Though I studied the Spanish Civil War at some length during my time at Sarah Lawrence, I was never really interested in it as a historical subject. Everything I had read in class about it was so generic that I unwittingly learned to associate boredom with what was written on the conflict, and thus I unconsciously avoided books about it. However, For Whom the Bell Tolls is one of my boyfriend’s favorite books of all time, and we eventually made a pact to read each other’s favorite books. So, I put my disinterest in the subject aside because I knew how much it meant to him and I was sure Hemingway would make it interesting. I’ll admit that I gave up for a few months after reading about 40% of it. I felt bad because even though I’d been intrigued by the stories being told and the conversations between the characters, there was very little actual action. I also just didn’t care very much about the Spanish Civil War, which sounds bad but at the time, it just didn’t interest me. However, I had no idea that the place where I’d stopped reading was the moment right before things finally started getting interesting, which for me was when Robert shot the fascist soldier on horseback. It was a page turner after that, and thank goodness because I was experiencing some serious guilt for not finishing my man’s favorite book. I’ve concluded that it’s a very, very good book, and I can see why it’s many people’s favorite. It’s beautifully written and is rife with quotes to remember and write down.
To me, the novel is most profound in its exploration of how war actually operates, both generally and individually. To start, Pablo is a great example of how Hemingway seeks to prove that there is no “good” side in a war. We like to think our side is the good side and assume that our side fights with honor, but Hemingway shows us that war brings out the brutality in everyone who participates in it. This may be a message you’ve heard before and you may roll your eyes at its being repeated here, but this book shows the Spanish Civil War with a viciousness unlike any other war narrative I’d seen before. The massacre of a town’s fascists in chapter 10 is described in painful detail and is so upsetting that I had to pause in my reading of it many times. This scene matters though because it proves that a “good” side (here, the anti-Fascist side) is just as capable of shameful and dishonorable actions, even if they are done in the name of a just cause.
While killing in war is considered justified, the characters not innocent and deep down, they absolutely know that they are guilty. Pablo exemplifies how war alters our sense of morality and how the means with which we achieve the “greater good” are more significant in our lives than we admit. For instance, we learn that Pablo was once a highly skilled guerilla leader who enjoyed killing people and actually organized the massacre mentioned above. When we meet him, however, he is a broken and constantly drunk man whom the other comrades consider a serious liability. While everything Pablo did was for the sake of the Republican cause and he probably isn’t remorseful, he is clearly haunted by his actions and uses alcohol to forget what he’s done. In another example, when Primitivo hears the attack upon El Sordo’s band, he tearfully begs Robert to let their group go and assist them. Robert refuses his request and El Sordo’s band is massacred. Reflecting on this decision with Primitivo, Robert reminds him that, “There was no choice . . . and now it is better not to speak of it.” When confronted with shame or guilt, Robert’s instinct is to change the subject because he knows that if he is to be of any use to the cause, he cannot acknowledge his guilt. As he did in A Farewell to Arms and other works, Hemingway seeks to illustrate how people in war deal with their shame and how poisonous that unnatural mindset is.
Remarkably, Hemingway isn’t condemning anybody in this book. Whether the character led a massacre or simply let one happen, Hemingway isn’t trying to pass sentence on his characters because he knows that the real priority is to convey the truth of their experiences. The truth is that war is far from black and white and that to romanticize it as a struggle between good and evil is self-delusion. Another truth is that if you do survive a conflict like this, you are likely going to live with enough guilt that even in old age, you change the subject (as Robert’s grandfather would do).For Whom the Bell Tolls isn’t a perfect novel but it is fascinating in how it breaks war down into digestible pieces, all of which are written to strip war of its romanticized image and present it’s unbearable truths. The book is a commitment due to its length and content but it is ultimately worth it for how it reveals the truth of war through the lies the characters try to tell themselves about it.