Reading Group Guide for For Whom the Bell Tolls
Ernest Hemingway was born July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois.
After graduation from high school, he moved to Kansas City,
Missouri, where he worked briefly for the Kansas City
Star. Failing to qualify for the United States Army because of
poor eyesight, he enlisted with the American Red Cross to drive
ambulances in Italy. He was severely wounded on the Austrian front
on July 9, 1918. Following recuperation in a Milan hospital, he
returned home and became a freelance writer for the Toronto
In December of 1921, he sailed to France and joined an
expatriate community of writers and artists in Paris while
continuing to write for the Toronto Star. There his
fiction career began in "little magazines" and small presses and
led to a volume of short stories, In Our Time (1925). His
novels The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to
Arms (1929) established Hemingway as the most important and
influential fiction writer of his generation. His later collections
of short stories and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)
affirmed his extraordinary career while his highly publicized life
gave him unrivaled celebrity as a literary figure.
Hemingway became an authority on the subjects of his art: trout
fishing, bullfighting, big-game hunting, and deep-sea fishing, and
the cultures of the regions in which he set his work -- France,
Italy, Spain, Cuba, and Africa.
The Old Man and the Sea (1952) earned him the Pulitzer
Prize and was instrumental in his being awarded the Nobel Prize in
1954. Hemingway died in Ketchum, Idaho, on July 2, 1961.
Robert Jordan, a Spanish professor from Montana serving with
Loyalist guerrilla forces during the Spanish Civil War, is guided
by the old man Anselmo to Pablo''s guerrilla band in the mountains
above a bridge which Jordan must blow up when the Loyalist
offensive begins. Pablo, aware that Jordan''s mission will invite
fascist forces, refuses at first to participate, but relents,
returning with additional men and horses shortly before the mission
begins. Knowing that the fascists are aware of the offensive,
Jordan sends a message to General Golz, hoping the offensive will
be canceled, but the message arrives too late. Jordan blows the
bridge, and Anselmo is killed by flying steel. As the group
attempts escape, Jordan is seriously injured, and Maria, having
been told by Jordan that he will always be with her, leaves with
the survivors while Jordan remains behind, waiting for death.
1. Is Pablo opposed to blowing the bridge because he is a
coward, as Pilar says, or is Pablo, himself, correct when he says
he "has a tactical sense"? Why does Jordan agree with Pablo''s
reference to "the seriousness of this" (p. 54)? Is Agustín correct
when he calls Pablo "very smart" (p. 94)?
2. Was the communist effort to eliminate God successful? What
does Anselmo''s view of killing suggest about the limitations of
dogma? What does he mean when he says of the bridge sentries, "It
is only orders that come between us" (pp. 192-193)? What is implied
when Anselmo says soldiers should atone and cleanse themselves
after the war?
3. "Time" is a major theme in For Whom the Bell Tolls.
How does Pilar''s awareness of time affect her attitude toward
Robert Jordan''s and Maria''s relationship? What conclusions does
Robert Jordan draw about his own life during the very short time he
spends with Maria?
4. Pablo calls his compatriots "illusioned people" (p. 215).
Does this remark prove to be true? Does Jordan expose illusions?
Does For Whom the Bell Tolls suggest that because of their
illusions and vulnerability to exploitation the victims of the war
were the entire Spanish people?
5. Does the epigraph, an excerpt from John Donne''s
Devotions XVII, convey the theme of For Whom the Bell
Tolls? What is that theme? What scenes in the novel develop
the sentiment of the epigraph? What is the narrator telling us when
he says that Robert Jordan, lying on the forest floor waiting for
death, is "completely integrated" (p. 471)?
After Reading the Novel
To read For Whom The Bell Tolls is to experience
Hemingway''s most compelling assertion of his role as an artist.
Writing in a time of war and of passionate partisans, he chose
truth once more, and he chose as well aesthetic principles over
propaganda. Your group might enjoy Hemingway''s Spanish Civil War
dispatches written prior to For Whom the Bell Tolls. They
are available in By-Line: Ernest Hemingway (Touchstone
Books) and provide clues to Hemingway''s process of composition.
You might also want to compare The Fifth Column,
Hemingway''s play about the Spanish Civil War, to the novel and
draw conclusions as to why the play did not succeed as did the
novel. The Spanish Earth, a Loyalist film which Hemingway
helped make, is not readily available: however, it can be obtained,
usually from your public, college, or university library. Although
it is propagandistic, it does provide battlefield scenes along with
Hemingway''s sound-track comments. A Hollywood movie of For
Whom the Bell Tolls stars Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman.