For Whom the Bell Tolls

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For Whom the Bell Tolls
ErnestHemmingway ForWhomTheBellTolls.jpg
First edition cover
AuthorErnest Hemingway
CountryUnited States
GenreWar novel
PublisherCharles Scribner's Sons
Publication date
21 October 1940

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a novel by Ernest Hemingway published in 1940. It tells the story of Robert Jordan, a young American volunteer attached to a Republican guerrilla unit during the Spanish Civil War. As a dynamiter, he is assigned to blow up a bridge during an attack on the city of Segovia.

It was published just after the end of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), whose general lines were well known at the time. It assumes the reader knows that the war was between the government of the Second Spanish Republic, which many foreigners went to Spain to help and which was supported by the Soviet Union, and the Nationalist faction, which was supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. It was commonly viewed as the dress rehearsal for the Second World War. In 1940, the year the book was published, the United States had not yet entered the war, which had begun on September 1, 1939, with Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland.[1]

The novel is regarded as one of Hemingway's best works, along with The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and The Old Man and the Sea.[2]


Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls in Havana, Cuba; Key West, Florida; and Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1939.[3][4] In Cuba, he lived in the Hotel Ambos Mundos where he worked on the manuscript.[5][6] The novel was finished in July 1940 at the InterContinental New York Barclay Hotel in New York City[7] and published in October.[8][9] It is based on Hemingway's experiences during the Spanish Civil War and features an American protagonist, named Robert Jordan, who fights alongside Spanish guerillas for the Republicans.[10] The characters in the novel include those who are purely fictional, those based on real people but fictionalized, and those who were actual figures in the war. Set in the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range between Madrid and Segovia, the action takes place during four days and three nights. For Whom the Bell Tolls became a Book of the Month Club choice, sold half a million copies within months, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and became a literary triumph for Hemingway.[10] Published on 21 October 1940, the first edition print run was 75,000 copies priced at $2.75.[11]


The book's title is taken from the metaphysical poet John Donne's series of meditations and prayers on health, pain, and sickness (written while Donne was convalescing from a nearly fatal illness) published in 1624 as Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, specifically Meditation XVII. Hemingway quotes part of the meditation (using Donne's original spelling) in the book's epigraph. Donne refers to the practice of funeral tolling, universal in his time.

No man is an Island, intire of it selfe; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

The point made by the choice of title and epigraph is that Spain's change from democracy to fascist dictatorship, the outcome of the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939, is important to and affects everyone, not just Spaniards. Furthermore, the title and epigraph can be interpreted as a reference to the themes of death within the novel, particularly between the characters of Robert Jordan and Anselmo.

Plot summary[edit]

The novel graphically describes the brutality of the Spanish Civil War. It is told primarily through the thoughts and experiences of the protagonist, Robert Jordan. It draws on Hemingway's own experiences in the Spanish Civil War as a reporter for the North American Newspaper Alliance.[12]

Jordan is an American who lived in prewar Spain and fights as an irregular soldier for the Republic against Francisco Franco's fascist forces. An experienced dynamiter, he is ordered by a Soviet general to travel behind enemy lines and destroy a bridge with the aid of a band of local anti-fascist guerrillas to prevent enemy troops from responding to an upcoming offensive. On his mission, Jordan meets the rebel Anselmo, who brings him to the hidden guerrilla camp and initially acts as an intermediary between Jordan and the other guerrilla fighters.

In the camp, Jordan encounters María, a young Spanish woman whose life has been shattered by her parents' execution and her rape at the hands of the Falangists (part of the fascist coalition) at the outbreak of the war. His strong sense of duty clashes with both the unwillingness of the guerrilla leader Pablo to commit to an operation that would endanger himself and his band and Jordan's own new-found lust for life, which arises from his love for María. Pablo's wife, Pilar, with the support of the other guerillas, displaces Pablo as the group leader and pledges the allegiance of the guerrillas to Jordan's mission. When another band of anti-fascist guerrillas, led by El Sordo, is surrounded and killed during a raid they conducted in support of Jordan's mission, Pablo steals the dynamite detonators and exploder, hoping to prevent the demolition and to avoid fascist reprisals. Although he disposes of the detonators and exploder by throwing them down a gorge into the river, Pablo regrets abandoning his comrades and returns to assist in the operation.

