Historicity as Acceptable Casualty of War in Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls"

Term Paper 2017 12 Pages

Didactics - English - History of Literature, Eras


Historicity as Acceptable Casualty of War Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls

If there is one thing Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” insist on, it is the solidarity of humanity against a common threat. The novel begins with a poem by 17th century Christian poet John Donne (1572-1631) “No man is an Iland, intire of it self; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine…. And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee”. With over 785,000 copies sold in the United States and another 100,000 copies sold in the United Kingdom by the end of 1943 (Lynn 1987, 484), For Whom the Bell Tolls not only bring forth the issue of The Spanish Civil War to the free world, it also promotes solidarity among mankind against the rise of fascism regardless of reader background. However, despite of From Whom the Bell Tolls’ commercial success and continued status as a postmodern classic, the novel is not without its critics when it comes to the issue of historicity and relevance to the modern reader. Harold Bloom states that among Ernest Hemingway’s many creations, only 15 of his short stories and the novel The Sun Also Rise transcends their time and exist as more than mere period pieces. (Bloom 2000, 48) Per Harold Bloom’s definition of “period piece”, “In a literary context, a period piece is not timeless in its aesthetic and intellectual value, but merely reflects a particular moment (or span) when an ideology or culture was dominant.” (Bloom 2002, 572). Therefore, under the context of the above definition, Bloom implies that in his opinion, For Whom the Bell Tolls’ aesthetic and intellectual value provides the modern reader with no insight into the human condition beyond that of The Spanish Civil War temporal space. Some critics such as Dwight Macdonald even attacks the novel’s historicity, accusing of Hemingway masquerading Stalinist propaganda as historical fiction. (Macdonald 1974, 84-279).

Though dissecting the series of events faced by Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls and fact checking them against historical records of the Spanish Civil War, this essay aims to dispute the historicity of the novel. Through an examination of the ethno-cultural makeup of the group the novel’s protagonist is embedded in, this essay suggests that Hemingway maybe presenting an unrealistic or idealised version of the Spanish society. Thereby this essay suggests the world constructed by Hemingway may not provide us with an accurate picture of the events and general sentiment during The Spanish Civil War. However, this essay also argues against

Harold Bloom’s classification of the novel as a mere period piece. This essay suggests that while the novel was set in the Spanish Civil War, the purveyance of elements such as solidarity against a common enemy, morality, vengeance, abeyance of the nature of truth in pursuit of victory enable this novel to transcend the time of The Spanish Civil War, thereby enabling the modern reader to reflect upon the plight that befalls their society regardless of the social-historical situation.

The novel is set in the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range along the centre of the Iberian Peninsula. For three days in May 1937, the protagonist Robert Jordan is embedded with a band of republican guerilla fighters. The communist has tasked Robert Jordan to demolish a bridge during a Republican offensive to prevent the Nationalists from retreating. Beginning from the setting of the novel itself it already proves to be problematic. Regarding the historicity of the novel’s setting, Castillo-Puche et al notes:

“There had been no guerrilla forces, either large groups or small isolated bands, operating in this sector during the war…. I had often questioned forest rangers, highway workers, peasants in little villages in the sierra, men who had fought on both sides during the war, and none of them could recall any situation even remotely similar to that in the novel…. Soldiers and officers of every rank had all agreed that there had been no such infiltration and sabotage by small bands of guerrillas” (Puche, Luis 1974, 11-310) While guerilla warfare did occur during The Spanish Civil War, it was often met with great opposition from the establishment. On 12 October 1936, Louis Fischer, a pro-communist American journalist for The Nation drafted a large-scale guerrilla warfare recommendation in a letter to Premier Francisco Largo Caballero. “I know some attempts have been made here. But this should be launched on a vast scale, and right now when the enemy is near” (Fischer 1941, 372-377). Premier Largo Caballero rejected Fischer’s suggestion on grounds of insufficient cadres available to train up a guerrilla force and insufficient weapons and munitions to arm them. While Caballero’s explanation seems to be supported by the arms shortage situation described in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, Whaley argues that the real reason behind Caballero’s rejection can be mainly attributed to Caballero’s gross misconception about the effectiveness of guerrilla warfare when supplies and manpower are limited. (Whaley 1969, p.14) Regardless of the underlying reasons behind Caballero’s decision, historical records seem to suggest For Whom the Bell Tolls’ setting of irregulars operating behind fascists lines at Sierra de Guadarrama may not necessarily be historically accurate.

