For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) by Ernest Miller Hemingway was selected by a voting jury to win the 1941 Pulitzer Prize in literature, but since the novel was deemed to be “offensive and lascivious” the organization overturned the selection, refusing to grant Hemingway the award. As a result of the secret dispute over the selection (which would later become public), there would be no Pulitzer Prize for the Novel awarded in 1941. (The “Novel” category would be renamed to “Fiction” in 1947.)
For Whom the Bell Tolls tells of Robert Jordan’s mission over the course of seventy hours from Saturday afternoon to Tuesday morning (May 22 to May 25, 1937) to dynamite a bridge near Segovia, Spain. The Spanish Civil War began on July 17, 1936 and ended on April 1, 1939.
Robert Jordan is an American who is “an instructor in Spanish at the University of Montana,” but in 1936 he decides to join the Spanish Civil War and help the Communists fight the fascists (pgs 170-172, 214-217, 347). Ordered by Russian General Golz to assist a major military offensive by destroying an important bridge, Robert Jordan joins Pablo and his local rebels hidden in a mountain cave (pgs 7-11). While on his journey, Robert Jordan meets Maria and they share in a highly romanticized love affair.
Major Characters in For Whom the Bell Tolls
Maria, age 19 (p 164)
Pilar, age 48 (p 147)
Anselmo, the guide, age 68 (p 14)
Fernando, age 35 (p 85)
Eladio & Andrés (“the Bulldog of Villaconejos”), brothers, ages 26 or 28-30 (pgs 55, 382)
El Sordo, age 52 (p 322)
Joaquín, age 18 (p 318)
Rafael, the gypsy
Karkov, a Russian Journalist
Timeline in For Whom the Bell Tolls
Taking a year off from work, Robert Jordan arrived in Spain in the summer of 1936, the same summer that the Spanish Civil War began, and expected to return to teach at university in the fall of 1937; the book begins and takes place in late May, 1937 (pgs 172, 184, & 298).
The story of Robert Jordan’s mission is described by him to be “three days” or “seventy hours”: “I suppose it is possible to live as full a life in seventy hours as in seventy years; granted that your life has been full up to the time that the seventy hours start and that you have reached a certain age… So if your life trades its seventy years for seventy hours I have that value now and I am lucky enough to know it” (pgs 173-174); and, “You couldn’t do these things indefinitely. But you weren’t supposed to live forever. Maybe I have had all my life in three days, he thought. If that’s true I wish we would have spent the last night differently. But last nights are never any good” (p 369). Late May, 1937: “We are in the moon of May” (p 184).
In Chapter 9, on the second day, Robert Jordan asks Pilar, “In what day are we?” She answers, “Sunday” (p 94).
Considering the specificity of the timeline, which includes “not quite three days and three nights” (p 485) from Saturday afternoon to Tuesday morning late in the month of May, it stands to reason that the specific dates would be thus: May 22 – May 25, 1937.
By the very end of the book, a Tuesday morning, which would be May 25, Robert Jordan narrates: “It was a fine early summer morning and it came very fast now in the end of May… He lay there behind the pine tree, with the submachine gun across his left forearm, and he never looked at the sentry box again until, long after it seemed that it was never coming, that nothing could happen on such a lovely late May morning, he heard the sudden, clustered, thudding of the bombs” (p 451); and, “Well, we had all our luck in four days. Not four days. It was afternoon when I first got there and it will not be noon today. That makes not quite three days and three nights. Keep it accurate, he said. Quite accurate” (p 485).
On the morning of the last day, Robert Jordan reflects about how the stars have shifted and how mornings would come earlier. The last day, according to the timeline, is a Tuesday: “It was night still and here was no promise of morning except that as he looked up through the pines he saw how low the stars had swung. The morning would be coming fast now in this month” (p 397). Robert Jordan reflects on the final day: “I have learned much about life in these four days; more, I think, than in all the other time” (p 396). Having the action take place in the final days of May, 1937 fits with the narrative which counts down to the final attack on the bridge.
Structure & Organization in For Whom the Bell Tolls
Day One, Saturday afternoon (May 22, 1937):
Saturday (up the mountain to Pablo’s Cave) = Chapters 1-3 (pgs 3-50)
Flashback to Thursday Night (May 20, meeting with General Golz) = Chapter 1 (pgs 7-11)
Saturday Night (at Pablo’s Cave, introductions) = Chapters 4-7 (pgs 51-77)
Day Two, Sunday (May 23, 1937):
Sunday Morning (at Pablo’s Cave, the planes above) = Chapters 8-9 (pgs 78-100)
Sunday, before noon (by the stream, on the way to El Sordo’s hideout, Pilar’s story about the village executions) = Chapter 10 (pgs 101-136)
Sunday, whiskey & lunch (meeting with El Sordo) = Chapter 11 (pgs 137-159)
Sunday, later in the afternoon (makes love to Maria while walking back to Pablo’s camp) = Chapters 12-13 (pgs 160-184)
Sunday Evening (at Pablo’s Cave, Pilar’s story about Finito the Matador) = Chapter 14 (pgs 185-198)
Sunday Night (with Anselmo spying on the enemy at the sawmill) = Chapter 15 (pgs 199-209)
Sunday Night (at Pablo’s Cave, “the illusioned ones”) = Chapters 16-20 (pgs 210-273)
Day Three, Monday (May 24, 1937):
Monday Morning (enemy action and talk of love) = Chapters 21-25 (pgs 274-311)
Monday Afternoon (a day of fighting) = Chapters 26-28 (pgs 312-339)
Monday Night (back at Pablo’s Cave, “the last night”) = Chapters 29-32 (pgs 340-374)
Day Four, Tuesday (May 25, 1937):
Tuesday Early Morning (2-3 a.m.) = Chapters 33-37 (pgs 375-398)
Tuesday Morning (Before Daylight) = Chapters 38-42 (pgs 399-447)
Tuesday Morning (Daylight, the attack) = Chapter 43 (pgs 448-490)
Thoughts on For Whom the Bell Tolls
For Whom the Bell Tolls is a love story between Robert Jordan and Maria, which ultimately saves the American from the loss of the ideal self due to war.
The Spanish Civil War is juxtaposed with the American Civil War, which Robert Jordan’s grandfather once fought in during his time in the cavalry. The Spanish Civil War brings back deep, dark memories of Robert Jordan’s grandfather and father and what happened when Robert Jordan was a kid. Robert Jordan is abandoned twice by his father. Once when Robert Jordan is forced to leave home for school and a second time when Robert Jordan’s father commits suicide.
“Robert Jordan had not felt this young since he had taken the train at Red Lodge to go down to Billings to get the train there to go away to school for the first time. He had been afraid to go and he did not want any one to know it and, at the station, just before the conductor picked up the box he would step up on to reach the steps of the day coach, his father had kissed him good-by and said, ‘May the Lord watch between thee and me while we are absent the one from the other.’ His father had been a very religious man and he had said it simply and sincerely. But his moustache had been moist and his eyes were damp with emotion and Robert Jordan had been so embarrassed by all of it, the damp religious sound of the prayer, and by his father kissing him good-by, that he had felt suddenly so much older than his father and sorry for him that he could hardly bear it… After the train started he had stood on the rear platform and watched the station and the water tower grow smaller and smaller and the rails crossed by the ties narrowed toward a point where the station and the water tower stood now minute and tiny in the steady clicking that was taking him away” (pgs 422-423).
During the Spanish Civil War, Robert Jordan attempts to stay calm by remembering “something concrete and practical” (p 348), and he ends up recalling his grandfather’s pistol that has survived the American Civil War and his father.
“Then after your father had shot himself with this pistol, and you had come home from school and they’d had the funeral, the coroner had returned it after the inquest saying, ‘Bob, I guess you might want to keep the gun. I’m supposed to hold it, but I know your dad set a lot of store by it because his dad packed it all through the War, besides out here when he first came out with the Cavalry, and it’s still a hell of a good gun. I had her out trying her this afternoon. She don’t throw much of a slug but you can hit things with her’… Then thinking of his father had thrown him off. He understood his father and he forgave him everything and he pitied him but he was ashamed of him” (pgs 349, 352).
Later, on the last day of the novel, Anselmo says goodbye to Robert Jordan, and the American is unable to say goodbye in return. Robert Jordan reacts thus: “He remembered his father in the railway station and the wetness of that farewell and he did not say Salud nor good-by nor good luck nor anything like that” (p 427).
By the end, Robert Jordan reflects: “Once you saw it again as it was to others, once you got rid of your own self, the always riddling of self that you had to do in war. Where there could be no self. Where yourself is only to be lost” (p 465).
But the loss of the ideal self due to war is counterbalanced by the love story between Robert Jordan and Maria and the value and dignity this love brings to the human identity.
“This was the greatest gift that he had, the talent that fitted him for war; that ability not to ignore but to despise whatever bad ending there could be. This quality was destroyed by too much responsibility for others or the necessity of undertaking something ill planned or badly conceived. For in such things the bad ending, failure, could not be ignored. It was not simply a possibility of harm to one’s self, which could be ignored. He knew he himself was nothing, and he knew death was nothing. He knew that truly, as truly as he knew anything. In the last few days he had learned that he himself, with another person, could be everything. But inside himself he knew that this was the exception. That we have had, he thought. In that I have been most fortunate. That was given to me, perhaps, because I never asked for it. That cannot be taken away nor lost. But that is over and done with now on this morning and what there is to do now is our work” (pgs 410-411).
Despite being faced with the guilt of his father’s suicide and the guilt of having to kill people in war, Robert Jordan knows that his love for Maria and her love for him is a fortune favoring him in whatever time he has left.
“I have to keep you straight in your head. Because if you are not absolutely straight in your head you have no right to do the things you do for all of them are crimes and no man has a right to take another man’s life unless it is to prevent something worse happening to other people. So get it straight and do not lie to yourself.
“But I won’t keep a count of people I have killed as though it were a trophy record or a disgusting business like notches in a gun, he told himself. I have a right to not keep count and I have a right to forget them.
“No, himself said. You have no right to forget anything. You have no right to shut your eyes to any of it nor any right to forget any of it nor to soften it nor to change it…
“You’re not a real Marxist and you know it. You believe in Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. You believe in Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Don’t ever kid yourself with too much dialectics. They are for some but not for you. You have to put many things into abeyance to win a war. If this war is lost all of those things are lost.
“But afterwards you can discard what you do not believe in. There is plenty you do not believe in and plenty that you do believe in.
“And another thing. Don’t ever kid yourself about loving some one. It is just that most people are not lucky enough ever to have it. You never had it before and now you have it. What you have with Maria, whether it lasts just through today and a part of tomorrow, or whether it lasts for a long life is the most important thing that can happen to a human being. There will always be people who say it does not exist because they cannot have it. But I tell you it is true and that you have it and that you are lucky even if you die tomorrow” (pgs 314-315).
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a member of the Hemingway Society, Club Med, and the Royal Society of Literature. He’s also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), The Mystic’s Smile ~ A Play in 3 Acts (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), Little Hometown, America: A Look Back (2020); and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
You can follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 400,000+ followers