Monday, November 24, 2008

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

This month I've had some classics of literature for book club picks. My Kewaunee library book club pick of the month for November is For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. John and I picked the book this month as we had both listened to NPR and noted that this was both John McCain and Barack Obama's favorite book. None of us in our club had ever read the book, so we decided to read it and determine what made it the favorite book of both cotenders for the White House. Unfortunately, it took us all longer than we thought so we are postponing our discussion of the book until our December meeting.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is the story of Robert Jordan, a U.S. professor of Spanish from Montana, who has been fighting in the Spanish Civil War against the Facists for a year. He has been sent to a work with a guerrilla group to capture and blow up a bridge to help in an attack on the City of Seragovia. He falls in love with a young revolutionary, Maria, and has his will tested to complete his mission.

I liked the novel overall and had many points of interest throughout my reading of it. First of all, as usual in my reading of Hemingway, I think that he is not a good writer of female characters. I was pleased in this book that he did have the character of Pilar. A strong, multi-dimensional female character. Maria drove me crazy though. She came off as rather shallow and silly. It seems like the women in Hemingway's novels are either very simplistic and annoyingly clingy (like Catherine in A Farewell to Arms) or sluts (Brett in The Sun also Rises). I am confused on why all talk of Hemingway is always praise and no one ever addresses this glaring problem with his novels.

I also found it interesting that he used the term "obscenity" frequently when the characters swore and had rather tame love scenes. It's interesting how much novels have changed in the last 70 years. I wonder what a Hemingway novel of 2008 would be like. I find it more intriguing to have to use my imagination than to have things spelled out to me.

This novel did an excellent job of describing the horrors of war. Pilar's description of the killing of the Facists by Pablo in his home town was brutal. The images of the mob as they beat down and threw the facists over the cliff was terrible, but yet brillant writing. The crowd was able to get into the mob mentality and kill their neighbors and men that were not so bad - and also men that were bad, but did not deserve such a death. By describing the scene as it happened with the bad and the good, it was a very powerful and scary scene. It made you realize the power of the mob and why things such as McCarthyism, the Salem witch trials, etc. can happen.

Another powerful scene was when Robert Jordan killed a calvary man that stumbled upon the guerilla group's hidden cave. Jordan looked through and read the man's letters. The letters were from the man's mother and sister. They humanized the calvaryman and made Jordan realize that the man was just a normal guy that had a family that loved him. He was fighting against the communists, also for his country. War is cruel, but civil war is even crueler.

The third powerful scene for me in the novel was when Robert Jordan thinks about his beloved grandfather and how he was a great Civil War hero. He wishes his grandfather was there to advise him in the situation, but he also thinks about his father and how he committed suicide. He thinks it was a cowardly act and that he and his grandfather would be ashamed to be with his father. It was chilling to read knowing that 20 years later, Hemingway committed suicide. Hemingway had a father that committed suicide in the same way as Jordan's - with the grandfather's civil war pistol. This section gives one much to think and discuss about Hemingway's feelings about suicide.

The fourth scene that I marked as being especially great was when one member of the group, Andres, is carrying a message to the general from Robert Jordan and is thinking about his life. He thinks about how he will do his task, but that he wishes he could just be home on his farm. He says, "I think we ware born into a time of great difficulty." I found this section of the book to be powerful.

Overall, I thought this novel was excellent, except for the poor writing of the character of Maria. The novel was an excellent treatise about the brutality of war and the way that a man (or woman in Pilar's case) must face it. You can either be a man and do your duty to your fullest, or take the coward's way out. I think this is why both candidates like the novel. Robert Jordan was willing to sacrafice himself for his cause and for the good of his guerilla and revolutionary group.

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