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For whom the bell tolls

For whom the bell tolls

Author Ernest Hemingway
Title For whom the bell tolls
Year 1940

Ernest Hemingway - For whom the bell tolls

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was an American journalist, short story author and novelist. In the 1920s he became part of the American expatriate literary community in Paris (sometimes known as The lost generation). In the 1930s, he became war correspondent in Europe, first during the civil war in Spain (he actively supported the Republicans), and later the second world war.

Hemingway was one of the most influential authors of the 20th century. He was awarded the Pulitzer prize in 1953 (for The old man and the sea) and the Nobel prize in 1954.

I read For whom the bell tolls in high school, a long time ago. I think I liked it then, and I still remembered the storyline and the plot, but nothing else. Much later, I read The old man and the see, and (recently) A clean, well-lighted place – both masterpieces. So I started For whom the bell tolls with high expectations.

I was, however, somewhat disappointed by this novel.

It’s the story of Robert Jordan, an American fighting in the Spanish civil war, on the republican side, who crossed the enemy lines to blow up a bridge behind the lines, with the help of a local guerrilla band. The operation seems to be doomed from the start, but has to be carried out anyway. The story is told mostly through the thoughts of Robert Jordan, occasionally as a stream of consciousness. Small parts of the book are told through the thoughts of others, which I find rather detracts from the novel. Conversation is often literally translated from the Spanish, with a heavy use of thou, articles before names (the Maria) and expressions like that you should speak – this may be natural conversation in Spanish, but in English it sounds archaic and contrived. I don’t understand what Hemingway tried to achieve here.

The conversation in the novel is peppered with swearwords, but these words were consistently replaced with unprintable or obscenity, another narrative device I found annoying. Either print the swearwords or leave them out, but this way the conversation is hard to read and irritating.

An interesting story, a decent plot, and an insider’s insight in the war (the story is loosely based on Hemingway’s own experiences) make for a good read, but For whom the bell tolls is not the masterpiece I hoped it would be.

For whom the bell tolls was read as part of the Classics challenge.


  1. I’ve read it some years back and must agree with you. Only thing is I read a rather old dutch edition, and so thought the archaic language was much the fault of the translator. Obscenities I don’t remember, maybe they too were ‘dumbed’ down a little.

  2. Great blog site, Henk!

  3. i read that book when i was in high school at a philippine public school, and i have to agree with you that robert jordan sometimes does detract from the novel and becomes garrulous.

    regarding the part about the unprintable swearwords, however, i find them funny, albeit i could picture hemingway deciding on it with his tongue in cheek.

    and on the archaic and contrived language of the spanish-speaking character, i find it out of ordinary.

    here in the philippines, which is a greatly christian nation and in the past a colony of spain for more than three centuries, that’s how prayers are said: in old english.

    reading the dialog reminds me of how we say our prayers, of how we talk with God. so maybe it is for some reason that hemingway made it thus. but we’ll never know for sure. what i’m sure of, however, is that the dialog invokes something inside me. so maybe it has some end.

    just my two cents…

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