For Whom the Bell Tolls Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

In 1940, Ernest Hemingway published For Whom the Bell Tolls to wide critical and public acclaim. The novel became an immediate best seller, erasing his somewhat flawed performance in To Have and Have Not (1937). During the 1930’s, a time when Hemingway enjoyed great publicity, he went on the African safari that produced Green Hills of Africa (1935) and his column in Esquire (1933-1936). In 1940, he was divorced by his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, and married Martha Gellhorn. He set fishing records at Bimini in marlin tournaments, hunted in Wyoming, and fished at Key West, Florida, where he bought a home. In 1937, when the Spanish Civil War broke out, Hemingway went to Spain as a correspondent with a passionate devotion to the Spain of his early years. Not content merely to report the war, he became actively involved with the Loyalist army in its fight against Franco and the generals. He wrote the script for the propaganda film The Spanish Earth (1937), which was shown at the White House at a presidential dinner. The proceeds of the film were used to buy ambulances for the Loyalists. In 1939, with the war a lost cause and just as World War II was beginning its course of destruction, Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls.

To understand Hemingway’s motive in writing the book, it is helpful to study the quotation from John Donne, from which Hemingway took his theme, “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.” Hemingway wanted his readers to feel that what happened to the Loyalists in Spain in 1937 was a part of a world crisis in which everyone shared.

Even more than in A Farewell to Arms (1929), Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls focuses the conflict of war in the experiences of a single man. Like Frederic Henry, Robert Jordan is an American in a European country fighting for a cause that is not his by birth. Henry just happens to be in Italy when World War I breaks out; he has no ideological commitment to the war. Jordan, however, comes to Spain because he believes in the Loyalist cause. He believes in the land and the people, a belief that ultimately costs him his life. Jordan’s death, however, is an affirmation, and the novel is a clear political statement of what a human being must do under pressure.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a circular novel. It begins with Jordan in a pine forest in Spain, observing...

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