Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1067
At first, the only important thing is the bridge. Robert Jordan is a young American teacher who is in Spain fighting with the Loyalist guerrillas. His present and most important mission is to blow up a bridge that will be of great strategic importance during an offensive three days hence. Jordan is behind the Fascist lines, with orders to make contact with Pablo, the leader of a guerrilla band, and with his wife, Pilar, who is the strongest figure among the partisans. Pablo is a weak and drunken braggart, but Pilar is strong and trustworthy. A swarthy, raw-boned woman, vulgar and outspoken, she is so fiercely devoted to the Loyalist cause that Jordan knows she will carry out her part of the mission regardless of danger to herself.
The plan is that Jordan will study the bridge from all angles and then finalize the plans for its destruction at the proper moment. Jordan has blown up many bridges and three trains, but this is the first time everything has to be done on a split-second schedule. Pablo and Pilar are to assist Jordan in any way they can, even in rounding up other bands of guerrillas if Jordan needs them to accomplish his mission.
At the cave hideout of Pablo and Pilar, Jordan meets a beautiful young girl named Maria, who escaped from the Fascists. Maria was subjected to every possible indignity, being starved, tortured, and raped, and she feels unclean. At the camp, Jordan also meets Anselmo, a loyal old man who will follow orders regardless of his personal safety. Anselmo hates having to kill but will do so if necessary.
Jordan loves the brutal, shrewd, desperate, loyal guerrillas, for he knows that their cruelties against the Fascists stem from poverty and ignorance. The Fascists’ cruelty, however, he abhors, for the Fascists come largely from the wealthy, ambitious class. The story of Maria’s suffering fills him with such hatred that he could kill a thousand of them, even though he, like Anselmo, hates to kill.
The first night he spends at the guerrilla camp destroys his cold approach to the mission before him, for he falls deeply in love with Maria. She comes to his sleeping bag that night, and although they talk little, he knows after she leaves that he is no longer ready to die. He tells Maria that one day they will be married, but he is afraid of the future, and fear is dangerous for a man on an important mission.
Jordan makes many sketches of the bridge and lays his plans carefully, but the night before the bridge is to be blown up his work is almost ruined by Pablo, who deserts after stealing and destroying the explosives and the detonators hidden in Jordan’s pack. Pablo returns repentant on the morning of the mission, but the loss of the detonators and explosives means that Jordan and his helper will have to blow up the bridge with hand grenades, a much more dangerous method. Pablo tries to redeem himself by bringing another small guerrilla band and their horses with him. Although Jordan despises Pablo by that time, he forgives him, as does Pilar.
At the bridge, Jordan works quickly and carefully. Each person has a specific job to do, and each does his work well. First Jordan and Anselmo kill the sentries, then Pablo and his guerrillas attack the Fascist lines approaching the bridge, so as to prevent their crossing before the bridge is demolished. Jordan is ordered to blow up the bridge at the beginning of a Loyalist bombing attack over the Fascist lines. When he hears the thudding explosions of the bombs, he pulls the pins and the bridge shoots high into the air. Jordan gets to cover safely, but Anselmo is killed by a steel fragment from the bridge. As Jordan looks at the old man and realizes that he might be alive if Pablo had not stolen the detonators, he wants to kill Pablo. However, he knows his duty, and he runs to the designated meeting place of the fugitive guerrillas.
There he finds Pablo, Pilar, Maria, and the two remaining Gypsy partisans. Pablo, herding the extra horses, says that all the other guerrillas were killed. Jordan knows, however, that Pablo killed the men so that he could get their horses. When he confronts him, Pablo admits the slaughter, but shrugs his great shoulders and says that the men were not of his band.
The next problem before them is to cross a road that could be swept by Fascist gunfire. Jordan knows that the first two people will have the best chance, since they will probably be able to cross before the Fascists are alerted. Because Pablo knows the road to safety, Jordan puts him on the first horse. Maria is second, for Jordan is determined that she should be saved before the others. Pilar is to go next, then the two remaining guerrillas, and, last of all, Jordan. The first four cross safely, but Jordan’s horse, wounded by Fascist bullets, falls on his leg. The others drag him across the road and out of the line of fire, but he knows that he cannot go on and is too badly injured to ride a horse. Pablo and Pilar understand, but Maria begs to stay with him. Jordan tells Pilar to take Maria away when he gives the signal; then he talks to the girl, telling her that she must go on, that as long as she lives, he lives also. When the time comes, she has to be put on her horse and led away.
Jordan, settling down to wait for the approaching Fascist troops, props himself against a tree, with his submachine gun across his knees. As he waits, he thinks over the events that brought him to this place. He knows that what he did was right, but that his side might not win for many years. He knows, too, that if the common people keep trying, they will eventually win. He hopes they will be prepared when that day comes, that they will no longer want to kill and torture but will struggle for peace and good as they are now struggling for freedom. He feels that his own part in the struggle was not in vain. As he sees the first Fascist officer approaching, Jordan smiles. He is ready.