For Whom the Bell Tolls | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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For Whom the Bell Tolls | Themes



Love wins even if it is cut short by death, injury, fear, or disgust. Robert Jordan and Maria quickly realize that they love each other beyond anything either of them has ever felt. Maria asks Pilar about how to approach sleeping with Jordan, and she worries that he will not truly love her because she is damaged from the rape. But Pilar tells her that truly loving someone and making love to that person can heal what was taken from her before. Jordan tells her "Thee, they cannot touch. No one has touched thee, little rabbit," meaning that she is still herself inside, no matter what someone has done to her physically, and that this is the person he loves, the Maria inside. It only takes that night to make them both believe that they are one person, that they are meant to be husband and wife, which is what they call each other on the third day. When they are forced to separate, Jordan says they are together, always.

Love even enters the relationship of Pilar and Pablo, two people who almost seem to hate each other: Pilar insults and shouts at Pablo while he drinks himself into a stupor. But when Pablo throws out the equipment to blow up the bridge and stays away for the night, he is incredibly lonely without Pilar. He may fear death, and for that, Pilar is disgusted with him and ashamed of him. When he comes back and admits his wrongs, she feels the strength of his love for her. She can't help but return it, because he did the honorable and right thing for her sake, not just by returning, but by bringing men and horses to help repair the damage he has done to the mission.

Courage and Self-Sacrifice

In For Whom the Bell Tolls, courage is a necessity. Robert Jordan believes that courage involves not thinking and just doing, being so emotionally cold so that one can move forward and complete missions. But he discovers there is more to courage than he thought. His courage is tested at every turn, especially when he has to figure out how to wire the bridge without the materials that Pablo threw away. Anselmo's willingness to do this with him serves as a model of courage.

Pablo also shows courage when he comes back to admit that he destroyed vital equipment for blowing up the bridge, and although he still hates Robert Jordan and doesn't want to do this job, he overcomes his fear of death for Pilar in order not to lose her. All of his guerrillas are willing to risk their lives, so he must risk his own in order to stay with her.

The theme of courage is also shown in the lack of it, exemplified by Marty's paranoia. He suspects everyone of treachery, and while he thinks he's being courageous by impeding progress, he is avoiding having anything happen to him at all, and this is an unforgivable lack of courage that affects everyone around him.

Courageous self-sacrifice is part of what it takes to fight in any war, but particularly in the Spanish Civil War where only one side really had the advantage. The Republicans had few resources and were far less organized than the Nationalists because countries were unwilling to support a group who gained the support of Stalin's Russia (a brutal totalitarian regime with state-controlled media and education). The Republicans were left to their own devices, having to deal with Stalin's rationing of weapons and supplies, as well as disorganized volunteers and infighting between communist and socialist factions. In the novel the guerrillas living in the mountains sacrifice their homes and their comfort in order to take down the Nationalists. When Maria begins to do things for Robert Jordan that a wife would do, she tells him to promise that if there is ever any need he will shoot her. Then when Jordan breaks his leg, he sacrifices his happiness with Maria and probably his life by staying behind, while Maria and the rest of the guerrillas escape with their lives.

Horrors of War

The horrors of war are everywhere. The deaths of Maria's family and her rape at the hands of the Nationalists are only one example. The Fascist cavalryman who is forced to behead the people he kills in order to prove they are dead is horrified at the idea because it's so disrespectful. And Republicans are not immune to creating horrors of their own. The killing of priests is common, as the Church sides with the Nationalists, and people like Pablo are willing to shoot their own if they need their horses. The story Pilar tells of Pablo directing the bludgeoning of a village full of Fascists is so evil that it even upsets Pilar, who has become used to seeing people killed. The fact that Pablo was disappointed that the priest he killed didn't give a better performance as he died speaks of how far some killers have gone in their minds.

But some of the Republican guerrillas don't want to have to kill anyone, and the day that Robert Jordan and Anselmo have to kill people to get to the bridge to wire it with explosives is a terrible day for both of them. Anselmo, in particular, is crying because he has had to kill people, and he hates it. He believes it is a sin to kill a man, even to kill the Fascists, and he realizes that in war it has to be done, but he doesn't believe in killing other people.

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