The enemy, apprised of the coming offensive, has prepared to ambush it in force and it seems unlikely that the blown bridge will do much to prevent a rout. However, Jordan understands that he must still demolish the bridge unless he receives explicit orders to the contrary. Lacking the detonation equipment stolen by Pablo, Jordan devises an alternative method: exploding the dynamite by using hand grenades with wires attached so that their pins can be pulled from a distance. The improvised plan is considerably more dangerous as the guerillas must be nearer to the explosion. While Pilar, Pablo, and other guerrillas attack the posts at the two ends of the bridge, Jordan and Anselmo plant and detonate the dynamite, costing Anselmo his life when he is hit by a piece of shrapnel. While escaping, Jordan is maimed when a tank shoots his horse out from under him. Knowing that his wound is so severe that it is highly unlikely that he will survive and that he would slow the others down, he bids farewell to María and ensures her escape to safety with the surviving guerrillas. He assures her repeatedly that they are now one – where she goes, he will be too. (This captures the theme of John Donne's poem – the source of the title – of the connectedness of humans.) He refuses Agustín's offer to shoot him and lies waiting in agony, hoping to kill an enemy officer and delay the pursuit of his comrades before he dies. The narrative ends just before Jordan launches his ambush.


  • Robert Jordan – American university instructor of the Spanish language and a specialist in demolitions and explosives.
  • Anselmo – Elderly guide to Robert Jordan.
  • Golz – Soviet officer who ordered the bridge's demolition.
  • Pablo – Leader of a group of anti-fascist guerrillas.
  • Rafael – Well-intentioned yet incompetent and lazy guerrilla, and a gypsy.
  • María – Robert Jordan's young lover.
  • Pilar – Pablo's wife. An aged but strong woman, she is the de facto leader of the guerrilla band.
  • Karkov – Soviet agent and journalist in Madrid, and a friend of Jordan's.
  • Agustín – Foul-mouthed, middle-aged guerrilla.
  • El Sordo – Leader of a fellow band of guerrillas.
  • Fernando – Middle-aged guerrilla.
  • Andrés and Eladio – Brothers and members of Pablo's band.
  • Primitivo – Old guerrilla in Pablo's band.
  • Joaquín – Enthusiastic teenaged communist, a member of Sordo's band.

Main themes[edit]

Death is a primary theme of the novel. When Robert Jordan is assigned to blow up the bridge to coincide with the commencement of the Republic's early attack, he knows that he may not survive. Pablo, Pilar, and El Sordo, leaders of the Republican guerrilla bands, agree. Almost all of the main characters in the book contemplate their own deaths. Before the operation, Pilar reads Robert Jordan's palm, and after seeing it, refuses to comment on what she saw, foreshadowing his untimely demise.

Hotel Ambos Mundos (Hotel of Both Worlds), Havana, Ernest Hemingway's first residence in Cuba (1932–39) where the first chapter of For Whom the Bell Tolls was written. Much of the rest was written later in his home near Havana, Finca Vigía (Lookout Farm)

Camaraderie and sacrifice in the face of death abound throughout the novel. Robert Jordan, Anselmo, and others are ready to do "as all good men should:" to make the ultimate sacrifice. The oft-repeated embracing gesture reinforces this sense of close companionship in the face of death. An incident involving the death of the family of the character Joaquín serves as an example of this theme; having learned of this tragedy, Joaquín's comrades embrace and comfort him, saying they now are his family. Surrounding this love for one's comrades is the love for the Spanish soil. A love of place, of the senses, and of life itself is represented by the pine needle forest floor, both at the beginning and, poignantly, at the end of the novel, when Robert Jordan awaits his death feeling "his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest."

