Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 822

John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano, which was published in 1944 and for which the novelist was awarded the Pulitzer Prize the following year, achieved enormous popularity in its day and was seen as a classic war novel. Because Hersey had experienced the war as a correspondent, the novel was thought to be considerably more realistic than it actually is. With some qualifications, the work can, however, be placed in that genre of American fiction called realism.

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The situation of an Italian-speaking American officer, Major Joppolo, serving as administrator of the small Sicilian village of Adano allows Hersey to set out his beliefs about the primacy of democracy over Fascism, the duty of leaders to serve the people, the need for administrative control, and the disasters that result when people are left to their own devices. These beliefs coincided with the opinions held by many Americans at the close of World War II. It was consequently the perfect reading material for Americans who needed to believe that war was necessary and that the United States was helping the rest of the world by occupying Italy. It was also pleasant to believe that amid the difficulties of war there could be moments of humor and that one could encounter good simple folk. The novel is optimistic, often comic in tone, and ultimately romantic in its conclusion: When Major Joppolo is ordered by General Marvin to leave the town, he stops for one final time to hear the ringing of the bell that his efforts had brought the people. “It was a fine sound on the summer air,” the novel maintains, and the reader is left with the image of Joppolo as a decent man who has done his best. That the town has little future is immaterial; the residents of Adano will simply continue their bungling ways. The main conflict in the novel stems from the clashes between Major Joppolo, who believes in democracy and servant leadership, and General Marvin, whose selfishness and cruelty in shooting the mule and ordering carts out of the village make him the symbol of American arrogance and lack of consideration for the native population. There is additional conflict and satire in Joppolo’s struggles with postwar bureaucracy; his reaction to his “Instructions to Civil Affairs Officers,” which is to tear up the pages and use his own judgment, affords both humor and commentary on the unrealistic, theoretical approach to occupying a small town.

That General Marvin, who has the right to order Joppolo to leave Adano, is ultimately the victor suggests that Hersey believes that it is important for individuals to do something good, even if it is only a small gesture. No one in the novel changes or develops; the soldiers continue to be superficial, the townspeople petty, the Army bureaucracy uncaring. Life goes on, but it is vital that individuals do good deeds and therein find satisfaction.

Most of the Italian villagers are depicted as foolish, nostalgic, and opportunistic. Hersey achieves some of his best humor at their expense, frequently using caricature and such tags as “lazy Fatta” and “formidable Margherita.” Hersey also gives some of the townspeople dignity, however. Old Cacopardo’s reproach of General Marvin’s lack of appreciation of the antique mahogany table on which the general and his aide are playing mumblety-peg shows the clash of cultures and allows Hersey to point out the inability of most Americans to realize the richness of other histories and cultures. This same theme is echoed in the earliest conversations about the village bell when “small Zito” maintains that the bell will be of greater significance than additional food would be. Zito rejects a replica of the American Liberty Bell: “I do not think the people of Adano want any liberty that has a crack in it.”

In his depictions of the soldiers Chuck and Polak, who seek only drink and sexual escapades and who destroy the art objects in the house where they are billeted, Hersey provides a biting commentary on the behavior of American soldiers abroad. Some reviewers in fact questioned Hersey’s accuracy, particularly regarding the language he ascribes to the soldiers, which was considered shocking at the time.

The novel is more a series of vignettes than a complex narrative; there is little if any interior action. Hersey is at his best in depicting isolated incidents: Major Joppolo’s arrival in Adano, the first visit with Tomasino and his family, the Hemingway-inspired dialogue between Chuck and Polak, the conversations about the crack in the American Liberty Bell, the final moments when Major Joppolo stops to hear the bell.

A Bell for Adano has an important history and keeps a secure place in American popular fiction and war literature. The novel eventually became both a Broadway play and a motion picture. Hersey’s subsequent publication of Hiroshima (1946) further solidified the critical reputation of A Bell for Adano and gave it additional credibility.

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