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Literature / For Whom the Bell Tolls

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"No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."
John Donne, quoted in the epigraph

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a novel by Ernest Hemingway, first published in 1940, and was inspired by his experience as a journalist during the Spanish Civil War. It is one of his most famous and beloved works, and is generally considered the book written about that war.

The story, which plays out over four days and three nights, is centered around Robert Jordan - no, not that Robert Jordan - an American member of the International Brigades who joined to fight for the Republic. His mission is to blow up a bridge in preparation for an offensive against the Nationalists, and to this purpose he enlists the help of a small band of partisans in the hills nearby. He quickly begins an affair and falls in love with a girl called Maria, who has been freed from the captivity of the Fascists a few months prior.

In the days before he carries out this task, we get to know many of the other characters that he meets. Pablo is the leader of the band, but the relationship between him and his men is strained to say the least, and his reliability is repeatedly called into question. His wife Pilar is The Heart of the group, and acknowledged as the de facto leader. An elderly man named Anselmo is Robert Jordan's guide, and while he is averse to killing out of principle, his loyalty and local knowledge make him a valuable asset. And finally Agustin, a particularly foul mouthed guerrilla who Robert Jordan develops a Vitriolic Best Buds relationship with. A number of Pablo's men and other characters are also introduced and make a lasting impression.

Over the short time in the company of these people, Jordan makes his preparations for the demolition (which can only be carried out at the last minute), has some skirmishes with the Nationalist forces and gets much of his companions' backstory in the form of flashbacks. The general themes of the novel, derived both from the main storyline and the flashbacks, include the horrors of war, but also the nature of love and companionship.

The novel was adapted into a film in 1943, starring Gary Cooper as Robert Jordan and Ingrid Bergman as Maria. It also inspired the eponymous Filk Song by Metallica. It also inspired the graphic novel Sordo (or The (Silent) War note  in English-speaking countries); which got a film adaptation on Netflix in 2020. See also the character page.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Badass Boast: Pablo has some but even he knows he isn't the man he was.
  • Bad Omen Anecdote: Pilar tells a story of part of her backstory as a demonstration of how she can smell death.
  • Beastly Bloodsports: It's Hemingway, it's in Spain, there will be bulls.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Most of the dialogue is supposed to be in Spanish (which Hemingway translates into a Separated by a Common Language form of English, with phrases like "he has forty-eight years" and "what passes that"), but the Translation Convention is not entirely consistent, as some phrases are left untranslated. Especially vulgar ones, which become "I obscenity in the milk of thy tiredness" and "mucking around" (Hemingway was a journalist and Narrative Profanity Filter was customary back in 1940).
  • Blood Knight: Several throughout the story, although how it's treated varies depending on the character. Rafael and the anarchists, where this is essentially their dominant trait, are generally depicted in a very negative light. They enjoy the war and don't care for what reason it's being fought. This is in contrast to characters like El Sordo, where the enjoyment is still there but tempered by a belief in the ideals of the Republic.
  • Bolivian Army Ending
  • Broken Ace: Robert Jordan is a badass Demolitions Expert and partisan in the Spanish Civil War, but has also led an entirely empty and lonely life since his father killed himself. He doesn't even realize the depths of his loneliness until he's dragged out of it by the new family he finds amongst the partisans he's sent to work with. But the same work that sent him to the partisans is eventually what gets him killed.
  • Changed My Mind, Kid: Pablo. Possibly also counts as a Dangerous Deserter. He's certainly not trusted by everyone afterwards.
  • Checkpoint Charlie: Several types of this during the dispatch run.
  • Complete-the-Quote Title: The title is part of a line from a devotional writing by John Donne. In this case, it's the previous line that is most thematically appropriate: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind" (the novel is largely an exploration of the nature of companionship in a time of war and death). However, completing the line that the title is taken from also makes it into a Spoiler Title: "And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
  • The Conspiracy: Robert Jordan muses on how "the Fascists" have a plan to Take Over the World, and just fighting the war in Spain slows them down for years and does not allow them to attack other countries. Historical reality had proven a bit different.
  • Death by Adaptation: A couple of characters in the 1959 Playhouse 19 TV film, including Rafael and Anselmo.
  • Did the Earth Move for You, Too?: Trope Namer and Trope Codifier.
  • Double Meaning: When Jordan first meets the guerrilla band, he mentions that his father is a Republican, which the latter takes to mean that he comes from a family sympathetic to their cause since their own side is also called "Republicans." Of course, in American politics, Republicans (especially in 1930s) were the anti-communist, pro-business, and isolationist party who were about the most hostile to the left-wing Spanish guerrilas. It also implies that Jordan is a sort of Rebel Prince from a wealthy family who ran away from his father to find something meaningful.
  • Dwindling Party: Characters are killed off gradually during the battle.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: El Sordo and his men, inflicting heavy casualties on the Carlists attacking them and even taking out their highest-ranking officer.
  • Eagle Squadron: The many foreigners who come to fight on both sides in the Civil War, Robert Jordan being one of them.
  • Face Death with Dignity: In the final chapters, Jordan, now knowing what Pilar saw when she read his palm, quietly accepts the fact that he is going to die. As the battle goes on, Jordan calmly reassures himself that he's lucky to have lived such an eventful life and that he now regards the guerrillas as his family and friends.
  • Fourth-Date Marriage: Robert Jordan plans to marry Maria after only knowing her for a few days, and vice versa.
  • Full-Name Basis: Robert Jordan is almost always referred to by his full name by the narrator.
  • Go On Without Me: Robert Jordan, after being immobilized, decides to stay and kill as many enemies as he can.
    • In the Playhouse 90 TV movie, a mortally wounded Rafael insists that everyone go on without him so that "he and the bridge can die together".
  • Grey-and-Grey Morality: While the Republicans are generally portrayed more sympathetically, neither side is generally shown in a very positive light, especially when it comes to the leadership. Atrocities are committed by both sides. Some of the individual soldiers in the Nationalist army are shown to be just regular people rather than villainous lackeys, particularly the Carlist cavalrymen and Lieutenant Berrendo, who is shown to be very pious and respectful to his enemies.
  • Hero of Another Story: El Sordo and his band are acknowledged to be very good partisans. This doesn't save them from the Carlist cavalry who come after them, although they do get to make a heroic last stand.
  • Hit-and-Run Tactics: The only way such small guerrilla bands can operate, producing some hard choices about whether to help other bands.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade:
    • Actually averted. Yes, André Marty actually was a real person, and yes, he actually was that paranoid and batshit insane. He was sent by the Comintern to Spain when the war started and was appointed as the political leader of the International Brigades. Supposedly about one tenth of all Republican Brigaders who died during the war were executed by him.
    • La Pasionaria, who was also a real person. Judging by one of Sordo's guerrillas ridicule of her when they're digging in for a Last Stand on the hill, it's pretty safe to say that Hemingway himself was not terribly fond of her.
    Pasionaria says it is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.
    Mierda again. We're on our bellies, not our knees.
  • Holding Hands: An inversion as Maria and Robert Jordan get together before they get to do the more romantic stuff. There isn't much time.
  • Interplay of Sex and Violence: Done in the usual Hemingway fashion, à la The Sun Also Rises. The simple language and run on sentences used to describe Roberto and Maria's lovemaking is quite similar to how Finito and Andres' bullfighting is described.
  • I Shall Taunt You: Tried by Captain Mora when surrounding El Sordo and his men. Including standing up away from cover and screaming filth while his officers angrily cringe at his idiocy. El Sordo's men ignore him until he starts to walk over to their position. Then they shoot him.
  • Literary Allusion Title: The title is derived from a John Donne quote, namely the famous "no man is an island" passage in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.
  • Love at First Sight: Robert Jordan's relationship with Maria can arguably be described this way: They certainly fall in lust at a very early stage, although whether it is true love (yet) is unclear.
  • Lowered Recruiting Standards: At first they want the best men in the area, then a certain amount of men, eventually anyone they can find will do.
  • Meaningful Name: The Heart of the group's name is Pilar. Also, El Sordo's nickname literally means "The Deaf One."
  • Mercy Kill: Augustin offers one to Robert Jordan as he lays dying. Robert declines. Earlier on, Lieutenant Berrendo gives one to Joachim, not wanting the boy to bleed out.
  • Mistaken Nationality: Robert Jordan is usually called "Inglés" (English) by his comrades, though he's American.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: The partisans curse like sailors, but the reader is inevitably given a sanitized version of the relevant words and phrases, like "muck", "unnameable" or "obscenity". Between this and the nature of Spanish swearing, we get Unusual Euphemisms that range from the offbeat to the surrealistic — like "I obscenity in the milk of their airplanes." There are also some untranslated Spanish swear words left in the text.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Averted mostly as Hemingway knew what battle injuries were really like. Averted at the end in a I Can Still Fight! situation.
  • The Neidermeyer: Captain Mora, holy shit. Commanding the Carlist cavalry attacking El Sordo, he launches a spectacular but incredibly costly offensive at their hideout to try and wipe them out in one blow, letting Sordo escape with five of his men and their light machine gun. Then against all common sense, Mora gets up to check if they're really standing out in the open and trying to goad them into shooting him. He's practically begging to get shot, and El Sordo happily obliges him.
  • Planning for the Future Before the End
    • Robert and Maria get up to this the night before they blow the bridge, making plans to go to Madrid and talking about what their life will be like together once it's all over. Robert knows how delusional he's being, but decides that he doesn't care. This receives a rather sad Call-Back at the end, after he gets immobilized.
      "Guapa, listen. We will not being going to Madrid..."
    • Maria mentions that Pilar was essentially doing this on the last day as well, where she took the time to give lessons to Maria on how to be a proper, traditional wife.
  • Political Officer: Well, General Massart didn't get his job through competency. Several of these are mentioned throughout the book - General Enrique Lister in particular is very fond of using them to keep order at the front.
  • Real Men Don't Cry: Thoroughly averted towards the end. Anselmo cries after killing the sentry on the bridge, although it doesn't stop him from helping Robert rig the explosives. He is rather ashamed of himself for doing so afterwards though. Averted even further at the very end by Agustin and narrowly played straight by Robert.
  • Say Your Prayers: Joaquin, one of El Sordo's men, starts praying when he sees the planes that are coming to kill them, even though he's a Communist.
  • Shoot the Messenger: Very nearly. See Struggling Together below.
  • Snow Means Death: Specifically, the unexpected snowfall means that certain characters end up being tracked by the footprints they leave, with deadly consequences.
  • Suicide Mission: Robert Jordan's mission to blow up the bridge is essentially this. Pablo, Pilar, and El Sordo are the only other characters who seem to fully grasp this, and how they deal with it play a big role in the narrative. Robert Jordan, Pilar and El Sordo are all willing to do it in service to the Republic. Pablo, not so much, although he changes his mind.
  • Take Care of the Kids: A variation. Robert's last request to Agustin is for him to take care of Maria for him, turning down Agustin's offer of a Mercy Kill.
  • The Talk: Pilar tries this with Robert Jordan, with varying effects.
  • Tank Goodness: Only a little one - an Italian Fiat tankette with two machine guns - but it causes a lot of problems for the partisans. Another, much larger tank - implied to be a Nationalist T-26 - shows up later and proceeds to shell the group, killing the gypsy and smashing Robert's leg.
  • Team Mom: Pilar.
  • Traumatic Haircut: The fascists, specifically a Falangist militia, executed Maria's parents, raped her and shaved her head.
  • Trying Not to Cry: Not outright stated, as usual for Hemingway, but it's heavily implied that Robert is trying hard to play this straight when he's sending his companions away after getting shot by the tank. This is a pretty significant part of his Character Development since it's established prior that he never felt much emotion from his companions before this. He had no problem shooting Kashkin.
  • War Is Hell: Agustin almost cites this trope by name at the end. Coming from a self admitted Blood Knight, it certainly makes an impact.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: The general impression one gets of the loose alliance that is the Republican side. A case of Truth in Television.

Alternative Title(s): For Whom The Bell Tolls