Suicide always looms as an alternative to suffering, since it is likely that the guerrilla fighters, if captured and taken prisoner, would be tortured. Many of the characters, including Robert Jordan, would prefer death over capture and are prepared to kill themselves, be killed, or kill to avoid it. As the book ends, Robert Jordan, wounded and unable to travel with his companions, plans a final ambush attack on the enemy that will end his life. He prepares himself against the cruel outcomes of suicide to avoid capture, or inevitable torture for the extraction of information and death at the hands of the enemy. Still, he hopes to avoid suicide partly because his father, whom he views as a coward, committed suicide. Robert Jordan understands suicide but does not approve of it, and thinks that "you have to be awfully occupied with yourself to do a thing like that."[13]

The novel explores political ideology and the nature of bigotry. After noticing how he so easily employed the convenient catch-phrase "enemy of the people," Jordan moves swiftly into the subjects and opines, "To be bigoted you have to be absolutely sure that you are right and nothing makes that surety and righteousness like continence. Continence is the foe of heresy."[14] Later in the book, Robert Jordan explains the threat of fascism in his own country. "Robert Jordan, wiping out the stew bowl with bread, explained how the income tax and inheritance tax worked. 'But the big estates remain. Also, there are taxes on the land,' he said. 'But surely the big proprietors and the rich will make a revolution against such taxes. Such taxes appear to me to be revolutionary. They will revolt against the government when they see that they are threatened, exactly as the fascists have done here,' Primitivo said.

'It is possible.'
'Then you will have to fight in your country as we fight here.'
'Yes, we will have to fight.'
'But are there not many fascists in your country?'
'There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes.'"[15]

In the same conversation, he also acknowledges that there are populist policies right in America, namely homesteading, which was widely used by American settlers to settle the West from 1863 onward:[16] "Robert Jordan explained the process of homesteading. He had never thought of it before as an agrarian reform.

'That is magnificent,' Primitivo said. 'Then you have a Communism in your country?'
'No. That is done under the Republic.'"[17]

Divination emerges as an alternative means of perception. Pilar, "Pablo's woman," is a reader of palms and more. When Robert Jordan questions her true abilities, she replies, "Because thou art a miracle of deafness... It is not that thou art stupid. 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."[18]


Hemingway frequently used images to produce the dense atmosphere of violence and death for which his books are renowned; the main image of For Whom the Bell Tolls is the automatic weapon. As he had done in A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway employs the fear of modern armament to destroy romantic conceptions of the ancient art of war: combat, sportsmanlike competition, and the aspect of hunting. Heroism becomes butchery: the most powerful picture employed here is the shooting of María's parents against the wall of a slaughterhouse. Glory exists only in official dispatches; here, the "disillusionment" theme of A Farewell to Arms is adopted.

The fascist planes are especially dreaded, and when they approach, all hope is gone. The efforts of the partisans seem to vanish and their commitment and abilities become meaningless, especially the trench mortars that already wounded Lt. Henry ("he knew that they would die as soon as a mortar came up").[19] No longer would the best soldier win, but the one with the biggest gun. The soldiers using those weapons are simple brutes; they lack "all conception of dignity",[20] as Fernando remarked. Anselmo insisted, "We must teach them. We must take away their planes, their automatic weapons, their tanks, their artillery and teach them dignity."[20]

The novel also contains imagery of soil and earth.[21] The imagery appears rather famously at the start of chapter 13. Jordan and María have sex in a meadow in the forest. He feels "the earth move out and away from under them." Then afterwards he asks María, "Did thee feel the earth move?", to which she responds affirmatively. Variants of this phrase have become a cultural cliché,[22] often used humorously.[23]

References to actual events[edit]

The novel takes place in late May 1937, during the second year of the Spanish Civil War.[24] References made to Valladolid, Segovia, El Escorial, and Madrid suggest the novel takes place within the build-up to the Republican attempt to relieve the siege of Madrid.

