Study Guide

For Whom the Bell Tolls The Supernatural

By Ernest Hemingway

The Supernatural

"Let me see thy hand," the woman said. Robert Jordan put his hand out and the woman opened it, held it in her own big hand, rubbed her thumb over it and looked at it, carefully, then dropped it. She stood up. He got up too and she looked at him without smiling.

"What did you see in it?" Robert Jordan asked her. "I don't believe in it. You won't scare me."

"Nothing," she told him. "I saw nothing in it."

"Yes you did. I am only curious. I do not believe in such things." (2.233-236)

The fateful moment when Pilar first sees a bad fate for Robert Jordan in his hand. This episode starts off the supernatural thread of the book, and also foreshadows Robert Jordan's death (though, like Robert Jordan, it's up to us whether we take it seriously). Although Robert Jordan says he doesn't believe in it, is he being fully honest? Would he be so curious if he weren't at least somewhat open to the possibility that it might be real?

You do not run onto something like that. Such things don't happen. Maybe it never did happen, he thought. Maybe you dreamed it or made it up and it never did happen. (11.85)

Such things don't happen. Robert Jordan is treating his love with Maria as something almost supernatural. More on that in a moment…

"Yes," Pilar said. "I lie. It never moves more than three times in a lifetime. Did it really move?"

"Yes," the girl said. "Truly." (13.185-189)

This is the next spot in the book where the supernatural rears its head. Robert Jordan and Maria have just experienced something very strange while having sex – the "earth moved." If their first night together seemed supernatural, this just blew it out of the water. Pilar is very eager to pry into what their sex was like, almost as if she knows something happened. Once she's told what happens, Pilar is evidently familiar with it, and makes it into something supernatural (it only happens three times, yadda yadda). Given that Robert Jordan and Maria don't seem to have much of a clue what's going on with themselves, there might be an extra incentive to take seriously somebody who claims to.

When you get through with this war you might take up the study of women, he said to himself. You could start with Pilar. She has put in a pretty complicated day, if you ask me. She never brought in the gypsy stuff before. Except the hand, he thought. Yes, of course the hand. And I don't think she was faking about the hand. She wouldn't tell me what she saw, of course. Whatever she saw she believed in herself. But that proves nothing.

Pilar's status as "medium" of the supernatural is connected here to two aspects of her identity: she's part gypsy, and she's a woman. Is there something more "womanly" about believing in the supernatural? Robert Jordan also raises the question of whether she might be using her supposed knowledge of the supernatural to gain power over him and Maria, though he seems to take her original reading of the hand seriously.

"Sure," Pilar said to him, looking at the sky. "It will snow."

"Now? Almost in June?"

"Why not? These mountains do not know the names of the months. We are in the moon of May."

"It can't be snow," he said. "It can't snow."

"Just the same, Ingles," she said to him, "it will snow." (13.219-223)

Pilar's prediction of the snow, if not "supernatural" (snow is a natural phenomenon), does suggest that she's unusually aware. You might say the snow itself suggests that the very out of the ordinary (snowing in late May) can be quite real. This is one moment at which Pilar gains points with Robert Jordan (and the reader), so far as taking her seriously is concerned. It's also worth noting that it's Pilar, at the end of Chapter Twenty, who asks whether the snow has stopped, leading Robert Jordan to go outside and discover that it has. It's almost as if she knew it would…Also, kind of nifty – Pilar's sense that the snow storm of ended of the snow occurs right after the big conversation about the supernatural, as if to book end it.

"Seeing bad signs, one, with fear, imagines an end for himself and one thinks that imagining comes by divination," Robert Jordan concluded. "I believe there is nothing more to it than that. I do not believe in ogres, nor soothsayers, nor in the supernatural things." (19.27)

Robert Jordan doesn't believe in "seeing one's fate," or in fate. He's staunchly opposed to the supernatural, as he tells the other members of the band. It's just something one imagines. This follows from that "taking it straight" attitude he has.

"Because thou art a miracle of deafness," Pilar said, her big face harsh and broad in the candlelight. "It is not that thou art stupid. Thou art simply deaf. One who is deaf cannot hear music. Neither can he hear the radio. So he might say, never having heard them, that such things do not exist. Que va, Ingles. I saw the death of that one with the rare name in his face as though it were burned there with a branding iron." (19.32)

This is the big confrontation between Robert Jordan and Pilar on the subject of the supernatural, and the central point in the book's supernatural thread. Pilar's point is that Robert Jordan simply doesn't have the sense he needs to perceive what is in fact there to be perceived. This is what leads Pilar to tell of how one can acquire a "smell" of death. Pilar seems to mix all of her senses together: she accuses Robert Jordan of being deaf, but then claims to have seen death in Kashkin, and after this will speak of smelling it. Is there any significance to that?

