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Thursday, June 14th, 2001


For Whom the Bell Tolls

by Ernest Hemingway

Return of Ernest Hemingway

A review by Edmund Wilson

[Ed. note: By 1929, the year of his thirtieth birthday, Ernest Hemingway had already written The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, two novels that brought him the literary celebrity and international fame he desired. But in the eyes of some critics, the short fiction and reportage he produced in the 1930s failed to match the quality of his early triumphs. This gave Edmund Wilson even more reason to welcome Hemingway's 1940 novel based on his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls.]

This new novel of Hemingway will come as a relief to those who didn't like Green Hills of Africa, To Have and Have Not, and The Fifth Column. The big game hunter, the waterside superman, the Hotel Florida Stalinist, with their constrained and fevered attitudes, have evaporated like the fantasies of alcohol. Hemingway the artist is with us again; and it is like having an old friend back.

This book is also a new departure. It is Hemingway's first attempt to compose a full-length novel, with real characters and a built-up story. On the eve of a Loyalist attack in the Spanish civil war, a young American who has enlisted on the Loyalist side goes out into country held by the Fascists, under orders to blow up a bridge. He directs with considerable difficulty a band of peasant guerrillas, spends three nights in a cave in their company, blows up the bridge on schedule, and is finally shot by the Fascists. The method is the reverse of the ordinary method in novels of contemporary history, Franz Hoellering's or Andr้ Malraux's which undertake a general survey of a revolutionary crisis, shuttling back and forth among various groups of characters. There is a little of this shuttling in For Whom the Bell Tolls, but it is all directly related to the main action: the blowing-up of the bridge. Through this episode the writer has aimed to reflect the whole course of the Spanish War, to show the tangle of elements that were engaged in it, and to exhibit the events in a larger perspective than that of the emergency of the moment.

In this he has been successful to a degree which will be surprising even to those who have believed in him most. There is in For Whom the Bell Tolls an imagination for social and political phenomena such as he has hardly given evidence of before. The vision of this kind of insight is not so highly developed as it is with a writer like Malraux, but it is here combined with other things that these political novels often lack. What Hemingway presents us with in this study of the Spanish war is not so much a social analysis as a criticism of moral qualities. The kind of people are rather than their social-economic relations is what Hemingway is particularly aware of.

Thus there is here a conception of the Spanish character, very firm and based on close observation, underlying the various social types; and in approaching the role of the Communists in Spain, Hemingway's judgments are not made to fit into the categories of a political line – since he has dropped off the Stalinist melodrama of the days of 1937, a way of thinking certainly alien to his artistic nature – but seem to represent definite personal impressions. The whole picture of the Russians and their followers in Spain – which will put The New Masses to the trouble of immediately denouncing a former favorite at a time when they are already working overtime with so many other denunciations on their hands – looks absolutely authentic. You have the contrasts between the exaltation of the converts and recruits of the headquarters of the International Brigade, and the luxury, the insolence and the cynicism the headquarters of the emissaries of the Kremlin. You have the revolutionary stuffed shirt, Andr้ Marty, hero of the 1918 mutiny of the French fleet in the Black Sea, who has been magnified and corrupted in Moscow till he is no longer anything but a mischievous bureaucrat, obsessed with the idea of shooting heretics; and you have the Moscow insider Karkov, cold of head and serious of purpose while he repeats for the sake of conformity the venomous gibberings of Pravda.

You have in the center of the stage the sincere fellow traveler from the States, teacher of Spanish in a Western college; and you have, traced with realism and delicacy, the whole chronicle of his reactions to the Communists, of his relations with the Spaniards he has to work with, and of the operation upon him in Spain of the American influences he brings with him. In the end, realizing fully the military futility of his mission and balked in his effort to save the situation, by the confusion of forces at cross-purposes that are throttling the Loyalist campaign, he is to stick by his gun sustained by nothing but the memory of his grandfather's record as a soldier in the American Civil War. In view of the dramatic declamations on the note of "Look here, upon this picture, and on this!" that the Stalinists were making a year or two ago over the contrast between Dos Passos' attitude and Hemingway's in connection with the Spanish war, it is striking that the hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls should end up by cutting a figure not fundamentally so very much different from that of the hero of The Adventures of a Young Man.

Thus we get down out of the empyrean of Marxist political analysis, where the leaders are pulling the strings for the masses, and see the ordinary people as they come. And we see the actual layout – mile by mile and hill by hill – of the country in which they have to struggle. One of the most highly developed of Hemingway's senses is his geographical and strategical vision – what may be called his sense of terrain. It is no doubt from the Western frontier that he has inherited his vivid perception of every tree, every bush, every path, every contour and every stream that go to make up the lay of the land. He derives and he can communicate an excitement from the mere exploration and mastery of country that goes back to Fenimore Cooper; and he has succeeded in getting it into this new novel as he got it into his early stories. We are shown the Spanish conflict in its essential and primitive aspect of groups of imperfectly equipped and more or less groping human beings maneuvering over the surface of the earth.

The novel has certain weaknesses. A master of the concentrated short story, Hemingway is less sure in his grasp of the form of the elaborated novel. The shape of For Whom the Bell Tolls is sometimes slack and sometimes bulging. It is certainly quite a little too long. You need space to make an epic of three days; but the story seems to slow up toward the end where the reader feels it ought to move faster; and the author has not found out how to mold or to cut the interior soliloquies of his hero. Nor are the excursions outside the consciousness of the hero, whose point of view comprehends most of the book, conducted with consistent attention to the symmetry and point of the whole.

There is, furthermore, in For Whom the Bell Tolls something missing that we still look for in Hemingway. Where the semi-religious exaltation of communism has failed a writer who had once gained from it a new impetus, a vacuum is created which was not there before and which for the moment has to be filled. In Hemingway's case, there has poured in a certain amount of conventional romance. There is in For Whom the Bell Tolls a love story that is headed straight for Hollywood. The hero falls in with an appealing little girl who has been captured and raped by the Fascists, who has never loved before and who wants him to teach her love. She adores him, lives only to serve him, longs for nothing but to learn his desires so that she can do for him what he wants, talks of her identity as completely merged in his. She is as docile as the Indian wives in the early stories of Kipling; and since the dialogue of the characters speaking Spanish is rendered literally with its thees and thous and all the formalities of a Latin language, the scenes between Robert and Maria have a strange atmosphere of literary medievalism reminiscent of the era of Maurice Hewlett. Robert keeps insisting to himself on his good fortune and on the unusualness of his experience in acquiring a girl like Maria; and, for all the reviewer knows, there may be a few such cases in Spain. But the whole thing has the too-perfect felicity of a youthful erotic dream. It lacks the true desperate emotion of the love affairs in some of Hemingway's other stories. And in general, though the situation is breathless and the suspense kept up all through, the book lacks the intensity, the moral malaise, that made the early works of Hemingway troubling.

But then this early work was, as it were, lyric; and For Whom the Bell Tolls is an effort toward something else, which requires a steady hand. The hero of this new novel is no romantic Hemingway cartoon: his attitude toward his duty and the danger it involves are studied with more coolness and sobriety than in the case of perhaps any other of the author's leading juveniles. The young man is a credible young man who is shown in his relation to other people, and these other people are for the most part given credible identities, too. The author has began to externalize the elements of a complex personality in human figures that have a more complete existence than those of his previous stories.

That he should thus go back to his art, after a period of artistic demoralization, and give it a larger scope, that, in an era of general perplexity and panic, he should dramatize the events of the immediate past in terms, not of partisan journalism, but of the common human instincts that make men both fraternal and combative, is a reassuring evidence of the soundness of our intellectual life.

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