The earlier battle of Guadalajara and the general chaos and disorder (and, more generally, the doomed cause of Republican Spain) serve as a backdrop to the novel: Robert Jordan notes, for instance, that he follows the Communists because of their superior discipline, an allusion to the split and infighting between anarchist and communist factions on the Republican side.

The famous and pivotal scene described in Chapter 10, in which Pilar describes the execution of various fascist figures in her village, is drawn from events that took place in Ronda in 1936. Although Hemingway later claimed (in a 1954 letter to Bernard Berenson) to have completely fabricated the scene, he in fact drew upon the events at Ronda, embellishing the event by imagining an execution line leading up to the cliff face.[25]

A number of actual figures that played a role in the Spanish Civil War are also referred to in the book, including these:

  • Andreu Nin, one of the founders of the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), the party mocked by Karkov in Chapter 18.
  • Enrique Líster, communist leader who played important roles during the defense of Madrid.
  • Mikhail Koltsov, Soviet journalist was the Karkov character in the story
  • Indalecio Prieto, one of the leaders of the Republicans, is also mentioned in Chapter 18.
  • General José Miaja, in charge of the defense of Madrid in October 1936, and General Vicente Rojo, together with Prieto, are mentioned in Chapter 35
  • Dolores Ibárruri, better known as La Pasionaria, is extensively described in Chapter 32.
  • Robert Hale Merriman, leader of the American Volunteers in the International Brigades, and his wife Marion, were well known to Hemingway and served possibly as a model for Hemingway's own hero.[26][27]
  • André Marty, a leading French Communist and political officer in the International Brigades, makes a brief but significant appearance in Chapter 42. Hemingway depicts Marty as a vicious intriguer whose paranoia interferes with Republican objectives in the war.
  • Karol Świerczewski, a Russian general of Polish origin as Golz.
  • Francisco Franco, commander of the rebel army who will become the ruling dictator after the war.

Critical reception and impact[edit]

On November 5, 2019, the BBC News listed For Whom the Bell Tolls on its list of the 100 most influential novels.[28]


In 1940, For Whom the Bell Tolls was declared non-mailable by the U.S. Post Office.[29]

In 1973, the book faced further controversy in Turkey because the book included "propaganda unfavorable to the state."[29] On February 21 of that year, eleven Turkish book publishers and eight booksellers "went on trial before an Istanbul martial law tribunal on charges of publishing, possessing, and selling books in violation of an order of the Istanbul martial law command. They faced possible sentences of between one month's and six months’ imprisonment...and the confiscation of their books."[29]


Since its publication, the prose style and dialogue in Hemingway's novel have been the source of controversy and some negative critical reaction. For example, Edmund Wilson, in a tepid review, noted the encumbrance of "a strange atmosphere of literary medievalism" in the relationship between Robert Jordan and Maria.[30] This stems in part from a distinctive feature of the novel, namely Hemingway's extensive use of archaisms, implied literal translations, and false friends to convey the "feel" of the Spanish spoken by his characters. Thus, Hemingway uses "thou", archaic in English, to communicate the important difference in Spanish between the "familiar" pronoun "tú" and the "formal" "usted" (see T-V distinction).[citation needed]

Additionally, much of the dialogue in the novel is an implied direct translation from Spanish, producing an often strained English equivalent. For example, Hemingway uses the construction "what passes that",[31] which is an implied translation of the Spanish construction qué pasa que. This translation extends to the use of linguistic "false friends", such as "rare" (from raro) instead of "strange" and "syndicate" (from sindicato) instead of trade union.[32] Moreover, the character of Maria is sometimes called "The Maria", a direct translation of "La Maria" which English-speaking readers may find peculiar.[citation needed]

In another odd stylistic variance, Hemingway referred to foul language (used with some frequency by different characters in the novel) with "unprintable" and "obscenity" and substitutes "muck" for fuck in the dialogue and thoughts of the characters although foul language is used freely in Spanish even when its equivalent is censored in English (such as joder, me cago). The Spanish expression of exasperation me cago en la leche (which translates to "I shit in the milk") repeatedly recurs throughout the novel, translated by Hemingway as "I obscenity in the milk."[citation needed]

