Study Guide

For Whom the Bell Tolls Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Ernest Hemingway

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Pine-Needled Floor of the Forest

So what the heck is up with all those pine-needles? The pine-needles are probably the most noticeable recurrent image in the book. You get them in the very first sentence:

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. (1.1)

And the very last sentence:

He could feel his heart beating against the pine-needle floor of the forest. (43.402)

You also get frequent mention of them whenever Robert Jordan is in his sleeping robe at night (usually before Maria comes to join him), and occasionally at other times too, as when he feels them under his feet as he walks to the bridge on the morning of the mission (41.79).

It's really up to you how much you want to read into the pine needles. Regardless of whether they have any larger meaning, Hemingway's use of the same image at the beginning and end of the book – not just pine needles, but Robert Jordan lying on them – gives the novel nice bookends, and a nifty little sense of circularity.

Reading a little more into it, it's likely that the pine needles on the ground are meant to be the singular image for the land of Spain itself, for Spanish earth, which Robert Jordan loves. (We also learn at one point that Robert Jordan particularly loves their smell – further evidence.) So it's fitting that the story should begin and end with his heart pressed to the land he loves, and that he should die upon it. In their other occurrences, then, the pine needles would serve as momentary zoom-outs, to let us know that, whatever in particular might be happening (fighting, sex…). We're in Spain, drinking and fighting for that glorious Spanish-ness!

If you want to do something more specific with those pine-needles, be our guest. We're not really going there (because that seems a little too Symbolist for Hemingway's taste), but if you want to, the possibilities are endless.

People as Animals, People as Hunters

There are lots of occasions in which a person is compared to a particular animal. Some of them include:

Fox: Pablo
Wolf: Pablo

Pablo calls himself a fox, referring to its caution and its cunning. Anselmo responds: "Yes, it is the principle of the fox when we need the wolf" (1.146). Pablo then responds with "I am more wolf than thee" (1.147). Presumably the relevant qualities of a wolf are its ferocity and fearlessness.

Pig/Swine: Pablo

Robert Jordan's preferred image for Pablo, he uses this one a lot. Usually with a profanity. It captures something about Pablo's unattractive, squinty face, his greed, and also his intelligence (in case you didn't know, pigs are smart…read Animal Farm).

Bull: Pablo

Pilar compares Pablo – the Pablo of days past, that is – to a bull for his "bull force" and "bull courage" (14. 24). Neither of them lasted.

Rabbit: Maria

Maria is Robert Jordan's "rabbit," usually "little rabbit." Any number of explanations is possible. Here are two: 1) A rabbit is cute, gentle, and cuddly, and somewhat defenseless, like Maria. 2) Rabbits mate a lot, like Maria.

Bulldog: Andrés

Andrés earned a reputation for biting bulls on the ear during bullbaiting in his hometown. No further explanation required.

Humans and Animals in General

It probably seems a bit random to list all of these animal comparisons. But a more general theme of the book (it didn't quite fit into the list of themes) is actually the relationship between human beings and animals. At various points somebody gets called "an animal," usually to the detriment of his/her humanity. At base, the idea is, many human beings are pretty solidly governed by their lower instincts – for food, for sex, and, most notably, for killing and blood – rather than more human capacities such as empathy, imagination, thoughtfulness. Most of the particular animal-person comparisons we mentioned also fit the bill.

Such a comparison is not uncommon. But in the extreme situation of war, that animal part of human beings, is given a unique opportunity for unrestrained release, especially the more bloodthirsty side. A couple representative tidbits:

"The gypsy wanted me to kill him last night. The gypsy is an animal." (9.178)

What an animal is a man in rage. (35. 6)

People as Hunters

It's also interesting to note another comparison made between war and hunting. We know that Anselmo and El Sordo, at least, are both enthusiastic hunters, and each compares the killing of war to the hunt at some point. The question is, if human beings are so like animals, how is killing them different than killing animals? To El Sordo, in the height of his bloodlust, it's not; the urge to kill and the pleasure in doing so are the same. As he waits for an enemy to approach, he thinks:

This is ten times better than the aspirin, he thought, and he waited, as happy as only a hunter can be happy. (27.91)

Alternately, in being a hunter, is El Sordo himself really no better than an animal? Anselmo offers a different perspective. While he loves to hunt, he finds that hunting is utterly incomparable to killing in a war, because human beings are not animals, and cannot be killed like them:

To me there is a great difference between the bear and the man and I do not believe the wizardry of the gypsies about the brotherhood with animals. No. I am against killing all men. (3.66)

The man-animal thing in For Whom the Bell Tolls is kind of a big deal. (Hint: Think about John Donne's shtick on human community in the epigraph again.) We could say a lot more about this, but that should be enough food for thought for now. If you're interested, though, explore the Quotes sections – there's some related material in both "Morality and Ethics" and "Warfare."

The Snow

It's kind of weird for it to snow in late May, don't you think? The snow in For Whom the Bell Tolls has a bit of an aura about it. It almost seems supernatural, and if you think that, you might find it interesting that the coming of the snow is first predicted by Pilar, the character that seems to have some kind of supernatural aspects to her, and that, without seeing it, she seems to sense the snow has stopped. When the snow stops, of course, it's bad news for El Sordo, who leaves tracks in it. It then looks for a while as if the mission itself is doomed, and it would have been, if Pablo hadn't shown up at the mission. So there's almost something fated about the snow, too.

Perhaps the snow is meant to show the lack of control human beings actually have, especially in a war situation. Even the best-laid plans are totally at the mercy of circumstance, as both Robert Jordan's mission and Golz's larger attack are. And here "circumstance" = snow. Depending on whether you're Pilar or Robert Jordan, you can either see that circumstance as Fate or as Chance.

One last thing about the snow. Ever go out on a snow day (if you're lucky enough to have snow days where you live) when it's still snowing and notice how snow has a tendency to stop everybody in their tracks and quiet the bustle of everyday busy work? The same thing applies to war: while it's snowing, at least, people stop fighting. Even though it proves disastrous for El Sordo, the snow is a moment of repose in the midst of the action. It's proof that nature goes on regardless of what those nasty little human beings with their guns are doing. Even in the midst of war, there's something deeper which is left unaffected:

In a snowstorm it always seemed, for a time, as if there were no enemies. In a snowstorm the wind would blow a gale; but it blew a white cleanness and the air was full of a driving whiteness and all things were changed and when the wind stopped there would be the stillness. This was a big storm and he might as well enjoy it. It was ruining everything, but you might as well enjoy it. (14.71)

Assorted Nature Imagery (of the animal and vegetable variety)

That deal about nature going on in the midst of war is something you find throughout the book, though rarely quite so prominently as it is in the snow case. Usually, it's a bit subtle – when the characters are engaged in some activity, an animal shows up, going its merry way as if everything's totally fine. For example, when Robert Jordan is rigging the bridge with explosives in a life-or-death operation and sees a trout in the brook below that has no idea what's going' on above:

As he looked a trout rose for some insect and made a circle on the surface close to where the chip was turning. As he twisted the wire tight with the pliers that held these two grenades in place, he saw, through the metal of the bridge, the sunlight on the green slope of the mountain (43:37).

Ah…quite a contrast between the grenades/wire/pliers and the trout/sunlight/green mountain slope. Depending on how you look at it, you could either find this comforting or disturbing. Comforting, because not everything is screwed up or in chaos, even if war makes it seem that way. Disturbing, because nature herself doesn't really care what human beings are doing to each other.

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