An ideological war
Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls was first published in October 1940, but it takes place in 1937 during the height of the Spanish Civil War.
The novel is roughly based on Hemingway’s personal experience in the war. He arrived in Spain in March 1937 to report on the conflict for the North American Newspaper Alliance, along with Dutch documentary filmmaker, Joris Ivens.
But Hemingway wasn’t the only well-known foreign cultural figure to join the fight in one way or another. Notably, George Orwell enlisted with the Loyalists, publishing his experience in Homage to Catalonia. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry flew his own plane to report on the war. Federico García Lorca was tragically killed by a Nationalist Death Squad. Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman both reported on Madrid radio and wrote about the conflict afterwards. Finally, Robert Capa’s photographs captured the war’s true brutality and came to define the conflict for decades.
In addition to the more famous names were tens of thousands of foreign volunteers. One reason for this high level was the ideological nature of the conflict. Simplified, it was a battle between right and left. In reality, the conflict was much more complicated as Spain became a battleground for a global ideological divide and the war a precursor to WWII.
Nationalists vs. Loyalists
It started in 1936 when General Francisco Franco led a rebellion of pro-fascist Nationalists (backed by the Catholic Church and the Spanish aristocracy) against Spain’s democratically elected leftist coalition government, the Second Republic. The Nationalists were, unsurprisingly, backed by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The Republicans, or Loyalists, were a group of communists, socialists, anarchists and democrats backed by the Soviet Union. After a brutal three-year war, with atrocities on both sides and a significant death toll that is still debated today, Franco’s forces won and ruled Spain for another 36 years until his death in 1975.
The vast majority of foreign volunteers, famous or not, were anti-fascist and supported the Loyalist cause. Hemingway’s novel follows this narrative, centering on an American protagonist, Robert Jordan, a professor of Spanish language and explosives specialist who joins the Loyalist fight against General Franco.
A mountain camp
The novel is set in the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range, the eastern part of the Sistema Central, between Madrid and Segovia. Intense guerrilla fighting occurred in the area in 1936 when Franco’s army tried to take Madrid by moving troops quickly through the Somosierra Pass. The Loyalists were ultimately successful in repelling the invasion, but the Nationalists continued to put pressure on Madrid.
For Whom the Bell Tolls takes place after this fighting. Robert Jordan has been ordered to go behind enemy lines to meet with a Communist guerrilla group preparing an offensive. He runs into guerrilla fighter, Anselmo, who brings him to the secret encampment in the mountains. At the camp, Jordan is introduced to the defunct rebel leader, Pablo, his partner and de-facto rebel leader, Pilar, the gypsy fighter Rafael, and a woman they rescued from the Nationalists, Maria.
There is a cave central to the camp, and Robert Jordan is initially impressed by it’s good positioning and defense. But the cave serves another purpose – from the moment Jordan sits down, the cave is shown to be a cornucopia of pleasantness.
As he sits near the cave, Jordan smells food almost immediately, ‘the smell of oil and onions and of meat frying an his stomach moved with hunger inside of him.’ First, he is offered wine. Jordan is surprised, but the guerrillas tell him ‘we eat like generals.’ They say that food is coming soon, and the conversation quickly turns to death and suicide.
There is a significant moment when the food is eventually brought out by a young woman, Maria. Hemingway spends a significant amount of time describing Maria physically, which is interrupted only by details of a wonderful rabbit stew:
‘It was rabbit cooked with onions and green peppers and there were chickpeas in the red wine sauce. It was well cooked, the rabbit meat flaked off the bones, and the sauce was delicious.’
Maria intently watches Robert Jordan eat the stew, scraping up the remaining sauce with bread and drinking yet more wine. He is obviously taken with her, unable to speak properly and getting a thickness in his voice. Maria soon retreats from Jordan’s stare, returning to the cave to clean up from the meal.
There is a stark difference in talk immediately upon Maria’s departure. Jordan’s voice returns to normal and the men’s talk of food, cooking and physical appearance stops. The discussion of violence, weaponry and death resumes in the absence of women.
This disparate male/female language returns with the entrance of the camp’s second female occupant, ‘Pablo’s woman,’ Pilar. Pilar bridges the gap between male and female roles in the novel. She is described as the ugly and ‘barbarous’ leader of the guerrillas. But she still retains domesticity as cook and caregiver to Maria.
Ultimately, for Hemingway, even at war women do the cooking and eating is wrapped in sexuality. Although Jordan genuinely loves Maria by the end of the novel, this love and domesticity mentally turns him away from the fight and towards a longing for life and peace.
An interesting note…
The title of the book comes from John Donne’s Mediation XVII of his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, which he wrote when recovering from an almost fatal illness:
‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’