The greatest books make you envious of those who have not yet read them, those who you know have a great experience still to come. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway’s Spanish civil war masterpiece and arguably his best novel, is one such book. Written mainly from the perspective of Robert Jordan, a young American university lecturer volunteering for the Communist International Brigades, it has everything: a remarkable cast of characters, musings on life, death and war, exhilarating action sequences and, at its heart, one of the greatest love stories ever written.
Jordan is a demolition expert, assigned to a Republican guerilla band to blow up a bridge as part of an offensive on Segovia. His commitment to the task, and to what he acknowledges as its necessary component of killing, is complicated from the start. Jordan has two inner voices, often in conflict with one another, and it is this schizophrenic internal dialogue that enables Hemingway to explore differing attitudes to his protagonist’s assignment and to war.
One of Jordan’s inner voices is that of a ruthlessly efficient soldier, an ‘instrument of duty’, prepared to risk all to carry out his orders, indifferent to the prospect of his own death, with no time for romanticism or nostalgia; the other is the voice of a dreamer and writer, a political and moral idealist who hates killing and the insanity of war, and longs to make it out alive for a peaceful, happy life back home in Montana.
Jordan politically defines himself as an ‘anti-fascist’, rather than more narrowly as a Communist. His commitment to the cause for which he fights runs so deep that the dreamer and idealist within him reaches for quasi-mystical language to explain it: “...[Y]ou felt that you were taking part in a crusade… It was a feeling of consecration to a duty toward all of the oppressed of the world which would be as difficult and embarrassing to speak about as religious experience and yet it was as authentic as the feeling you had when you heard Bach, or stood in the Chartres Cathedral...”
Such moral conviction doesn’t make the killing of opposition soldiers any more palatable for Jordan, though: he is acutely aware of the fact that those he perceives as “the enemy” aren’t always deserving of the bullet or the knife-thrust.
The day before his band launch the bridge attack, Jordan shoots dead a fascist cavalry scout. Looking through the scout’s personal letters humanises the 21-year-old soldier he has just murdered to an unbearable extent; he stops reading after he finds a note from the young man’s “novia”, “quietly, formally, and completely hysterical with concern for his safety”. One senses that Jordan inflicts this torture on himself as a sort of penance, an exercise that his more ruthless side warns is “very bad for you and your work”. In his troubled introspection, Jordan estimates that he has killed “more than 20” people that he can be absolutely sure of, discounting blowing up trains because doing that you kill, indiscriminately, “very many”. He is deeply disturbed by the realisation that only two of them were definitely fascists.
The brutality of Jordan’s surroundings, and the agonised soul-searching they provoke within him, are the backdrop to the novel’s great love story, one brought to life by some of the finest dialogue Hemingway ever wrote. One wonders to what extent his protagonist’s belated, earth-shattering realisation was also Hemingway’s - namely, that “love is the most important thing that can happen to a human being”.
Maria, a nineteen-year-old Spanish girl rescued from her fascist captors by the gypsy band Jordan joins, turns the American soldier’s life upside down in the space of three days. Their love is a mutual salvation; for Maria, raped and beaten by the fascist soldiers who murdered her parents, Jordan’s love is purifying, erasing traces of the dreadful things done to her.
Maria complicates Jordan’s internal battle by giving him something more than Republicanism to believe in: “I love her so that I feel, literally, as though I would die and I never believed in that nor thought that it could happen.” He passionately welcomes the unexpected extra dimension she brings to his military operation as well as trying - and failing - to resist it.
Though Jordan sometimes indulges in day-dreams about a post-war life in Madrid and Montana with his “little rabbit”, deep down he knows that “[he] ran into her rather late”. His despair at the prospect of losing Maria increases as the mission comes closer, convinced as he is of its impossibility; and the novel’s final chapter, detailing the bridge-blowing and subsequent retreat, is surely the most exciting and moving set piece Hemingway ever wrote. You might have to read it, as I did, pacing around the room, through a blur of tears.
It is not for his political beliefs, for ‘the crusade’, that Jordan eventually sacrifices himself. His three-day epiphany, triggered by falling in love with Maria, causes within him a fundamental shift of values. When the bridge is blown, and the guerilla band make their retreat under heavy enemy fire, it is love, not the Republic, that Jordan wishes to live and die for.