Narrative style[edit]

The book is written in the third-person limited omniscient narrative mode. The action and dialogue are punctuated by extensive thought sequences told from the viewpoint of Robert Jordan. The novel also contains thought sequences of other characters, including Pilar and Anselmo. The thought sequences are more extensive than in Hemingway's earlier fiction, notably A Farewell to Arms, and are an important narrative device to explore the principal themes of the novel.[citation needed]

Pulitzer Prize controversy[edit]

In 1941, the Pulitzer Prize committee for letters unanimously recommended For Whom the Bell Tolls be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel for that year. The Pulitzer Board agreed. However, Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University and ex officio head of the Pulitzer board at that time, found the novel offensive and persuaded the board to reverse its determination; no Pulitzer was given for the category of novel that year.[33]

In Spain[edit]

In 1944, the book was first published in Spanish by an Argentinian publishing house, Editorial Claridad, with many subsequent editions produced either in Argentina or in Mexico. In Spain, it was initially viewed very suspiciously by the Francoist censorship office; in 1942–43 the Spanish diplomatic corps went to great lengths in trying to influence the final edit of the Hollywood film based on the novel, which was not permitted to be shown in Spanish cinemas. Since 1953, when The Old Man and the Sea was published in Madrid, most of Hemingway's stories and novels had been published in Spain. However, this was not the case with For Whom the Bell Tolls, although the novel was at times discussed in the press. Prohibition of the book's publishing was rescinded only in late 1968. By the end of the year Por quién doblan las campanas had been published by Editorial Planeta.[34]



A Japanese poster for the 1943 American film adaptation For Whom the Bell Tolls.

In popular culture[edit]