A bridge sabotage operation like what is depicted in the novel did occur during the Spanish Civil War but it was a professional military operation under the leadership of General “Walter” (Karol Świerczewski) the XIV International Brigade consisting of French and Belgian volunteers during the Battle of Jarama on February 11 1940. Nationalist cavalry under the leadership of Barrón pursued the XIV International Brigade across the Arganda Bridge. While Republican forces did lay demolition charges under the Arganda Bridge to prevent the fascists from crossing, the demolition charges failed to destroy the Arganda bridge. Ultimately leading to Republicans force being pushed back from the area and the Nationalists establishing a foothold on the opposite bridgehead, inflicting heavy casualties to both sides.

The Arganda Bridge served as a key supply route into Madrid, the battle fought there proved to be pivotal to the outcome of the war. Apoorva Bharadwaj claims that after the battle, Hemingway interviewed many of the survivors and visited the bridge in person. (Bharadwaj 2013, 118). The Battle of Jarama serves as the basis of the bridge that Robert Jordan is tasked with demolishing in the novel. However, with the French and Belgian volunteers replaced by a cast of local Spaniards, the novel inadvertently diminishes the sacrifices made by the International Brigade during the battle.

The ethno-cultural makeup of the guerrilla fighters depicted in For Whom the Bell Tolls also proves to be suspect. Pablo, the former leader of the group is a horse merchant; Pilar - Pablo’s gypsy wife used to be a prostitute before becoming the acting leader following Robert Jordan’s arrival; Anselmo, Andres, Agustin are Castilian peasants under Pablo and Pilar’s command. In the novel Hemingway depicts them as anti-fascists selflessly devoted to the defense of democracy, with the sectarianism of national politics cast aside temporarily under the threat of a common enemy. Regarding the likelihood of such an arrangement arising spontaneously, Castillo-Puche comments “it is highly unlikely Castilian peasants would accept the leadership of a Gypsy and a horse merchant” (Castillo-Puche 1974, 293). If readers were to accept For Whom the Bell Tolls as a historical record of the events that unfolded during the Spanish Civil War, it might provide them with an understated impression of social divisiveness that persisted throughout the Spanish Civil War. Arturo Barea even go as far as to label the novel as “deeply untruthful” (Twomey 2011, 55).

One of the most savage and brutal scene depicted in the novel is perhaps Pilar’s account of a massacre of priests and fascists sympathizers in the Spanish village of Avila. (p. 98-129) In the chapter, Hemingway drew parallel between the massacre orchestrated by Pablo and the Spanish tradition of “corrida de toros” with the bulls replaced by the fascists. The brutality that is depicted muddles the question of morality superiority and paints a picture of moral greyness of which horrors of war were perpetrated by both sides and there exists no neat ethical divide. While the scene is certainly effective in its delivery, the question of historicity arises again. Arturo Barea comments that the scale of village massacres portrayed by Hemingway is greatly exaggerated, assassination and removal of fascists would have been much more discreet. While there were certainly records of massacres that occurred during the Spanish Civil War, it did not occur in Avila, instead it occurred during the Battle of Badajoz, otherwise known as the Massacre of Badajoz on August 1936 in the Andalusia region. The victims of the massacre are not those who are loyal to Franco, nor were they of the clerical class, instead 4000 Republican civilians and military supporters were massacred by the fascists following the fall of the city on August 14 1936. (Preston 2006, p.121, 270) On the same day following the fall of the city, General Yagüe of the Second Spanish Republic ordered all prisoners (mostly civilians), including women and children to be moved to Plaza de Toros to be publicly executed. On August 18, Le Populaire published:

"Elvas. August 17. Mass executions have been taking place all yesterday evening and all this morning in Badajoz. It is estimated that the number of people executed is more than 1,500. Among the notable victims are a number of officers who defended the city against the entrance of the rebels: Colonel Cantero, commandant Alonso, captain Almendro, Lieutenant Vega and a number of NCOs and soldiers. At the same time, dozens of civilians have been shot around the bullring". (Le Populaire. Martes, 18 de agosto de 1936.)

