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Robert Jordan, the protagonist of the novel, is an experienced and competent explosives expert from the United States. He is currently aiding the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, working behind enemy lines. Sympathetic to the Spanish people and opposed to Fascism, he is extremely dedicated to the cause.
When the book opens, Jordan is operating under the orders of Russian General Golz, who has ordered him to demolish an important bridge. At first Jordan believes in carrying out the orders without questioning or doubting the integrity of the people who have issued them, even though he knows that the assigned mission is more dangerous than it need be. He knows his task would be much easier if it could be accomplished during the night, before the offensive against the fascists actually began.
In the first chapter, Jordan's dedication can be seen. He wants to completely concentrate on his work and refuses to entertain any stray thoughts. "He had only one thing to do and that was what he should think about." As the story progresses and he sees how little Pablo and the other guerillas care about the war, he begins to question the value of his mission and resent the fact that his orders will not allow him to chose the best time to destroy the bridge. He loses further focus when he falls in love with Maria. Suddenly, his desire to live and be with her is stronger than his desire to make the mission a success.
His growing disillusionment is apparent when he says "he would abandon a hero's or a martyr's end gladly."
Throughout the course of the novel, Jordan's value of human life increases. He listens to Anselmo, who tells how he hates killing anyone even in war; but Jordan claims that he does not mind killing for a cause or dying himself. Yet when he kills the fascist cavalryman, Jordan is bothered by a constant feeling of guilt. He later realizes that the common man or the innocent peasant who gets killed in the fighting really has nothing to do with the war or its perpetrators; he also accepts that the enemy is really just another human being like himself. When he kills the sentry on the bridge, he cannot bear to really look at him, for he sees only another human being. When Jordan meets Maria, he develops a strong urge to survive. He does not want to sacrifice himself to the cause, for he wants to survive the mission and live a quiet, peaceful existence with Maria. He also feels guilty that many innocent people will probably lose their lives during the mission.
In spite of his feeling that he and the guerilla band will be unable to escape after his mission, he never questions his ability to destroy the bridge. Even when Pablo steals and destroys some of the equipment, including the detonator, Jordan is able to come up with a makeshift plan to accomplish the mission. The bridge is, indeed, destroyed according to plan, but Jordan is upset that the faithful Anselmo loses his life in the process. He knows that if he had been able to use a detonator, Anselmo's life would have been spared. He resents Pablo more than ever and chastises himself for ever trusting the man.
After Jordan successfully completes his mission of destroying the bridge, he is injured by the fascists while trying to escape. It is at this point that he truly proves that he is a Hemingway Code Hero. Knowing that he has no chance of keeping up with the others, he insists upon being left behind with a rifle. He will shower the approaching fascists with gunfire, allowing the others more time to escape. When Agustin offers to kill Jordan so he will not have to face the enemy, he bravely rejects the offer. He wants to sacrifice himself for the others, especially Maria. As the book ends, the others ride away, and Jordan calmly waits behind a tree for the fascists. He is the personification of "grace under pressure."
Pilar is a member of Pablo's guerilla band and his "woman." The two of them have been living together for some years. She is devoted to Pablo and loyal towards the Republican cause. Unlike Pablo and Jordan, Pilar does not become disillusioned in the course of the novel. It is only at the very end that she does any questioning of the cause.
Pilar is vital to the plot, for she serves as a mouthpiece for the author. It is through her that the reader gains information on the beginning of the movement, when Pablo had more fervor and zeal. Her narration of the massacre of the fascists in Pablo's hometown paints a gruesome picture of the atrocities of war.
A gypsy by background, Pilar is very superstitious and casts an aura of mysticism throughout the novel. Believing that she can foresee the future, she reads Jordan's palm, but refuses to tell him what she has seen in it. Sensing danger, she calls the enemy airplanes, "the bad luck birds," and claims that she smelled death on Kashkin before he was killed. When Jordan refutes the existence of the supernatural, Pilar retorts, "Thou art simply deaf. One who is deaf cannot hear music. Neither can he hear the radio. So he might say, never having heard them, that such things do not exist."
Whenever Hemingway refers to Pilar, he uses adjectives like big, wide, heavy, thick, or strong, indicating that the woman had a sturdy presence about her. When Jordan notices her for the first time, he sees, "a woman of about fifty, almost as big as Pablo, almost as wide as she was tall, in black pleasant skirt and waist, with heavy wool socks on heavy legs, ...she had big but nice looking hands and her thick curly black hair was twisted into a knot on her neck." When Pilar extended her hand to greet Jordan, he returned her "strong grip."
Pilar's strength serves her well. She is not afraid of fighting or dying, and when Pablo seems to have deserted Jordan's mission, she insists upon taking his place. Even though Pablo returns, she is in the center of the action until the very end of the novel. But in spite of her strength and courage, Pilar has a soft side. She helped in the rescue of Maria from the fascists and is protective of the girl. She warns Jordan to treat Maria kindly, for she has experienced a difficult past. She also leaves Jordan and Maria alone, encouraging their intimacy.
In order to complete his mission, Jordan has to take the help of a band of guerillas, which is camping in the mountains. Pablo is the leader of the guerilla band. From the moment that Jordan meets him, he dislikes and distrusts Pablo. He finds him to be rude, uncouth, sullen, and uncooperative. Jordan also realizes that Pablo no longer has an interest in the war. He really wants to be left alone to live peacefully in the mountains with Pilar and raise his horses.
Although Pablo is depicted as a very negative character who no longer has a real interest in the war, Pilar (his gypsy "woman") explains to Jordan that Pablo was not always this way. At the beginning of the movement, he had a deep fervor and zeal for the Republican cause and was willing to do anything to help in its success. During the course of the fighting, Pablo has "gone bad" and become totally disillusioned. Even the members of his guerilla band are disgusted with him and encourage Jordan to kill the man.
Pablo considers Jordan's mission to be a threat to him and his people. He believes that they will all be displaced from the hills after the destruction of the bridge. He tells Jordan, "If you make a disturbance here, we will be hunted out of these mountains." In fact, Pablo is so against the mission that he steals some of Jordan's equipment and deserts. His conscience, however, gets the better of him, and he returns to apologize to Pilar and rejoin the effort. As a conciliatory effort, he even brings several men from another guerilla band to help with Jordan's mission. Pablo reveals the same kind of conscience when he talks about the fascists he has massacred. He admits that he wishes he could bring them all back to life, for he has realized that they are just human beings like himself.
When Jordan discovers that Pablo has stolen the detonator and other important equipment, he chastises himself for ever trusting the guerilla leader. He thinks that he should have killed the man when he had the opportunity and the backing of the other members of the guerilla band. He thinks that everything about Pablo is despicable. Ironically, by the end of the book Jordan is much like him in many ways. Like Pablo, he becomes totally disillusioned with the war and does not really care about its outcome. Like Pablo, he simply wants to be left alone to live in peace with Maria.
In spite of the fact that Jordan dislikes Pablo, he knows that he needs the guerilla leader. As pointed out by Agustin, Pablo has the "talent" needed to win a battle. He also has the cleverness to devise a sound escape plan for everyone after the bridge has been destroyed. As a result, Jordan sees him as indispensable, even though he never really trusts him. Ironically, Pablo's life is spared, while Anselmo and Jordan die.