Reading Group Guide for For Whom the Bell Tolls
Ernest Hemingway was born July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois. After graduation from high school, he moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where he worked briefly for the Kansas City Star. Failing to qualify for the United States Army because of poor eyesight, he enlisted with the American Red Cross to drive ambulances in Italy. He was severely wounded on the Austrian front on July 9, 1918. Following recuperation in a Milan hospital, he returned home and became a freelance writer for the Toronto Star.
In December of 1921, he sailed to France and joined an expatriate community of writers and artists in Paris while continuing to write for the Toronto Star. There his fiction career began in "little magazines" and small presses and led to a volume of short stories, In Our Time (1925). His novels The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929) established Hemingway as the most important and influential fiction writer of his generation. His later collections of short stories and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) affirmed his extraordinary career while his highly publicized life gave him unrivaled celebrity as a literary figure.
Hemingway became an authority on the subjects of his art: trout fishing, bullfighting, big-game hunting, and deep-sea fishing, and the cultures of the regions in which he set his work -- France, Italy, Spain, Cuba, and Africa.
The Old Man and the Sea (1952) earned him the Pulitzer Prize and was instrumental in his being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1954. Hemingway died in Ketchum, Idaho, on July 2, 1961.
Robert Jordan, a Spanish professor from Montana serving with Loyalist guerrilla forces during the Spanish Civil War, is guided by the old man Anselmo to Pablo's guerrilla band in the mountains above a bridge which Jordan must blow up when the Loyalist offensive begins. Pablo, aware that Jordan's mission will invite fascist forces, refuses at first to participate, but relents, returning with additional men and horses shortly before the mission begins. Knowing that the fascists are aware of the offensive, Jordan sends a message to General Golz, hoping the offensive will be canceled, but the message arrives too late. Jordan blows the bridge, and Anselmo is killed by flying steel. As the group attempts escape, Jordan is seriously injured, and Maria, having been told by Jordan that he will always be with her, leaves with the survivors while Jordan remains behind, waiting for death.
1. Is Pablo opposed to blowing the bridge because he is a coward, as Pilar says, or is Pablo, himself, correct when he says he "has a tactical sense"? Why does Jordan agree with Pablo's reference to "the seriousness of this" (p. 54)? Is Agustín correct when he calls Pablo "very smart" (p. 94)?
2. Was the communist effort to eliminate God successful? What does Anselmo's view of killing suggest about the limitations of dogma? What does he mean when he says of the bridge sentries, "It is only orders that come between us" (pp. 192-193)? What is implied when Anselmo says soldiers should atone and cleanse themselves after the war?
3. "Time" is a major theme in For Whom the Bell Tolls. How does Pilar's awareness of time affect her attitude toward Robert Jordan's and Maria's relationship? What conclusions does Robert Jordan draw about his own life during the very short time he spends with Maria?
4. Pablo calls his compatriots "illusioned people" (p. 215). Does this remark prove to be true? Does Jordan expose illusions? Does For Whom the Bell Tolls suggest that because of their illusions and vulnerability to exploitation the victims of the war were the entire Spanish people?
5. Does the epigraph, an excerpt from John Donne's Devotions XVII, convey the theme of For Whom the Bell Tolls? What is that theme? What scenes in the novel develop the sentiment of the epigraph? What is the narrator telling us when he says that Robert Jordan, lying on the forest floor waiting for death, is "completely integrated" (p. 471)?
After Reading the Novel
To read For Whom The Bell Tolls is to experience Hemingway's most compelling assertion of his role as an artist. Writing in a time of war and of passionate partisans, he chose truth once more, and he chose as well aesthetic principles over propaganda. Your group might enjoy Hemingway's Spanish Civil War dispatches written prior to For Whom the Bell Tolls. They are available in By-Line: Ernest Hemingway (Touchstone Books) and provide clues to Hemingway's process of composition. You might also want to compare The Fifth Column, Hemingway's play about the Spanish Civil War, to the novel and draw conclusions as to why the play did not succeed as did the novel. The Spanish Earth, a Loyalist film which Hemingway helped make, is not readily available: however, it can be obtained, usually from your public, college, or university library. Although it is propagandistic, it does provide battlefield scenes along with Hemingway's sound-track comments. A Hollywood movie of For Whom the Bell Tolls stars Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman.
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