Thursday, January 29, 2015

For Whom the Bell Tolls

“The world is a fine place and worth fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.”― Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a novel by Ernest Hemingway published in 1940. It tells the story of Robert Jordan, a young American in the International Brigades attached to a republican guerrilla unit during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). As a dynamiter, the young man is assigned to blow up a bridge during an attack on the city of Segovia. The novel is one of Hemingway's best works, along with The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea, and A Farewell to Arms.

The novel has three types of characters: those who are purely fictional; those based on real people but fictionalized; and those who were actual figures in the war. Set in the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains between Madrid and Segovia, the action takes place during four days and three nights.

The title is taken from a John Donne's  Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII: Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris:
"Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.
The book is written in the third person limited omniscient narrative mode. The action and dialogue are punctuated by extensive thought sequences told from the viewpoint of Robert Jordan. The novel also contains thought sequences of other characters, including Pilar and Anselmo. The thought sequences are more extensive than in Hemingway's earlier fiction, notably A Farewell to Arms, and are an important narrative device to explore the principal themes of the novel.

"Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano"
Photograph by Robert Capa taken on September 5, 1936.

For Whom the Bell Tolls became a Book of the Month Club choice, sold half a million copies within months, and became a literary triumph for Hemingway.

In 1941 the Pulitzer Prize committee for letters unanimously recommended For Whom the Bell Tolls be awarded the prize for that year. The Pulitzer Board agreed; however, Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University, overrode both and no award was given for literature that year.

That is a true shame because For Whom the Bell Tolls is one of the greatest pieces of literature to highlight the drama of the Spanish Civil War which took the lives of an estimated 500,000 people in 3 years. 

Robert Jordan's side, and the dreams of those he fought alongside, died. The Nationalists won, and General Francisco Franco ruled Spain as a dictator for the next 36 years, until his death in 1975.

After the war ended in 1939 it is believed that the Franco government arranged the executions of 100,000 Republican prisoners. It is estimated that another 35,000 Republicans died in concentration camps in the years that followed the war.

Related reading: The Civil War in Spain

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