Ah, our hero. When you look at him one way, Robert Jordan's the ideal Hemingway man. Once a country boy slash Spanish professor in Montana, he's come to Spain (where he's spent ten years, on and off) to fight for the country he loves and morph into a demolitionist. He's a very capable soldier with formidable self-control, no fear, and a strong sense of duty. He always prefers to "take it straight" and stare the hard truth in the face, not live with comforting superstition. He knows his way around firearms, explosives, Spain, the Spanish people, politics, and just about everything that comes his way (except women, but he says doesn't need them, since they'd only be a distraction). Unflappable.
Taken another way, he's a piece of cardboard (which some early critics were quick to point out). To some he just seems too unfazed by everything, too sure of himself. He doesn't seem to have strong feelings or passions (he's got those all under control), no powerful motivations or attachments, no glaring flaws, and, bottom line, no personality. Or humanity. He supposedly loves "Spain," but we can't really find any passion in it or explanation for it. As such, you could argue that he's just a bad protagonist – unbelievable and uninteresting. If you don't find the guy compelling, reading about his "great sacrifice" at the end has little emotional impact.
The two pictures actually go together – if you take Robert Jordan as just that all-mastering man, he's going to wind up looking like particle board if you probe for anything deeper in his character. Robert Jordan does look a lot like that at the beginning of the book.
The thing is, we think that over the course of the book, he becomes something more. Although For Whom the Bell Tolls is the suspenseful narrative of a risky military mission, at its heart it's really the narrative of the transformative four-day education of Robert Jordan. It's the making of a real man, a real hero, somebody much more than the can-handle-anything, don't-care-about-dying tough guy we first meet. So when he sacrifices himself at the end, we do feel for the guy, and admire him.
No bones about it, in the beginning, Robert Jordan's pretty square. He doesn't really live for himself, or have much of a self to live for: all he cares about is doing his duty and serving the cause. Check out this revealing thought bubble he has in the third chapter:
And that is not the way to think, he told himself, and there is not you, and there are no people that things must not happen to. Neither you nor this old man is anything. You are instruments to do your duty. (3.104)
Or this snippet of dialogue with Pilar:
"And you have no fear?"
"Not to die," he said truly.
"But other fears?"
"Only of not doing my duty as I should." (9. 75-78)
Besides his political/military cause, Robert Jordan doesn't have anything else to live for, nor does he have a genuine zest for life. This forms a contrast between him and his antagonist, Pablo.
Pablo's love of his horses, and, we would add, care for his friends, have made him unwilling to risk anything for the cause; he just wants to "enjoy life," as Anselmo says (or at the very least keep it and not find it totally unbearable). Robert Jordan can't really relate to that: "I wonder what could make me feel the way those horses make Pablo feel" (1.217). What could possibly make him care about staying alive?
We might add that, given Robert Jordan's lack of feeling, we don't really get how he's so attached to Spain and the Republic. Does he really care about the cause that much? Or is he just fighting because he's convinced himself intellectually that it's "important," when the truth is that he's just got nothing else to do?
This position of Robert Jordan at the beginning of the book is actually a stage in an ongoing process of "education." Prior to the Robert Jordan we meet, there was Robert Jordan the die-hard leftist revolutionary/zealot. Yep, zealot – where else do you think that sense of duty came from? Robert Jordan compares his early experience in the war with the Communists (it sounds like he was originally a Communist, not just a Republican) to religion:
You felt, in spite of all bureaucracy and inefficiency and party strife, something that was like the feeling you expected to have and did not have when you made your first communion. It was a feeling of consecration to a duty toward all the oppressed of the world which would be as difficult and embarrassing to speak about as religious experience and yet it was authentic […] It gave you a part in something that you could believe in wholly and completely and in which you felt an absolute brotherhood with the others who were engaged in it. It was something that you had never known before but that you had experienced and you gave such importance to it and the reasons for it that your own death seemed of complete unimportance; only a thing to be avoided because it would interfere with the performance of your duty. But the best thing was that there was something you could do about this feeling and this necessity too. You could fight. (18.53)
Our take on this? Because Robert Jordan had nothing to live for as an individual, he really wanted to believe a cause could be completely just. That way, he could give himself to it utterly and lose all trace of his individuality. Hence his fanaticism or, as he calls it elsewhere, his "bigotry."
