide to avoid capture, or inevitable torture for the extraction of information and death at the hands of the enemy. Still, he hopes to avoid suicide partly because his father, whom he views as a coward, committed suicide. Robert Jordan understands suicide but doesn't approve of it, and thinks that "you have to be awfully occupied with yourself to do a thing like that. Robert Jordan's opinions on suicide may be used to analyze Hemingway's suicide 21 years later.
There also are the themes of political ideology and bigotry. After noticing how he so easily employed the convenient catch-phrase "enemy of the people", Jordan moves swiftly into the subjects and opines, "To be bigoted you have to be absolutely sure that you are right and nothing makes that surety and righteousness like continence. Continence is the foe of heresy. Later in the book, Robert Jordan explains the threat of Fascism in his own country. "Robert Jordan, wiping out the stew bowl with bread, explained how the income tax and inheritance tax worked. 'But the big estates remain. Also, there are taxes on the land,' he said. 'But surely the big proprietors and the rich will make a revolution against such taxes. Such taxes appear to me to be revolutionary. They will revolt against the government when they see that they are threatened, exactly as the fascists have done here,' Primitivo said. 'It is possible.' 'Then you will have to fight in your country as we fight here.' 'Yes, we will have to fight.' 'But are there not many fascists in your country?' 'There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes.' This last line could be tied to fellow writers' Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound's fascist stances during the Spanish Civil War.
Divination is another theme that arises in the book. Pilar, "Pablo's woman", is a reader of palms and more. When Robert Jordan questions her true abilities, she replies, "Because thou art a miracle of deafness....It is not that thou art stupid. Thou art simply deaf. One who is deaf cannot hear music. Neither can he hear the radio. So he might say, never having heard them, that such things do not exist.
The fascist planes are especially dreaded, and when they approach, all hope is lost. The efforts of the partisans seem to vanish, their commitment and their abilities become meaningless. "They move like mechanized doom", and the aircraft's bombs wreak havoc with El Sordo and his band — the ideological slogans Joaquín employs "as though they were talismans have no effect; he resorts to praying, but not even that can save him. Every time the planes appear they indicate certain and pointless death. The same holds true for the automatic weapons ("Never in my life have I seen such a thing, with the troops running from the train and the máquina speaking into them and the men falling and the artillery, especially the trench mortars that already wounded Lt. Henry ("he knew that they would die as soon as a mortar came up". No longer would the best soldier win, but the one with the biggest gun. The soldiers using those weapons are simple brutes, they lack "all conception of dignity as Fernando remarked. Anselmo insisted, "We must teach them. We must take away their planes, their automatic weapons, their tanks, their artillery and teach them dignity".
Apart from these physical threats, much of the violence is executed on a metaphysical level.
In the last part of the novel, the plot is split into two parallel actions: the preparations for the attack and the course of Andrés, a guerillero who must take a message across the lines to a Republican general. While not an unusual narrative technique, it is a departure for Hemingway who, in his earlier works, preferred to maintain sharp focus on his protagonist. Some have argued that Hemingway was relenting to the demands of the Hollywood directors who wanted books more easily turned into scripts
Although most of the book is told from the point of view of people on the Republican side in the war, which clearly reflects Hemingway's own position, a notable exception is made in a single page giving the point of view of two soldiers of Franco's troops, who are shown as ordinary and quite sympathetic people, without an overt Fascist ideology.
In 1941 the novel was nominated by the Pulitzer committee in letters for that year's prize. The Pulitzer board in turn rejected the award on a matter of a taste. No award was given that year.
The earlier battle of Guadalajara and the general chaos and disorder (and, more generally, the doomed cause of Republican Spain) serve as a backdrop to the novel: Robert Jordan notes, for instance, that he follows the Communists because of their superior discipline, an allusion to the split and infighting between anarchist and communist factions on the Republican side.
The famous and pivotal scene described in Chapter 10, in which Pilar describes the execution of various Fascists figures in her village is drawn from events that took place in Ronda in 1936. Although Hemingway later claimed (in a 1954 letter to Bernard Berenson) to have completely fabricated the scene, he in fact drew upon the events at Ronda, embellishing the event by imagining an execution line leading up to the cliff face. In Ronda, some 500 people, allegedly fascist sympathisers, were thrown into the surrounding gorge by a mob from a house that faced onto the cliffside.
A number of actual figures that played a role in the Spanish Civil War are also referenced in the book, including:
A film adaptation of Hemingway's novel, directed by Sam Wood, was released in 1943 starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. It was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, including best picture, best actor and best actress; however, only the Greek actress Katina Paxinou won an Oscar for her portrayal of Pilar.