  • The ninth album by Brazilian singer-songwriter Raul Seixas, Por Quem os Sinos Dobram had its title inspired by the eponymous film based on a book by Ernest Hemingway and brings some classics from Raul Seixas' work, such as "O Segredo do Universo (The Secret of the Universe)", "Ide a Mim, Dadá (Go to Me, Dadá) and "Por Quem os Sinos Dobram (For Whom the Bell Tolls)".
  • The Metallica song "For Whom the Bell Tolls" can be seen as a lyrical adaptation of a particular scene from the book in chapter 27.
  • In 1993 The Bee Gees released "For Whom The Bell Tolls," from the album Size Isn't Everything. It was their second Hemingway-inspired title after "Islands in The Stream."
  • The 2012 film Hemingway and Gellhorn depicts Hemingway's time in Spain during the Spanish Civil War when he was completing work on For Whom the Bell Tolls, and his relationship with the American novelist, travel writer and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn,[35] who he credited with having inspired him to write the novel, and to whom he dedicated it.[36]
  • In October 2014, the novel was dramatized in a two-part series on BBC Radio 4.
  • The 2019 book, "Ecopsychology Revisited: For Whom Do the 'Nature' Bells Toll," [37] by J. Conesa-Sevilla, is an allusion to John Donne's central question about "inter-relatedness" and Ernest Hemingway's own allusion about the "inter-relatedness" of the politics of war.
  • Dav Pilkey’s 2019 graphic novel Dog Man: For Whom the Ball Rolls references the title and plot of Hemingway’s book.
  • In the 2020 videogame Cyberpunk 2077, a main story mission is named after the book. At the funeral of Jackie Welles, the player has the option to read a passage from the novel.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Spanish Civil War". Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved June 15, 2019.
  2. ^ Southam, B.C.; Meyers, Jeffrey (1997). Ernest Hemingway: The Critical Heritage. New York: Routledge. pp. 35–40, 314–367.
  3. ^ Meyers 1985, p. 326
  4. ^ "Hunting for Hemingway in Yellowstone country". Retrieved October 1, 2016.
  5. ^ Mellow 1992, p. 516
  6. ^ One source, however, says he began the book at the Sevilla Biltmore Hotel and finished it at "Finca Vigia"
  7. ^ "History: For Whom the Bell Tolls Written at the Barclay". Archived from the original on 2018-09-12. Retrieved 2017-07-21.
  8. ^ Meyers 1985, p. 334
  9. ^ Meyers 1985, p. 339
  10. ^ a b Meyers 1985, pp. 335–338
  11. ^ Oliver, p. 106
  12. ^ Mitgang, Herbert (August 30, 1988). "Hemingway On Spain: Unedited Reportage". The New York Times Book Review. Hemingway later turned his experiences on the Loyalist side into the play "The Fifth Column" and the novel "For Whom the Bell Tolls"...
  13. ^ Hemingway, Ernest (1940). For Whom the Bell Tolls. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 338.
  14. ^ For Whom (p. 164)
  15. ^ For Whom (pp. 207, 208)
  16. ^ "The Homestead Act of 1862". Retrieved September 9, 2010.
  17. ^ Hemingway, Ernest. For Whom the Bell Tolls. US: Scribner, 1968. 223
  18. ^ For Whom (p. 251, chapter 19)
  19. ^ For Whom (p. 330)
  20. ^ a b For Whom (p. 349)
  21. ^ Mount, Henry (2006). Hemingway's Tribute to Soil. iUniverse. pp. 132–33. ISBN 978-0-595-39758-7.
  22. ^ Josephs, Allen (1994). For whom the bell tolls: Ernest Hemingway's undiscovered country. Twayne's masterwork studies. 138. Twayne Publishers. p. 104. ISBN 978-0-8057-8078-9.
  23. ^ Ammer, Christine (2006). The Facts on File dictionary of clichés (2nd ed.). Infobase Publishing. p. 119. ISBN 978-0-8160-6279-9.
  24. ^ In Chapter 13, Robert Jordan thinks "The time for getting back will not be until the fall of thirty-seven. I left in the summer of thirty-six..." and then comments on an unusual snowfall in the mountains occurring "Now? Almost in June?"
  25. ^ Ramon Buckley, "Revolution in Ronda: The facts in Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls", the Hemingway Review, Fall 1997
  26. ^ Drogin, Bob (March 25, 2016). "'Spain in Our Hearts' tells the American story of the Spanish civil war". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 4, 2018.
  27. ^ Gilmore, David D. (June 8, 1986). "Casualties of a 'Pure War'". The New York Times. Retrieved July 8, 2017.
  28. ^ "100 'most inspiring' novels revealed by BBC Arts". BBC News. 2019-11-05. Retrieved 2019-11-10. The reveal kickstarts the BBC's year-long celebration of literature.
  29. ^ a b c Office of Intellectual Freedom (2013-03-26). "Banned & Challenged Classics". American Library Association. Retrieved 2021-06-20.
  30. ^ Edmund Wilson, "Return of Ernest Hemingway" (Review of For Whom the Bell Tolls) New Republic, CIII (Oct. 28, 1940)
  31. ^ such as on For Whom (p. 83)
  32. ^ Gladstein, M. R. (2006). "Bilingual Wordplay: Variations on a Theme by Hemingway and Steinbeck". The Hemingway Review. 26 (1): 81–95. doi:10.1353/hem.2006.0047. S2CID 161331317.
  33. ^ McDowell, Edwin (11 May 1984). "Publishing: Pulitzer Controversies". The New York Times. p. C26.
  34. ^ Laprade, Douglas Henry (2007), Hemingway and Franco, pp. 110-111, ISBN 9788437066950
  35. ^ "A Spanish romance". The Olive Press. December 1, 2010. Retrieved December 14, 2015.
  36. ^ For Whom (p. vii) - "This book is for MARTHA GELLHORN".
  37. ^ Conesa-Sevilla, Jorge (4 June 2019). Ecopsychology Revisited: For Whom do the Nature Bells Toll?. ISBN 978-1947112261.

External links[edit]