For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Review of For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

The writing is gorgeous and not at all what I was expecting. I have previously read some of Hemingway’s short stories which had his famous sparse style. The writing in this novel, however, while clear and crisp, has a rhythm and generous beauty that makes the reading almost sumptuous. My only warning for would-be buyers of this book: be patient to get the most from the novel.

The story is set during the Spanish civil war in the 1930s. Robert Jordan, an American professor of Spanish, has come over to help the Republic fight the Fascists as a demolition man. He is sent to blow up a bridge at a specific day and time, creating a countdown where, as a result of the diminishing hours, he spends four intense days with a small guerrilla force, creating tight, intimate relationships.

I’ll be honest. The first half of the book put me to sleep; but I’m not saying this as a criticism, I swear! The language was so mesmerizing, repetitive, and rhythmic, that it created a hypnotic effect that kept making me drowsy. I had to be so patient. I couldn’t read with any distractions and often read only a dozen or so pages at a time to help with my focus.

The second half of the book, in stark contrast, accentuates the countdown to blowing up the bridge. The plot started to fly by, and I found myself going faster through the writing than I wanted to. I had to really focus on keeping my reading at a steady pace to catch all of the narrative and not skip anything. Again, I found I needed all my patience and focus, but in an entirely different way.

There are no bad parts to this book. The characters, language, pacing, plot, everything is well done. Chapters often set aside the plot for a while as characters give us their personal anecdotal histories or conversations, but these asides add so much depth to the narrative that they seem integral to the whole story.

Here’s my example of his writing style on pg. 323, Chapter 27: “Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.” There’s nothing about the style here that’s sparse. Repetitive and clear, but so lovely as the time that I find it captivating.

I was in a book club that read this, and I can tell you the only downside to this book is that we all agreed so well upon it, the conversation lacked any good argument or intensity (although we did understood the novel much better afterwards). I encourage book groups to read this book as there is so much depth here to explore; I easily created pages of discussion questions and could create so many more if I spent more time with the book. This would also make an excellent book for anyone interested in reading classics. Someday I’m going to read this book again, and I know that I’ll get even more out of it then.

You can find my discussion questions on this book here.

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