Unfortunately that comforting illusion of struggling for something absolutely right starts to disintegrate as he actually begins fighting and experiencing the reality of wartime violence. Then he discovers Gaylord's, a luxury hotel for the Communist higher-ups in Madrid where he begins to spend time. At Gaylord's he meets Karkov, "the most intelligent man he ever met" (18.41), and the man who really starts that education of his: Karkov says he wants him "to know some things."
Karkov works to break Robert Jordan's unbending idealism/naiveté/"bigotry" by exposing the reality of the Republican war effort, and the Communist Party – its lies, its brutalities, its realpolitik (a trendy Cold War era word: it means "realistic" politics, as opposed to idealistic politics, but usually with the connotation of "politics played to win by any means necessary"). Karkov is the teacher figure for Robert Jordan; even at the end of the book, after having made real best friends and met the love of his life, Robert Jordan thinks of Karkov: "I was learning fast there at the end. I'd like to talk to Karkov" (43.374).
So, by the time we meet Robert Jordan, he's not quite the "Child of the Revolution" he once was, but not much has come to fill the void left by that either. In the wake of lost idealism, he just seems not to care for anything strongly. He can't quite live for the cause the way he did before, but there isn't exactly anything else to live for either. That very sense of duty he speaks of in the past tense in that flashback, as if it were gone, is still certainly there, as we saw.
As Robert Jordan's three-and-a-half days with the guerillas unfold, he begins to build relationships with them, which inject a new life into him. He comes to really care for them. Already by Chapter Three, we see indications of something besides that love of duty, brought on by Robert Jordan's admiration and growing attachment to Anselmo:
[…] he resented Golz's orders, and the necessity for them. He resented them for what they could do to him and for what they could do to this old man. They were bad orders all right for those who would have to carry them out. (3.103)
He's quick to correct himself, though; that passage from Chapter Three above about being "only instruments" is what immediately follows this one.
But then he sleeps with Maria for the first time. By the next day, everything feels really different (whether this is believable or not is a whole other can of worms – check out Maria's "Character Analysis" for some thoughts on her end). He admits to Pilar that morning that he cares for Maria "suddenly, and very much," and is himself clearly surprised by that. He also says he cares for Pilar very much, so romantic love isn't the only thing that's opening him up; a powerful kind of friendly love is as well.
Is it just his proximity to these people, or their unusually colorful personalities that have such a strong effect on him? Is it his dim awareness that this mission might be it for him, as it turns out to be? Is it that, in these people (such as Maria and Pilar, and Anselmo, who invites him to hunt "after the war" on the very first day), he finds others who really welcome and apparently care for him for the first time?
Maybe all of the above. What is clear is that, by the end, he's come to think of Anselmo, Pilar, Agustín, and Maria as the family he's never really had. This makes us wonder if the reason that Robert Jordan didn't really care for himself before is that he's always been deeply lonely: he certainly didn't have a good relationship with his father.
Near the end of the book, Robert Jordan thinks the following:
He knew he himself was nothing, and he knew death was nothing. He knew that truly, as truly as he knew anything. In the last few days he had learned that he himself, with another person, could be everything. (39.19)
Even here, he still doesn't fully understand himself. When death comes, while it won't be fearful, it won't be easy either, because he realizes how much there is for him to miss. He's grown much more attached to the world, and especially a few people in it, over the course of a few days. His chief comfort in dying doesn't turn out to be that his mission has succeeded. Rather, it's that he's helped his friends, and that they'll continue to live: "I don't mind this at all now they are away," he tells himself. His sacrifice means so much more than it would have before, since now, with Maria and the new family, he's really losing something by giving himself up.
So maybe in the end, after his blitz "four day education," Robert Jordan turns out to be more than a piece of plastic. Maybe he turns out to be a real human being. But you've got to be the judge of that.