It is without question that the Nationalists carried out great atrocities and war crimes against the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. In reverse however there exists little reliable record of massacres against Nationalist sympathizers like what is depicted in the novel. As a matter of fact, Hemingway’s usage of “corrida de toros” to describe the massacre that took place during in the novel seems to have lend inspiration from the massacre that befall Nationalist civilians. Castillo-Puche notes “there were no such cases of mass slaughter in towns in Segovia. Nor were there any around Avila.” (Castillo Puche 1974, p.128). Therefore, under the historical context of The Spanish Civil War, Hemingway’s depiction paint a deeply untruthful picture of the brutality that befalls Republican civilians, the victim/perpetrator role reversal might even be read as offensive to the survivors of the Massacre of Badajoz.

Beyond the historical inaccuracies depicted in the novel, there might even exist evidence that Hemingway intentionally hiding the massacre chapter from the editors, fully knowing the chapter may be rejected on grounds of questionable historicity. In the writing of the novel, Hemingway worked closely with his editor Maxwell Perkins. Letters between Hemingway and Perkins reveal Hemingway specifically instructed Perkins to hide the massacre chapter from other editors he referred to as “ideology boys”. Carlos Baker reveals in one of the letter sent by Hemingway, “he advised Perkins not to show the massacre chapter to any of the ideology boys If the leftists wanted to go on thinking that the Loyalists (Republicans) never killed anybody, let them bask in their illusions” (Baker 1969, 413). Therefore, it becomes increasingly obvious that Hemingway in his creation of For Whom the Bell Tolls, historicity may not have been the prime directive of his creative process, instead he might have distorted and expanded upon historical events he only knows of viva voce but refashioned to serve a specific purpose. Both Robert Jordan in the novel and Hemingway himself shares a common disdain for fascism. In the novel, while Robert Jordan serves under the command of the Communist he does not identify as one, he is simply “under Communist discipline for the duration of the war…. [because] the Communists offered the best discipline and the soundest and sanest prosecution of the war …. because in the conduct of the war they were the only party whose program and whose discipline he could respect” (p.163). Instead Robert Jordan can be said to be a Popular Frontist who identifies the with the American and French democratic traditions willing to put his personal political ideologies aside for the greater good. In a monologue Robert Jordan claims “You believe in Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. You believe in Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. . You have put many things in abeyance to win a war. If this war is lost all of those things are lost.” (p.305) It is at that key moment Robert Jordan reaches an epiphany of self discovery. (referring to his relationship and future with Maria) However most importantly the theme of putting things in “abeyance” to win a war lends us insight into Hemingway’s motivation for writing For Whom the Bell Tolls. Allen Joseph comments that Hemingway “wanted to write about the specifics of the war including the carnival of treachery and rotten-ness that pervaded Spain and Europe…. he wanted the reader to understand that the fight against fascism was essential.” (Josephs 1996, 237). The essence of the novel is in its portrayal of the ugliness of war, a call to arms against fascism. Hemingway holds “the truth” in abeyance akin to Robert Jordan putting his disagreement with the communistic “purely materialistic conception of society” aside, both are done in the name of defeating the Nationalist during the Spanish Civil War.

Throughout the essay, numerous points of historical inconsistency in the novel are pointed out, victim/perpetrator reversal is chastised and the far-fetched cast of characters were put under the microscope. While the rationale behind Hemingway’s decision could be, he was simply trying to create an engaging story, a more probable cause is that historicity was held in abeyance to rally potential readers against the anti-fascist cause. Pablo’s brutality against the nationalists then can be read as a cautionary tale to the Republican sympathizers among its readers to be wary in their battle against the nationalists. Friedrich Nietzsche once said in the book Beyond Good and Evil, “he who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”

Perhaps the widespread commercial success of For Whom the Bell Tolls and its broad readership might just have prevented another Paracuellos massacre from taking place. Moderate critics such as Lisa Twomey suggests that For Whom the Bell Tolls’ strength is not in its historicity and therefore shouldn’t be read as history, instead the novel should be read as “products of literary imagination” .(Twomey 2011, p.56) While it is true that many of the aspects of the novel is based upon Hemingway’s selective and idealistic understanding of Spanish society and the Spanish Civil War it is specifically constructed as such so as to enable the broad readership of the novel to relate to the otherwise distant nature of a civil war fought far from home. In such light then the inconsistency begins to make sense, the B-grade American movie-esque cast of characters, the maiden in distress who falls in love with the protagonist while may not have any historical basis, realism is put in abeyance, a temporary suspension of disbelief on part of Hemingway to construct a “Spanish” world that the readership in the west would easily be able to identify with. In a way Hemingway “invented” a new country in For Whom the Bell Tolls. To Spanish readers and survivor of the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway’s portrayal of Spain may not be necessarily agreeable. Gustavo Duran, a Republican leader who survived the Spanish Civil War worked closely with Hemingway during the writing of the novel, while he finds the delivery of the book to be surprisingly effective, he was unimpressed by Hemingway’s Spanish, with the Spanish wording appearing superfluous and the novel’s historical authenticity acceptable at best. (Baker 1969, 418) However historical authenticity of The Spanish Civil War is not the priority of the novel. While it is certainly important the novel’s focal point should be on the characters’ strength and weaknesses, the tragedy of the human condition, treachery, cowardice, redemption, love and most importantly the plea for solidarity among brothers and sisters against the common enemy that is fascism.

Returning to the topic of timelessness mentioned at the beginning of the essay. It can be argued that Bloom’s classification of For Whom the Bell Tolls is well justified since a well defined temporal constraint was established by Hemingway in his construction of “Spain” in the novel. There are indeed inaccuracies and made belief scenarios that were put in place to entice emotional response from the viewer to encourage them to bolster the anti-fascism effort. It would not be out of the question to see the novel as propaganda. However, the novel also has significance beyond its historical settings if the readers are willing to put aside their suspension of disbelief. In the time of the writing Hemingway sensed that the mass English reading audience would be sympathetic to the depiction of the democratic and unified Spanish people who transcended racial barriers, where gypsies and Castilians worked together to fight against a common enemy to create a progressive Spain for all. While the Spanish Civil War has been over for 78 years and Francisco Franco passed away 41 years ago, the cautionary tales told by Hemingway in the novel still holds relevance in the increasingly divided Spain of today. A further study on For Whom the Bell Tolls could focus on comparing the populism depicted during The Spanish Civil War and the rise of populism in Spain today.

Work Cited

Hemingway, Ernest. For whom the bell tolls. New York, Scribner, 2003.

Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. Scribner, New York, 1969.

Kenneth S. Lynn, Hemingway (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 484

Bloom, Harold. How to Read and Why. Scribner, New York, 2000.

Bloom, Harold. Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds. Warner Books, New York, 2002.

Macdonald, Dwight. Discriminations: Essays & Afterthoughts, 1938-1974. Grossman Publishers, New York, 1974.

Castillo Puche, José L. Hemingway in Spain: A Personal Reminiscence of Hemingway's Years in Spain by His Friend. Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y, 1974.

Louis Fischer, Men and Politics: An Autobiography (New York: Duell, Sloan and Fearce, 1941), p. 372-377

Preston, Paul. The Spanish Civil War. Reaction, revolutions & revenge. Harper Perennial. 2006. London. p.121 and p.270

Whaley, Barton. Guerrillas in the Spanish Civil War. No. C/69-29. MASSACHUSETTS INST OF TECH CAMBRIDGE CENTER FOR INTERNATIONAL STUDIES, 1969.

Josephs, Allen. Hemingway's Spanish Sensibility. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, doi:10.1017/CCOL0521454794.011.

Bharadwaj, Apoorva. The Narcissism Conundrum: Mapping the Mindscape of Ernest

Hemingway Through an Enquiry Into His Epistolary and Literary Corpus. N.p.: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013. Print.

Twomey, Lisa A. "Taboo Or Tolerable? Hemingway's for Whom the Bell Tolls in Postwar Spain."Hemingway Review, vol. 30, no. 2, 2011, pp. 54-72.

Le Populaire. Martes, 18 de agosto de 1936


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historicity acceptable casualty ernest hemingway whom bell tolls



Title: Historicity as Acceptable Casualty of War in Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls"