Thursday, February 19, 2009

"For Whom the Bell Tolls" by Ernest Hemingway

Summary: An American professor, Robert Jordan, is fighting in Spain during their civil war. He has been assigned to blow up a bridge along with a small group of native guerrilla fighters. The book takes places over three days as Robert prepares for the bridge's destruction and falls in love with the woman Maria.

Musings: On my own, I probably would never have picked up this book. The only other Hemingway I've read was The Sun Also Rises in high school, and all I remember from that is Spain, absinthe, and bull fighting as a sexual metaphor (all of which make reappearances here). However, one of my 9th grade students voluntarily chose to read it for an independent book review assignment, and I figured if he could get through it, so could I. Besides, as an English teacher it's always helpful to improve upon my canonical literature parlor talk.

I feel somewhat foolish for "reviewing" such a well-known piece of literature--but here goes. From the beginning, the book is difficult for even the most dedicated readers. It covers only three days in over five hundred pages, which means large amounts of time are spent on repetitious dialogue and inner thought. In addition, Hemingway, in a desire to make the dialogue seem more authentically "Spanish," has the characters speak in a jilted archaic manner ("thee's" and "thou's" peppered throughout). It's supposed to sound as if the dialogue has been (badly) translated into English, but the effect is primarily tiresome.

I've been disappointed in the female characters of many of the books I've read recently. Where can I find a woman character who can fall in love without losing herself (or, heck, not fall in love at all?). For Whom the Bell Tolls provides both types of women, but each woman fits into an obvious mold. Maria, the young woman Robert falls in love with, is frail and delicate. She had been rescued by the guerrilla band after being severely raped, and it is only through her relationship with Robert that she feels whole again. She gives herself to Robert fully and desires nothing else but to provide for his needs. Fortunately, Robert returns the love in a way that at least makes the relationship palatable. On the other side is Pilar, the older, "ugly" matriarch of the clan who overturns her husband Pablo's leadership of the clan and commands the respect of the other men. Pilar is powerful and confident, but only because she is old and matronly; she is not a threat because she appears masculine.

As annoyed as I was with the "I'll do anything for you" relationship of Maria and Robert, I'll admit I did find their final parting at the end of the book quite moving. Both were brave in the end and confident in their relationship. In fact, the end as the whole was surprisingly touching and emotional. Hemingway traces Robert's racing thoughts as he works to blow the bridge, escape, and make his final stand. His thoughts felt very realistic and powerful.

The novel is broad in scope, addressing what it means to live a full life and what it means to be truly connected to another person or people. The length does mean the book takes time to pause and savor each moment in time, reminding the reader that such moments will not last forever.

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