Discussion Questions for For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Why does the narrator use Robert Jordan’s whole name throughout the book? Why does he use other repetitive terms like “rope-soled shoes”? Can you name anything else used repetitively like that? Did you ever get tired of hearing them? What do the repetitive names and terms do for the narrative? If we know that all the characters are speaking Spanish, why are Spanish phrases used all the time? What effect does that have?
What about Spain did Robert Jordan like so much while he was traveling in it before the war? Is it the country or the people he likes so much? What does Robert Jordan mean by “peasant” and does he like Spanish peasants?
Why does Robert Jordan fight in this war? Is he a reliable narrator, i.e., do you accept his answers as the true answers? Lots of people would have felt strongly about the fascists without participating in the civil war. What about his personality makes him want to fight? Does some part of him like being in the war? Why is Robert Jordan so good at what he does? How is he different from the Russian Kashkin who came before him? How does he handle the negative thoughts of his line of work?
In Chapter 23, pg. 296-7, Agustin is talking about his desire to kill the cavalry, saying that “‘the necessity was on me as it is on a mare in heat.’” Does this mean that Agustin likes to kill? Does this eagerness to kill make Agustin a bad person? Does Robert Jordan judge anyone for their views on killing? Why would he make the comparison of killing to sex? Does anything else in this book make that comparison? How might sex and killing be similar for someone in a war?
He claims that being part of the war was like “taking part in a crusade” (pg. 243, Chapter 18). Read through the whole paragraph of this quote. What does he mean by the word “crusade”? Right after talking to Agustin in Chapter 23 (see previous question), Robert Jordan thinks about what killing means to the Spanish. He calls it “their extra sacrament, [their]act of faith. Killing is something one must do, but ours are different from theirs.” Read that whole paragraph aloud. How do the Spanish kill differently from Americans? What is corrupting to Jordan? How is religion tied up in the act of killing? What kind of things do people believe in if they don’t believe in God? Anselmo says, “But with or without God, I think it is a sin to kill” (pg. 44, Chapter 3). Anselmo kills in spite of his belief. What are Anselmo’s views on why he has to kill and what he must do afterwards? Does Anselmo symbolize anything because of these views?
From the beginning, Robert Jordan seems to understand that this is likely a deadly job he must do: “he resented Golz’s orders, and necessity for them. He resented them for what they could do to him and for what they could do to this old man” (pg. 46, Chapter 3). Since both Jordan and Anselmo die at the end, he clearly had the right suspicion that the mission could be suicidal. How did that affect Robert Jordan? Did that change the way he lived in the next four days? If Pilar actually can read his palm or smell death on him, then why does she encourage Maria to love Robert?
At the beginning of Chapter 9, right as the airplanes are flying over them, Robert Jordan thinks, “You ought to write, he told himself. Maybe you will again sometime” (pg. 92). What about the planes makes him have the instinct to write? What keeps him from writing?
Pilar’s story of Pablo killing the fascists in their hometown seems as much farce as tragedy. What’s important about this story? What does is reveal about the war? Does it tell us anything about Pablo or Pilar? What does Robert Jordan get from the story?
On page 144, Chapter 11, Robert Jordan sees Maria as an impossible dream, and even wonders if he’s made her up. What does he like so much about Maria? Is Maria the “perfect” woman? Does it seem misogynistic for him to love a woman who’s so demure? How does Maria manage to get her way?
On pg. 161, Chapter 12, Pilar seems to bully Maria after leaving Maria and Robert Jordan alone in the heather. She claims that she’s “very jealous,” but Maria says to Pilar that “‘It was thee explained to me there was nothing like that between us.’” What is not being said in the conversation? What is Pilar jealous of?
The term “irregular service” is used early by Golz (pg. 10) and later reflected on by Robert Jordan (pg. 176). What does this phrase is mean? How does Robert Jordan feel about Golz? How is Golz similar or different to Karkov. What are the problems with the Republic’s army? Do you think that fascists have similar problems?
Pilar gives the story of her previous boyfriend, the matador Finito. What does the story of the scared and dying matador add to the story of the war? Why did he fight if he was deathly afraid of bulls before entering the ring? Why did he continue to fight when he became injured? Is there any similarities between the matador and Padro?
The narration switches often from 1st person to 2nd person to 3rd person point-of-view. Please find an example paragraph of each and read them aloud. What do each of these different viewpoints do for the story? Why does the narration switch up so often?