Book Summary: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

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Ernest Hemingway travelled to Spain in 1937 to cover the Spanish Civil War for the North American Newspaper Alliance. Three years later, he completed the greatest novel to come out of “the good fight”, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

It tells of loyalty and courage, love and defeat, and the tragic death of an ideal told through the story of Robert Jordan, a young American in the International Brigades attached to an antifascist guerilla in the mountains of Spain. 

In portraying Jordan’s love for the beautiful Maria, and in his superb account of El Sordo’s last stand, and in refusing to believe in blind faith, Hemingway surpasses his achievements in The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms to create a work that is rare and beautiful, strong and brutal, compassionate, moving, and wise.

You may still be wondering if you should read the book. This book summary will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.

Without further ado, let’s get started. 

Plot Summary

A young American professor who works as a dynamiter in the Spanish Civil War learns about love and brotherhood while spending the last 70 hours of his life preparing for the explosion of a key bridge behind Fascist lines.

Chapters 1–7 (Day 1, Saturday) 

Robert Jordan, an American professor of Spanish who is fighting on the Republican (Loyalist) side in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) against General Franco’s Fascist army, slips through Fascist lines to make contact with a band of guerrilla fighters in the Guadarrama mountains northwest of Madrid, Spain. 

Jordan is an expert dynamiter who speaks fluent Spanish and has been given orders by his Russian commander, General Golz (stationed in Madrid), to penetrate the Fascist line and destroy a key bridge at the very moment that a planned Republican offensive is to begin. 

Destroying the bridge will prevent Fascist reinforcements from reaching the battlefront. Jordan has only three days to organize his mission, and his success depends on the support of the guerrilla band, supposedly loyal to the Republican cause, that awaits his arrival.

En route to the mountains, Jordan recalls some of the events that have made the bombing of the bridge necessary. The Republican faction consists of so many diverse groups (Socialists, Spanish Communists, etc.) that it has been difficult for them to become unified; Franco’s Fascist revolutionaries, however, are well organized. As a result, many of the Republican attacks against Franco have failed. Jordan also recalls the time he worked behind enemy lines and dynamited trains.

He reaches the cave where the guerrillas are temporarily living. (A guerrilla or partisan is a member of a small band of independent fighters that harass the enemy by surprise raids; here they are native Spaniards, not in uniform, who support the Republican cause but who act on their own initiative and do not take orders from the Republican leaders.) Jordan meets Pablo, the leader of the guerrillas, and Pilar, Pablo’s gypsy lover—his mujer (Spanish for “woman”)—whose strong character is an inspiration to the group. 

Jordan also meets the beautiful Maria, a 19-year-old refugee who had been raped and emotionally assaulted by the Fascists earlier in the war and whom the partisans have sheltered. Jordan and Maria are instantly attracted to each other.

Pablo was once an energetic and courageous fighter. It was he who blew up a train and led the uprising in his village on the first day of the Civil War. But since that time he has lost his nerve and has grown lazy; life has become easy— he has food, wine, and no responsibilities other than to protect his people, and he is more interested in living than in dying for the Republican cause. 

For this reason, he resents Jordan, whose mission he fears will endanger the partisans’ safety by bringing enemy troops into the mountains. The partisans have remained loyal to Pablo because he has been their leader for a long time and because no one has challenged him. 

But they do not trust him anymore, since he no longer acts bravely. They wish to continue fighting for their country and are prepared to help Jordan, even though there is tension between him and their leader.

Jordan realizes that he may have to kill Pablo in order to carry out his mission successfully. He and Anselmo, an old, reliable partisan, observe the bridge and discuss the problem of wartime killing. 

Three questions preoccupy them: What is man’s duty during a war? Is killing morally wrong? Should a soldier take pleasure in killing? Jordan, a man of duty, considers his mission to blow up the bridge of such importance that “the future of the human race” may depend on it.

That night in the cave, Pablo provokes Jordan into an argument, and Jordan nearly kills him. Later, when Jordan is in his sleeping bag, he is startled—but also sexually aroused—when Maria slips in beside him and makes love with him. 

The worldly Pilar has sent Maria to Jordan, sensing that Jordan’s love might soothe Maria’s emotional wounds and make her forget about being raped. Pilar has done this, however, with reluctance, since she, too, has sexual feelings for Maria. But Pilar has read Jordan’s palm and believes that he has only a short while to live.