After that of the ship you must go down the hill in Madrid to the Puente de Toledo early in the morning to the matadero and stand there on the wet paving when there is a fog from the Manzanares and wait for the old women who go before daylight to drink the blood of the beasts that are slaughtered. When such an old woman comes out of the matadero, holding her shawl around her, with her face gray and her eyes hollow, and the whiskers of age on her chin, and on her cheeks, set in the waxen white of her face as the sprouts grow from the seed of the bean, not bristles, but ale sprouts in the death of her face; put your arms tight around her, Ingles, and hold her to you and kiss her on the mouth and you will know the second part that odor is made of." (19.69)

How could we resist putting this passage in here? It's just about the grossest passage in the book. Seriously, though, why is it that the supernatural always seems to be associated with disgusting stuff? Maybe the idea is that to get access to a heightened level of perception, like Pilar has, one has to pass through challenging trials that might make you lose your lunch, or die. Kind of like becoming a Jedi.

"Then," Pilar went on, "it is important that the day be in autumn with rain, or at least some fog, or early winter even and now thou shouldst continue to walk through the city and down the Calle de Salud smelling what thou wilt smell where they are sweeping out casas de putas and emptying the slop jars into the drains and, with this odor of love's labor lost mixed sweetly with soapy water and cigarette butts only faintly reaching thy nostrils, thou shouldst go on to the Jardin Botanico where at night those girls who can no longer work in the houses do their work against the iron gates of the park and the iron picketed fences and upon the sidewalks. It is there in the shadow of the trees against the iron railings that they will perform all that a man wishes; from the simplest requests at remuneration of ten centimos up to a peseta for that great act that we are born to and there, on a dead flower bed that has not yet been plucked out and replanted, and so serves to soften the earth that is so much softer than the sidewalk, thou wilt find an abandoned gunny sack with the odor of the wet earth, the dead flowers, and the doings of that night. In this sack will be contained the essence of it all, both the dead earth and the dead stalks of the flowers and their rotted blooms and the smell that is both the death and birth of man. Thou wilt wrap this sack around thy head and try to breathe through it."

More grossness. Is Pilar just conjuring up as lurid a set of things to do as she can possibly come up with? Hard to tell. Some cosmic connections are made here, though: between death and life, and between death and sex. This isn't the only time, either. Think, for example, to Robert Jordan and Maria's feeling that sex is like dying.

There was quite a lot of religion in the letter and she prayed to Saint Anthony, to the Blessed Virgin of Pilar, and to other Virgins to protect him and she wanted him never to forget that he was also protected by the Sacred Heart of Jesus that he wore still, she trusted, at all times over his own heart where it had been proven innumerable – this was underlined – times to have the power of stopping bullets. She was as always his loving sister Concha.

Belief in the supernatural looms large in the Catholic religion of many of the Spaniards in this novel, of which this is a clear example. Maybe that's why the various band members seem open to Pilar's rather different claims about the supernatural – they're already open to the idea that there's "magic" in the world thanks to their religion. In the case of the young officer who received this letter, however, there's a painfully glaring contrast between what the letter says and what happened to him (that sacred heart was placed just about exactly where Robert Jordan shot him).

You take it easy, now, he said. Get turned over now while you still have time. Listen, one thing. Do you remember? Pilar and the hand? Do you believe that crap? No, he said. Not with everything that's happened? No, I don't believe it. She was nice about it early this morning before the show started. She was afraid maybe I believed it. I don't, though. But she does. They see something. Or they feel something. Like a bird dog. What about extra-sensory perception? What about obscenity? he said. (43.375)

This is the last consideration the supernatural gets in the book, right near its end. Of course, Pilar's reading of Robert Jordan's death in his hand (we assume that's what she saw) came true. And he admits that she saw something. But he still isn't willing to believe in it, and writes off giving it further consideration with cynical humor. You could interpret this passage as his attempt to convince himself that it's not real, though, rather than an expression of real certainty that it isn't. Why else would he come back to it?

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