A Linguistic Analysis of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls

Many critics have pointed out that Hemingway’s language in For Whom the Bell Tolls is one of the weaknesses of the book. His language was intended to be the intimate expression of the intellectual hero Jordan and also to present the local idiom of the Spanish fighters. Some argue that the meditations of Jordan are turgid and the “Platonic language composed of the Spanish idiom, the Bible, and the Elizabethans . . . is . . . Weighed down with overmuch local color.”(1) Hemingway attempts, through language, to capture the spirit of a nation and, despite any weaknesses in his style, the contrast between Jordan’s inner thoughts, when he reflects in his native English, and the formal archaic language of the guerillas, which represents a contrast in cultures.

There is also, however, the contrast between the archaic language in the conversations between Jordan and Maria, Anselmo and Fernando, and the vulgarity of Pilar and Agustin. The relationship between Jordan and Maria is one of love; that between Jordan and Anselmo one of mutual respect and a basic dislike for killing; and Fernando represents the dignified Spaniard who still reveres pride, manners and honor. The exchanges between these four in the archaic dialogue suggest:

another time when life was simpler, personalized by “thee” and “thou,” a time when human dignity seemed assured.(2)

The present time is represented in the vulgar speech of Pilar and Agustin, reminding that these are harsh days.

Jordan speaks Spanish fluently, although he continues to think in his native tongue. Thus, a division is drawn between his sharing a language and a cause with the guerillas and his individuality and private mind, in which he expresses his deviations from the Spanish culture and values and affirms his Americanism. In Jordans saying and thinking, a contrast of tongues and a double vision is created.(3) The dichotomy also represents the expression of diverging cultures. Often, his thoughts focus on the language, cultural, and psychological differences between himself and the guerillas.

While Pilar’s language is, in general, blunt and vulgar, she is capable, when relating her history, of speaking eloquently and with great beauty of expression. Thus, she tells of the deaths of the fascists in a village taken over by the guerillas and of her past love affairs. Yet when she returns to the present, she asserts her leadership by using strong, aggressive language, matching the men in their obscenities.

The fact that Jordan is linked to both cultures is expressed when, on meeting the deaf El Sordo, the latter speaks to him in pidgin Spanish, assuming that, being of a different race, he will not understand Spanish fluently spoken. But as Jordan reveals his knowledge of the language and at the same time, more importantly, his sympathy with the cause of the guerillas, El Sordo begins to speak to him in fluent Spanish. Thus he is accepted into the culture of the guerilla leader, despite his foreign status.


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An Analysis of Robert Jordan and Frederick Henry

In the characters of Robert Jordan and Frederick Henry, novelist Ernest Hemingway has given us examples of the prototypical existential rebel. These figures are seen as a breed apart, men who have rejected value systems imposed upon them from the outside in favor of action determined from within themselves. In both A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, “those who adhere to the ideal of self-fullfillment are in the minority, and their very existence becomes intolerable to the majority who follow another course.”(1) This concept is given eloquent expression by Frederick Henry when he concludes, “If people bring so much courage to this world, the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them.” This conflict, then, is basically the “antithesis between the self and the anti-self”(2) and finds its expression both in external events and within the minds of the characters.

In both Jordan and Henry we find men who have left the common path. Jordan leaves his intellectual seclusion to deliberately fight “for all the poor of the world,” while in A Farewell To Arms, “Frederick Henry at first participated in a common adventure, war, but then by deserting he struck out on his own.”(3) In both cases, we find the Hemingway hero distinguishes himself from the commonality, and “in his struggle for a decent life . . . he must conquer old habits and conventions, he must keep free from gilded chains, and to preserve his inner freedom he must assert life by action.”(4) As Henry says after the retreat from Caporetto, “I had seen nothing sacred and the things that were glorious had no glory.” In the case of Jordan, the protagonist finds a cause within himself to which he gives primary importance. As he says to himself, “neither you or this old man is anything, you are instruments to do your duty . . . you have only one thing to do and you must do it.” We see that the price is indeed high but that the debt is to one’s self.

This departure from the common path has its internal effects on both Jordan and Henry. Jordan forces himself to kill, although “he never kills with pleasure but always with reluctance.”(5) He is, as one critic has said, “a true man of action yet wrestling with his own un-communistic honest to God soul.”(6) Another conflict within Jordan’s psyche is that “he is in love with Maria, even though there isn’t supposed to be any such thing as love in a purely materialistic conception of society.”(7)

In Frederick Henry we find the character purposely rejecting his conflicting thoughts as he reaches the conclusion, “I was not made to think, I was made to eat, My God yes, eat and drink and sleep with Catherine.” Although there is a notable reversal in Henry's status—he deserts the Italian Army—we find that this attitude of preferring action to thought was present in Henry from the...

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Robert Jordan as a Hemingway “Code Hero”

(Novels for Students)

Several of Hemingway’s protagonists share qualities that define them as a specific type of character that has come to be known as...

(The entire section is 1079 words.)

Revolution in Ronda: The Facts in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls

(Novels for Students)

Ronda sits perched in the hills of southern Spain, halfway between Seville and Malaga. Its dramatic setting, hanging on the cliffs above a...

(The entire section is 3121 words.)

Macho Posturing in For Whom the Bell Tolls: The Role of Andrés of Villaconejos

(Novels for Students)

Gary Cooper (far right) as Robert Jordan and Ingrid Bergman (second from right) as Maria in the 1943 film version of the novel Published by Gale Cengage

In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway presents us with a strange dialogue between Fernando and the gypsy woman Pilar, whose praise of...

(The entire section is 1444 words.)