Reader Review – For Whom The Bell Tolls

I’ve read many of Hemingway’s novels and short stories, but this is the first one I felt strong enough about to review. I enjoyed it, but I tend to think that Hemingway is a little over-rated. In writing circles he’s looked at as some kind of literary genius, especially by writers who have never read him before, and while there were some things he did very well, his succinct style leaves something to be desired. Before I critique one of the most popular writers of all time however, I’d like to talk about what he did well.

Hemingway does a very good job of changing his character perspective throughout this novel. Robert Jordan, the main character of For Whom the Bell Tolls, often starts an inward monologue which quickly switches to a second person narrative. Eg. “He could not remember how many times he had heard them mention their dead in this way. Nearly always they spoke as this boy did now; suddenly and apropos of the mention of the town and always you said, ‘What barbarians.’ You only heard the statement of loss. You did not see the father fall as Pilar made him see the fascists die in that story she had told by the stream.” In this passage, Hemingway describes the way the war-hardened American, Robert Jordan, separates his actions with his thoughts on the war. He may do something terrible, but he does it believing all the while that he is fighting for a just cause. This is a great characterization in itself, but the way he shifts perspectives so effortlessly keeps the writing fresh and interesting. This brings me to my next point.

Hemingway is fantastic at creating realistic characters with realistic thoughts, and realistic actions. Because Hemingway was a war journalist in his youth, he knew how the Spanish talked in their civil war, and when reading the novel I felt like I was there in their camp. Every single character had a personality all to themselves, separate motivations for their actions and their own reasons for being involved in the Spanish Civil War. The characters were easily the strongest part of the novel. Pablo was my personal favorite, a bitter soldier who has lost his viciousness and his will to fight. Pablo serves as a stark contrast to Robert Jordan, who, knowing he is fighting on the right side, always views his actions as necessary evils. Pablo begins to question the point of his involvement in the war, and while he would never support the fascists in any way, he doesn’t know if democracy is worth the sacrifice it takes to preserve it. This kind of focused realism is wonderful because there is no point in a Hemingway novel where characters do things that don’t make sense. Unfortunately, this becomes a problem when applied it to the realistic way in which the novel is actually written.

As much as I have always strived for realism in my own work, writing is not all about realism. Hemingway believes that, by being true to the facts, and by allowing events to unfold as they would in life, that the poetry of the situation will be far more poetic than anything he could write… I think on a deeper level, he might even view poetic language as being untruthful, and in this he couldn’t be more wrong. Throughout the novel, I found myself craving a beautiful description of a scene and instead received the stereotypical Hemingway: “He came to the river. The river was there.” The best writer should fluctuate his vernacular, so that when one comes to a beautiful scene, the way it is written adds another perspective. A beautiful scene written in a bare-bones style makes me think he is trying to say something – maybe that his character is incapable of seeing its beauty; the character is moving too fast to notice anything; the writer believes there truly is nothing truly beautiful… I think Hemingway could have dramatically improved his writing by, at least in the most impacting scenes, occasionally adding a metaphor or a simile or even using some basic alliteration. It felt like he was refusing to go outside of his arbitrary code instead of allowing himself to get swept away by his own writing – as I believe all writers should.

The pace of the story was slow, excruciatingly so at times, but the slow build of story was necessary to frame the story realistically in the week or so that a mission – in this case the blowing of a bridge – would take place. The event-by-event descriptions ultimately made me feel closer to the characters and their struggles, but one should generally avoid starting that slow. Hemingway has the advantage of being Hemingway – when people question whether or not the novel will get better, their mind answers their doubts for them: “Of course it will, it’s Hemingway!” Most people don’t have that advantage. It’s quite possible that this bothered me more than most readers because of my background in writing screenplays. I was taught from day one that a writer should start at a point of action. If I am writing a story about a man who becomes friends with a serial killer, I will start the story with guards leaving the man outside a killer’s cell instead of beginning with explanations for his visit. In this novel about a man assigned to blow a bridge in Spain, it begins with Robert Jordan walking to the camp of the people who are going to help him. On the third page we flashback for the rest of the chapter, and we see Commander Goltz assigning Jordan the task… it almost seemed amateurish! But again, because we all know what Hemingway is capable of, millions of readers give him the benefit of the doubt. What if we didn’t? If this weren’t written by Hemingway, I believe that many of my editing colleagues would have told him to write the novel at a quicker pace, and I can guarantee they would have told him to begin the book with Commander Goltz giving Jordon his mission! Why start the book with a flashback when you can just begin it a week before and skip forward!

As much as I respect Hemingway, I can also see why he didn’t get critical acclaim early on in his career. When writing, you should always assume that people are not going to give you the benefit of the doubt. They are reading to be entertained, and unless you are already a world famous author you can’t write in a way that says, “I know it’s boring now, but trust me, it will get good soon!” The only person that held Hemingway back was Hemingway himself. He knew what he had to do in order to create truly fantastic works of art. He clearly had a very strong writer’s voice and he knew what he was trying to say, but he was always a little off the mark. I will likely read other books by Hemingway in the future but, despite the fierce competition between the two artists as to who was the better writer, I would prefer Fitzgerald over Hemingway any day of the week.