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Chapters 8–20 (Day 2, Sunday) 

As morning dawns, three enemy patrol planes pass overhead, and it is clear that the mountain cave is vulnerable to attack. During the day, Jordan gathers intelligence about the bridge’s defenses, and enlists Anselmo to count the military traffic crossing it to see if the number of enemy troops is increasing before the attack. 

Rumors overheard in a nearby town indicate that the Republicans’ plans may be known to the Fascists. Jordan worries that his mission may be useless, but reassures himself that his only duty is to destroy the bridge. While carefully planning the operation and the escape that will follow, he realizes that he does not have enough men to overpower the guards or enough horses to ensure a hasty retreat.

To obtain more support, Jordan walks with Pilar and Maria to the nearby mountain camp of El Sordo, the leader of another partisan band. En route, Pilar recollects the first day of the Civil War in her village, when Pablo beat the town Fascists to death with flails and threw them over a cliff. Some of the men faced their deaths without fear; others begged for mercy and died in terror. 

Jordan then recalls the death of his former partner, with whom he had dynamited trains behind enemy lines. Wounded to the point where he could go no farther, the man had asked Jordan to kill him rather than leave him for the Fascists to torture.

Jordan shot him out of compassion, and still carries the same pistol. At El Sordo’s camp, Jordan receives a promise of men and horses from the old partisan, who, unlike Pablo, has remained active in the war. Pilar sets out ahead of the other two, leaving Jordan and Maria to return to the cave alone. They make love in a field of heather, and feel “the earth move out and away from under them.”

In a series of flashbacks and interior monologues (i.e., moments when thoughts flash randomly through Jordan’s mind), Jordan evaluates his political position: he loves Spain and is fighting against fascism, but is on the Socialist/Communist side. 

Though he is not a Communist, he sees the dissension and conflicts within the Republican faction, and knows that the discipline of the Russian Communists is essential to a Republican victory. He knows that his life may end in 70 hours, so he devotes himself completely to his work and to his new lover.

As wet snow falls that night, a cold but dutiful Anselmo times the movements of the guards on the bridge road and monitors the increase in military traffic. El Sordo and his men, thinking that the snow will provide them with cover, leave their hideout to steal the needed horses. 

In the cave, Jordan and Pablo nearly have a violent showdown, but Pablo sidesteps it at the last moment. The snow stops abruptly as Sunday night ends, and Maria joins Jordan for their second night together in his sleeping bag.

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Chapters 21–32 (Day 3, Monday) 

Jordan, sleeping outside the cave, wakes to find a Fascist horseman almost on top of him. Jordan shoots and kills the man, and Pablo leads his horse away, covering the tracks left in the snow so as to mislead the inevitable Fascist search party. 

Now that the snow has stopped, El Sordo is left hopelessly exposed; he had counted on the snow continuing through the day so that his tracks would be covered, but they are visible, and he is now being pursued by the Fascist cavalry. 

Trapped on a lonely hilltop, he and his men defend themselves bravely against the foot soldiers. Knowing that he is about to die, El Sordo jokes about the voyage into death—a voyage on which he will take as many of the enemy as possible. But courage is not enough; Fascist dive-bombers blow El Sordo and his men to death (“the earth rolled under him with a roar”). 

The only survivor, a boy named Joaquín, is executed by the Fascist Lieutenant Berrendo. El Sordo’s death and the loss of his men and his horses leave Jordan without enough fighters to ensure the attack on the bridge and with no way to get all the partisans out afterward. 

Furthermore, Anselmo’s count of military traffic across the bridge indicates that the Republican attack is well anticipated by the enemy; already they have begun moving reinforcements to the same front that the Republican army will attack. Jordan, who does not want to die unnecessarily at the bridge, sends a written message back to Golz, advising him to call off the attack. 

As night falls, Maria joins Jordan once again. They dream of the life they will have in Madrid after the bridge, after the war. Maria, whom Jordan calls “Rabbit,” tells of her rape by the Fascists, and Jordan drifts off to sleep, knowing that he may die in the morning.

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Chapters 33–43 (Day 4, Tuesday) 

The last day of Jordan’s mission begins with yet another disaster. Pilar wakes him at 3:30 A.M. to say that Pablo has left with Jordan’s detonator and blasting caps. They are now unable to explode the dynamite. 

