To what extent is For Whom the Bell Tolls typical of a modernist novel?
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For Whom the Bell Tolls is a fine example of modern literature, and to discuss it in terms of its being "typical" really does a disservice to Hemingway's artistry in the novel. It does reflect what came to be the conventions of a modern novel, but in Hemingway's hands, they are elevated to a new level of excellence in modern American literature. In its themes, style, structure, and characterizations, this work exemplifies the modern novel and in some ways redefines it.
The primary theme in the novel is existentialist, developed from Robert Jordan's search for meaning in life. Caught up in the chaos and atrocity of war, Jordan's beliefs come under assault; his early idealism is shaken and sometimes lost in the face of reality. The only real meaning in life, he determines, is the meaning we impose upon it in the manner in which we choose to live and die. In the novel's conclusion, Jordan gives his own life meaning by sacrificing it for others. It is not a romantic gesture; it is instead an existential statement of man's role in a chaotic universe. The only aspect of the conclusion that seems inconsistent with prevailing modern literary themes is that Jordan does not die with the sense of being isolated and alone; he feels a sense of community. He belongs.
Hemingway's much noted writing style is here, tightly controlled and developed through specific, realistic detail. He tells what happens, unvarnished, and in doing so creates a work of realism, the essential characteristic of modern literature. The characters are also created through realistic detail, and Robert Jordan's introspection is very reflective of character development in modern literature.
Finally, the structure of the novel is quite modern, far different from the traditional narrative form. The various characters tell their individual stories, the point of view shifts in the telling, and the novel becomes a collection of short stories with each story contributing to Robert Jordan's growing awareness. It is his feelings and experiences that drive the main plot, and these stories within Jordan's story affect him deeply as the novel concludes and its themes are realized.
The novel was published to great critical and popular acclaim. One criticism that did surface addressed Hemingway's treatment of the romance between Robert and Maria. If there is an "unmodern" note in the novel, it is perhaps the manner in which their love affair is idealized.
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