"For Whom the Bell Tolls", a 1940 novel by Ernest Hemingway, is widely considered to be one of his best works, and one of the definitive works of 20th Century American Literature. The book came out of Hemingway's reporting of the Spanish Civil War, and the book's plot centers around the story of an American dynamiter, Robert Jordan, who is sent with a band of Spanish guerrillas to destroy a bridge.
Hemingway's reputation proceeds him, and that was a bit of a problem when I began the book. At least from my cursory knowledge, Hemingway seemed to be one of the exemplars of machismo and individualism, something that is in some ways hard to reconcile with a book whose very title is argument against individualism. But before I deal with, here is a brief outline of the book's plot and characters:
Robert Jordan, a professor of Spanish at the University of Montana, has come to Spain to volunteer as a dynamiter for the Republican forces. Although not a communist or an ideologue of any type, he is committed to a free, non-fascist Spain. He travels behind enemy lines to meet a band of guerrillas, led by Pablo, an experienced but jaded fighter, and his wife Pilar. A number of other guerrilla fighters rounds out the band. They also have a young woman, Maria, who was imprisoned and raped by the fascist militia. The guerrilla group has survived by avoiding direct conflicts, and Pablo feels that the mission to destroy the bridge will bring disaster to them. Over the course of three days from Jordan's arrival until the attack on the bridge, the group quarrels amongst themselves, discuss the history of the war and the future of their country, and Robert and Maria fall in love. Then, in the book's conclusion, the bridge is attacked, leading to a stark and brutal description of warfare.
There are several different stories contained in the novel. On its basic level, it is a piece of journalism, a piece of reporting on the Spanish Civil War, at the time one of the largest crisis in world affairs. On top of that, through his characters, Hemingway writes about the conflicts in every community, using the small guerrilla group as a microcosm of human affairs. And underneath that, there is a mystical bent to the book, as the characters try to understand their role in a world that seems so brutal.
I think that Hemingway's stereotypical reputation is perhaps a detriment to understanding this book. Although the book is limited in its scope (taking place in one location over three days), and is not highly stylistically innovative, it is still hard for me to understand exactly what Hemingway was getting at with this book. It presents the reader with multiple levels of meaning to choose from.