The events that follow alternate between the carrying of Jordan’s warning to Golz by the frustrated messenger and the partisans’ preparation to attack the bridge. Jordan realizes that if the message arrives in time, Golz can abort the mission. Understaffed, without his detonator, and certain that the impending attack will fail, Jordan is left only with his duty.

Though the good soldier will carry out his orders, the attack looks more and more like a suicide mission. Meanwhile, on the Loyalist side of the line, Jordan’s message has become bogged down in petty bureaucratic red tape; since there are so many spies on both sides, every message must be examined carefully, and the messenger is not allowed to speak directly to Golz. 

By the time the message makes its way through the chain of command, it arrives too late for Golz to cancel the attack.

Jordan’s chances of destroying the bridge improve slightly when Pablo unexpectedly returns. He had thrown the detonator away, hoping to stop the suicide mission, but now his “weakness” has passed. He returns with five more men and horses to assist in the attack. In the meantime, Jordan has devised a way to explode the dynamite by packing it tightly around hand grenades with long pull-wires as detonators.

The moment to launch the attack arrives. Pablo bravely prevents an enemy tank from advancing while Jordan coolly plants his dynamite under the steel span. The bridge blows, but old Anselmo, who pulls one of the wires, is killed by the explosion. 

Pablo murders his new recruits so there will be enough horses for his own people. But before Jordan can begin the evacuation, Fascist troops with mobile artillery begin shelling the guerrillas. In the escape across exposed terrain, everyone makes it to safety except Jordan, who is blown off his horse.

The horse is killed, and Jordan suffers a broken leg. He quickly assesses the situation and orders the partisans to leave him behind, shouting to them that he will be the rear guard and will lay down his life to ensure their safe escape.

In the last 70 hours of his life, Robert Jordan has lived more intensely than most people do in a lifetime. He has loved deeply, performed his duty under extraordinary circumstances, joined in brotherhood with the partisans, and now faces his own death. 

Though he is in great pain, Jordan concentrates on dying with courage. While preparing himself for the advancing Fascist patrol, he thinks about his father, who committed suicide, and his grandfather, who fought bravely in the American Civil War—two very different models of behavior. 

As the pain increases, Jordan considers suicide, but fights the temptation since he wishes to die a brave soldier’s death. Lying flat on the ground, he readies his gun and waits as the approaching Fascist comes closer; it is Lieutenant Berrendo, who had executed the boy on El Sordo’s hilltop.

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Robert Jordan is an American college professor of Spanish literature who volunteers to fight on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War (1936–39); he is 30 years old. His fluent Spanish and familiarity with the terrain make him an ideal dynamiter to work behind enemy lines. He is an active, self-reliant hero who makes things happen. He has killed in the past, but does not enjoy killing. He is concerned mainly with his duty and carries out his mission no matter what the obstacles. Some critics call him “existentialist” because he lives intensely in the present, takes responsibility for his actions, and is concerned with the problem of facing his own death bravely and not letting fear overcome him at the end. Robert learns about love from Maria and the value of solidarity from Anselmo and Pilar. The explosion at the bridge teaches him how to die.

Pablo is a Spanish guerrilla leader in his early 50s. He fights bravely early in the war but loses interest in political issues, becomes lazy, and withdraws from active fighting (though still a shrewd leader). He is not willing to take risks with his life or with the lives of his followers. However, he redeems himself at the bridge.

Pilar is a Gypsy woman who lives with Pablo and dominates him now that he has lost his nerve; she is in her early 50s. She is the strongest character in the novel and enjoys passionate arguments and sharp words; she has psychic insights. Earlier in life, she lived with bullfighters; she understands men and can “smell” death. Pilar “sees” death while reading Jordan’s palm. She was once pretty, but she is no longer attractive. She has a lesbian attraction to Maria, but gives her to Jordan.

Maria is a beautiful, 19-year-old peasant girl who was brutally raped by Fascist soldiers early in the war. Her hair is cropped short as a sign of her violation. She is mothered by Pilar and desired by all the men, including Pablo. She gives herself to Jordan, even though he has not tried to seduce her.

El Sordo (Spanish for “deaf one”) is the leader of another group of partisans; he is 52 years old. He does his duty and leads his men by setting a strong example. He is unafraid of death and fights and dies bravely.

