For Whom The Bell Tolls

I was a huge Hemingway fan in high school. The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms were like my laconic non-religious Bibles. In fact, when my English teacher assigned us the task of writing a short story in the style of the old man, I was elated. I still think that three-pager is the best thing I ever did in my four years at that school. (Sad, whatever.) Anyway, I took it upon myself to read this other tome of his. It started off slowly, but I’m proud to say that I finished it, and I wound up liking it much more than I expected. Here’s why.

For Whom The Bell Tolls, incidentally, is the most Biblical of Hemingway’s works I’ve read, and I mean that quite literally. There are so many thee’s and thou’s and thy’s in this book that it almost sounds like it was written in another language originally, then translated back to Olde English. But by the time I got into the Hemingway groove, the unnatural rhythm of all that formality started to make sense, and I lost myself completely in the story. Obviously, the guy knew what he was doing. He used these long, simple, passages to channel the innermost thoughts of his main character, Robert Jordan, and these short, superficially emotional dialogues between characters to show just how stunted everyone’s communication skills were, and the result was fascinating. Robert Jordan was the White Man Savior in the war, to be certain, but he lacked the charisma of the leader he was meant to be. All those internal monologues reinforced how mentally battered he had been by his past and by thoughts of his future, but he kept it mostly internalized in favor of communicating in emotion-free cliches. And yet the language went beyond his personal problems; it represented this sort of romantic, patriotic pride that everyone had in war, and I came to respect it over the 470 pages (and the three-day-ish span over which the story took place, which still sort of blows my mind). Even though Robert Jordan was the narrator, he wasn’t the omniscient presence of the story. Each character, from his battle comrades to his traveling family to his enemies, took over the storytelling reins, and Hemingway made each transition so smooth and unnoticeable and logical that I couldn’t help but sit back every once in awhile and admire the guy. I’d want to take a class in writing from him, but I think reading the books is just better.

That being said, the language certainly made for some awkward love scenes between the aforementioned Robert Jordan and his questionably young love, Maria. “Thou hast no heart but mine” (p. 262) and “They were having now and before and always and now and now and now” (p. 379) and other uncomfortably percussive, pornographic phrases peppered throughout may have made me throw up a little in my mouth. But I get it. Hemingway did what he had to do to keep it clean and chaste. In fact, he went so far as to use the word “muck” in place of “fuck,” which admittedly was quite comical, as in “Muck my grandfather and muck this whole treacherous muck-faced mucking country” (p. 369). Adorable, isn’t it?

But Hemingway isn’t an adorable writer at all. He’s brutal and tortured, and he lets his own brilliant philosophies trickle into the lives of his characters. Observe these passages:

p. 43 // “There is not you, and there are no people that things must not happen to… You are instruments to do your duty. There are necessary orders that are no fault of yours and there is a bridge and that bridge can b the point on which the future of the human race can turn.”

p. 164 // “Bigotry is an odd thing. 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.”

This, from a known drunk? I speak Spanish better when I’m drunk, but that’s about it. What a mind Hemingway had. At once, he can build his characters up to the highest heights, and in Robert Jordan’s specific case, amp him up to blow up a bridge, and then he can take it all away. I suspect Hemingway took his characters to the deepest depths of his mind, too, so he’d have some company there.

The most poignant passage, at least for me, came towards the end:

p. 367 // “But I would like to have it so that I could tie a handkerchief to that bush back there and come in the daylight and take eggs and put them under a hen and be able to see the chicks of the partridge in my own courtyard. I would like such small and regular things.”

This is how I picture Hemingway. Well, also this way: