For Whom the Bell Tolls is about the blowing up of a bridge. The story’s arc follows just a handful of days leading up to the event, and just a handful of characters, mostly Spaniards except for the protagonist, Robert Jordan, an American fighting for the Republic (against the fascists) in the Spanish Civil War.
The blowing up of the bridge isn’t an end in itself; of course it is but part of a larger war strategy. Yet, it becomes an end in itself for those who undertake it. The bridge’s destruction gives structure to their lives. Time is measured in “days until the bridge.” Robert and his gang know there is a good chance of dying during the bridge job, so maybe this is just a nicer way of counting their few remaining days. And (spoiler alert), the great tragedy is that they actually pull it off, but a tactical miscalculation upstream in the chain of command renders their victory meaningless. Robert Jordan sees this ahead of time, and he still risks his life for the mission. Why? Because he needs the bridge job, needs to believe in it, needs the meaning and direction it gives to his life. Reading books like this and writing little thoughts about them gives some direction and structure to my life, even if it makes no difference in the end. I’m okay with that. And Hemingway seems to think we should be okay with that. Robert Jordan is a classic model of the good man–dependable, respectful, concerned for those around him–and it’s portrayed as a virtue that he follows through on what he sets out to do, even when it turns out to be for nothing.
The story’s main antagonist isn’t a fascist general or even a person, but chance. There is a pervasive aura of arbitrariness. Jordan dodges countless bullets, only to perish because a random mortar shot makes his horse rear back on top of him. Andrés has an important message to deliver–a message upon the delivery of which hundreds, maybe thousands of lives depend–and he gets fatally delayed by a number of officious sergeants. Rifles jam. Comrades betray. It’s like everyone must have plans and must work toward them, but under constant threat of ruin by random chance or human weakness. But what is the alternative? Our choice is between a steadfast march across shifting sands, or nihilism. The book’s subtitle could be “Isn’t life a shame?”
And then there’s Maria, the damaged beauty with whom Robert Jordan falls in love. (She is essentially a cliche. Hemingway doesn’t seem to do female characters very well; even the strong ones are two-dimensional.) Maria is the chauvinist’s image of an ideal woman: lovely, dependent, eager-to-please. Too eager to please. On her last night with Robert before the bridge, Maria initially says they can’t be intimate because she’s in pain from being raped repeatedly by enemy soldiers. And while Robert doesn’t quite pressure her, she nonetheless relents–Hemingway renders the scene in glorious prose–and the sensitive reader is left feeling that something less than okay has just happened.
The story ends on a sentimental note. As Robert lays dying with the fascists in pursuit, Maria makes clear her intention to die with him. His plea for her to go on without him is sweet:
As long as there is one of us, there is both of us…if thou goest, then I go too…Thou art me too now. Thou art all there will be of me. (463)
When we die, all that’s left of us is what lives on in the memories of those we leave behind.