For Whom the Bell Tolls
by Ernest Hemingway
For Whom the Bell Tolls Theme of Morality and Ethics
Many of the characters in For Whom the Bell Tolls find their moral beliefs troubled by the war in which they're fighting. Winning a war requires the use of violence to defeat or eliminate one's enemies; that much everyone agrees. But even if violence is necessary, it's not clear that makes it right. Some characters think it certainly doesn't, and try to find ways of reassuring themselves even as they feel compelled to kill; the protagonist is, with a few complications, one such character. But if killing can't ever be right, how is one to understand what one is doing?
Questions About Morality and Ethics
- Robert Jordan and Anselmo – and possibly others – appear to agree that killing is never right, but that it's necessary to win the war. How can they entertain that position? What does it mean for something to be not right if one is going to do it anyway?
- It's notable that there are no pacifist characters in For Whom the Bell Tolls – Anselmo's about as close as it gets. All of the characters are instead committed to fighting for the Republic. Why is it they believe that the Republic ought to be fought for, especially those who feel that it is usually or always wrong to kill? Do you find that reasoning compelling?
- Which characters in For Whom the Bell Tolls feel morally responsible for killing? What does it mean to be "responsible" for killing in a war? Does the book suggest that those who kill should be held responsible?
- Was Pablo's decision to kill his allies justified, on the reasoning that it was necessary to save his band? It clearly wasn't in the eyes of Agustín and Robert Jordan. Yet why should killing to save one's friends be morally reprehensible, when killing to save the Republic is not?
Chew on This
For Robert Jordan, to say that "killing is never right" simply means that one should never feel pleasure in doing it. It does not mean that killing is never justified – it obviously is in the case of war.