Anselmo is an old hunter who knows that it is evil to kill, but still kills Fascists. He obeys Jordan’s orders and carries out his bridge watch in cold weather when others would have quit. He fights well and dies at the bridge when hit by a sliver of steel from the explosion.

Themes and Ideas

1. Character

Robert Jordan lives by specific values that include hard work, dedication to his profession, courage, fearlessness, and defiance of death. Critics refer to this type of Hemingway hero as a “code hero,” but Jordan is unique in that he doesn’t serve as a role model for younger men.

He defines himself by his work, which is at the center of his existence. Jordan is confident in his masculinity and has a strong need to experience manliness, rather than just prove it. He’s active, decisive, strong, self-reliant, and admirable. He opposes fascism and supports the Spanish people without being taken in by the Communist party line. Jordan is capable of love beyond mere physical desire.

2. Duty

Jordan’s primary concern throughout the novel is duty. He wants to know if soldiers are doing their duty, in what spirit they are carrying it out, and whether duty sustains them in the face of death. Pablo is torn between two duties: the Republican cause and the safety of his partisan “family.”

Ultimately, he chooses the cause. El Sordo dies bravely doing his duty. Anselmo at the bridge pulls the wire to the explosives, knowing that this may kill him, but it is his duty. Jordan is sustained throughout the novel by his sense of duty; he does not question his orders and carries out his assignment even though it appears to be a lost cause.

3. Death

The novel is an in-depth study of people’s behavior when confronted with death. Jordan fortifies himself with memories of historical figures who have acted courageously, fought hard, and died bravely.

El Sordo dies fighting, unafraid of death. Jordan is haunted by the memory of his father’s suicide, the model of a man not dying well. Yet there are occasions when Jordan approves of suicide, such as when his wounded partner asks to be killed to avoid being taken prisoner by the enemy.

Jordan shoots him, and Maria carries a razor blade with her to cut her own throat if ever captured by the Fascists. But in the end, Jordan refuses to commit suicide, since this would violate his self-image as a soldier who fights to the finish. The enemy will have to kill him.

4. Concept of Nada

Nada, Spanish for “nothingness,” is the central theme in all of Hemingway’s work. It refers to the inevitability and meaninglessness of death, after which there is nothing.

Nada forces one to have the existentialist idea of living life intensely in the here and now, since there may be no tomorrow. Jordan tries to condense a lifetime of activity into his final 70 hours. El Sordo faces death bravely, killing as many as he can before being killed himself.

5. Love

Love provides emotional support and normalcy in the midst of an otherwise violent, abnormal setting. It’s shown to be all the more precious for being so momentary.

Though it cannot stave off death, it can stop time and temporarily block out surrounding events. Love makes Jordan’s final sacrifice meaningful when he lays down his life so that Maria and others may live.

For Whom the Bell Tolls Review

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a brilliant portrayal of the Spanish Civil War by Hemingway, a master storyteller. The author’s deep appreciation for Spain and its people is apparent throughout the book, and the setting serves as a perfect backdrop for the themes of futility of war and interconnectedness of human life.

Hemingway’s portrayal of both sides of the conflict emphasizes the idea that war affects everyone, regardless of their affiliation. The characters are complex and realistic, and the story is gripping, with moments that will leave readers holding their breath.

The doomed love affair adds to the beauty and sadness of the book, while the themes of honor, betrayal, incompetence, cowardice, and bravery illustrate the complexities of human nature. Overall, For Whom the Bell Tolls is a must-read for anyone interested in literature, history, and the human experience.

About The Author

Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) was born in Oak Park, Illinois; died by suicide. He was wounded in World War I serving as an ambulance driver with the Red Cross in Italy; decorated for bravery. 

Ernest Hemingway lived in Paris during the 1920s; Key West in the 1930s; Cuba in 1940–59. Went to Spain in 1937 to report on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) for a newspaper syndicate.

He married four times; three sons. Enjoyed life as a man of action; refused to behave like a “man of letters.” Other major works: The Sun Also Rises (1926), To Have and Have Not (1937), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), The Old Man and the Sea (1952). Works published after his death: A Moveable Feast (1964), Islands in the Stream (1970), The Dangerous Summer (1985), The Garden of Eden (1986). Awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954.

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