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Free Study Guide-For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway-BookNotes
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THEMES - THEME ANALYSIS

Major Themes

Death and Disillusionment in War

The novel deals with the brutality of war, spotlighting that both sides are losers, for there are always casualties to both. During the story, Hemingway describes the brutal massacre of the fascists in Pablo's hometown, Jordan's killing of the calvaryman and the sentry on the bridge, the brutal murder and beheading of El Sordo's band by the fascists, Anselmo's senseless death, and Jordan's injury, leading to his certain end. It is no wonder that the characters in the novel become disillusioned about the war. In fact, Pablo is disenchanted with it from the time the book opens. Although he had been zealous about the war effort at the beginning of the movement, he has lost all interest in it. He does not want any part in Jordan's mission, for it just spells danger to him, and he simply wants to be left alone to live in the mountains and raise his horses.

In a similar manner, Jordan is very devoted to the cause and his mission at the beginning of the book; however, during the course of the novel, he too becomes disillusioned. First he realizes the folly of General Golz's orders to destroy the bridge in daylight, making the mission much more dangerous than it has to be. Then when he kills the fascist calvaryman, he realizes that the enemy is just another human being like himself. When he falls in love with Maria, he suddenly has a strong desire to be out of the war, for he simply wants to settle down and live a peaceful life with her. In the last chapter, when he kills the enemy guard on the bridge and then sees Anselmo needlessly killed, he realizes the gross and needless brutality of war and becomes totally disenchanted.

Before he is killed, Anselmo expresses his own disillusionment. Even though he is devoted to the cause, he is totally against killing and feels he must later atone for the murder of others. The brutality of war has caused him to give up his belief in God, for, according to him, if there were a God, he would not permit the kind of atrocities that have taken place. Even Pilar, who is totally devoted to the cause, begins to question the value of destroying the bridge in daylight and the danger that it causes them. Like Jordan, she begins to sense that the little man is used as a pawn in the war game, while the officers watch at a distance and discuss their battle plans at cocktail parties.


Through all of his characters, Hemingway successfully captures a sense of disillusionment about war. By the end of the novel, it is clear that fighting is not a glorious event, as is so often depicted in literature. Additionally, he makes it clear that few men are truly war heroes, for everyone in the battle comes out a loser.

Grace Under Pressure

During the novel, Robert Jordan becomes the true Hemingway Code Hero, displaying a penchant for action and grace under pressure. Even though he realizes the dangerous nature of his mission and questions the orders of General Golz to carry it out in daylight after the offensive has commenced, he never doubts his own ability to accomplish the task. Even after Pablo steals and destroys some of his key equipment, he does not run from the danger. Instead, he carefully plans the task at hand and carries it out methodically. It is not surprising that he successfully destroys the bridge. He is, however, upset that Anselmo is killed in the process, for he knows if Pablo had not destroyed the detonator, Anselmo would have been spared.

Jordan more clearly displays grace under pressure after he has been injured by fascist gunfire. Paralyzed and unable to easily escape with the others, he insists upon being left behind with a gun. He promises to fire at the approaching fascists, giving the others more time to escape. When Maria begs to stay with him, he convinces her to leave by telling her his mission will have been worthwhile if her life is saved. He also refuses to let Agustin put an end to his life, for that would be cowardly. Instead, he positions himself behind a tree and stoically waits for his certain death, showing tremendous grace under pressure.

Mysticism-Superstition

An aura of mysticism prevails throughout the book. The protagonist, Robert Jordan repeatedly asserts that he does not believe in prophecies and refuses to give in to superstition. In fact he states, "These mysteries tire me very much...I do not believe in ogres, soothsayers, fortunetellers, or chicken-curt gypsy witchcraft." But the reader never truly believes his claims, for he is always giving in to superstitions. He allows the gypsy Pilar to read his palm and is convinced that she sees bad fortune there when she stops midway and refuses to tell him what she sees. When she later tells Jordan that it was all a pretense, he does not belief her. In addition, Pablo's sulleness is a bad sign for Jordan, who senses from the very beginning that the guerilla leader is going to betray him. He also agrees with Pilar that the enemy planes are "bad luck birds." All these signs and superstitions increase the gloominess of the mood and foreshadow the tragic outcome of the novel.

OTHER ELEMENTS

AUTHOR'S STYLE

Hemingway is widely known and acclaimed for his sparse, economical style. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, his simplistic style is very evident. He again implies rather than states and gives hints rather than full descriptions. Since he uses short sentences without many adjectives or adverbs, the book reads almost like a report of bare facts. Even the dialogue that is included is brief and clipped, often including Spanish words and phrases.

Some critics state that it is ironic that a writer who severely trims his English vocabulary should continuously borrow from another language. But this is part of a larger paradox, for this American author also sets most of his novels, including this one, in foreign settings.

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