Study Guide

For Whom the Bell Tolls Themes

  • Mortality

    Death and war go hand in hand, and For Whom the Bell Tolls is about war. So almost every major character in the book is forced to come to terms with their own death, and the deaths of their loved ones. They display a variety of attitudes towards death, from paralyzing fear and despair, to resignation, to relative unconcern. One thing that all experience, however, is the way death forces a re-evaluation of one's priorities. The protagonist's attitude towards death changes as the value he gives to his own life changes, and the book explores the relation between the two.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Which characters in the book feel a strong fear of death and which do not? For those who do, how do they manage their fear? For those who don't, why is it that they do not fear death?
    2. What is behind Pablo's "fear of death"? And since we know that earlier in the war he wasn't troubled by it, how do you think it came about?
    3. What do you think Robert Jordan dies for? Is it the Republic, "freedom," Spain, his friends? If several or all of these, which do you think is most important for him?
    4. Do you think there's a difference between what Robert Jordan thinks he's dying for and what might really be motivating him?

    Chew on This

    At the start of the book, not only is Robert Jordan not afraid of death, he actively wants to die.

    Pablo's fear of death is actually a symptom of a more general despair caused by his guilt over the people he's killed.

  • Warfare

    For Whom the Bell Tolls is the novel about the Spanish Civil War, and it describes the uniquely cruel reality of war violence in all its grisly details. In this novel, war seems to escalate beyond human control, thwarting the best-laid plans of any commander. It deprives individuals of their loved ones, forces them to kill their countryman, and spreads barbarism. Perhaps most troubling of all, war releases the darkest side of human beings: the lust for blood, the pleasure in slaughter, and the madness for revenge which make killing possible, even desirable, for many of those who fight.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. Various characters, such as Golz and Robert Jordan, feel powerless before the war. Who can you think of who feels this way, and what are some of the ways in which they feel powerless? Is there anyone you can point to who actually has power?
    2. It is suggested by several characters, including Pilar and Robert Jordan, that most of the people who fight in a war are not naturally evil or cruel. How is it, then, that they can be brought to do cruelty? Do you find the opinions of the characters on this question convincing?
    3. Are there characters who seem to enjoy war? Would you characterize Pablo this way?
    4. Given the obvious toll it takes on almost all of the characters, why are they fighting in the war? Think of individuals: why is Robert Jordan fighting? Anselmo? Pilar? Rafael? Do you think they have a real choice whether to fight or not?

    Chew on This

    Pablo initially relishes the war because it gives him free reign to satisfy his bloodlust.

    There is no single person or authority with real control over the course of the war on either side. War, as we see it in For Whom the Bell Tolls, is the product of large number of individual actions and accidents, which can only be loosely managed by the people supposedly "in command."

  • Love

    Though it is a story of war, For Whom the Bell Tolls is also the tale of the sudden but passionate love between an American volunteer and a Spanish girl brought together for three (and a half) days by a military operation. Each is unprepared for and overwhelmed by the "earth-shaking" experience of romantic love between two people, which neither has ever felt before. Their experience gives to each a new reason for living – the other person – and suggests that the aloneness of the individual can be lost in total union with another. Yet from the beginning it is clear to each that their love may have no future.

    Questions About Love

    1. Is Robert Jordan and Maria's love actually just lust? If not, what else do you see behind it? Either way, do you find their three-day love affair convincing, and how does that depend on your answer to the first questions?
    2. Is Robert Jordan and Maria's relationship one between equals? Or is it really all about the gratification of Robert Jordan?
    3. Why would both Maria and Robert Jordan feel that when they have sex it is "like dying"? What could it mean?
    4. What could Robert Jordan and Maria mean when they say they are "the same," or "one"? What do they have in common? Is this a matter of having something in common, or is it something else?

    Chew on This

    Robert Jordan and Maria's love is in fact nothing more than lust. They have no connection besides their sexual attraction.

    Robert Jordan and Maria's relationship is based on the inequality of power between the two of them.

  • Foreignness and 'The Other'

    For Whom the Bell Tolls is the story of an American volunteer, Robert Jordan, fighting with Spanish Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, kind of like Hemingway himself did. Robert Jordan is there because of his special love for the Spanish people. But this is a love-hate relationship if ever there was one, since through his observations he offers us almost as many reasons to be revolted by the Spanish as to admire them. His position as a foreign newcomer leading a close-knit group of Spanish guerillas also brings him to reflect explicitly on his role as an outsider, and the larger role of outsiders in the Spanish War itself.

    Questions About Foreignness and 'The Other'

    1. What is "Spanish," according to Robert Jordan? Do Spanish characters who reflect on their country, such as Pilar, seem to support his image, or to disagree with it?
    2. Do you think Robert Jordan is ultimately guilty of romanticizing the Spanish – of making them something that they're not in his head because doing so makes them more interesting, exotic, or easily definable? Or do his reflections seem fair or true to you?
    3. To what extent does Robert Jordan seem to be an "outsider" in relation to the people he works with? How much of it is due to his being an American?
    4. Over the course of the book, does Robert Jordan feel like less of an outsider? Can you point to particular passages which reveal such a change?
    5. What do you think of the particular idea that the Spanish have some kind of special love of violence? Do you see that at work in the book in places? Or is it just something Robert Jordan makes up?

    Chew on This

    Robert Jordan's knowledge of Spanish and his familiarity with Spanish culture make him able to fit in with the guerilla group as well as any Spaniard would.

    Robert Jordan does romanticize the Spanish. Many characters simply do not fit into his "stereotypes."

  • Duty

    Fighting in a war, as do the characters in For Whom the Bell Tolls, inevitably means having duties. There are the obvious duties to one's cause, or to one's commander. But there are also duties to one's friends, whose lives are constantly at risk. Characters have different understandings of what their duties are, and what they require. Some, such as the main character (when we first meet him), seem almost entirely motivated by duty to the side they're fighting for, and are tempted to regard themselves and other people as instruments. That's much harder to do if one begins to form friendships with the people one fights with.

    Questions About Duty

    1. Why does Robert Jordan initially have such a strong sense of duty? Is there something in particular to which he is strongly committed?
    2. Does Robert Jordan's sense of duty actually weaken over the course of the book, or do you think it remains essentially the same?
    3. Is Robert Jordan ever seriously tempted to abandon his mission? In particular, do you think he is tempted after Pablo has stolen the detonators – would he have gone ahead with the mission anyway? If he had abandoned his mission, would it have been right, in your opinion?
    4. What other characters are moved by a sense of duty? Do any of them have a different understanding of what their duties are than Robert Jordan does?

    Chew on This

    Pablo is moved by a sense of duty, but his sense of duty is to his band, rather than to the Republic.

    Robert Jordan was extraordinarily concerned that his mission would fail after Pablo had stolen the detonators, but never seriously considered abandoning it.

  • Men and Masculinity

    This is the theme one would expect to find in every Hemingway book, and For Whom the Bell Tolls doesn't disappoint. "Being a man" is an ideal of many of the characters, one men hold up for themselves and one women criticize them for if they fail to meet. The war places particularly high demands on "manliness." Courage, and willingness to risk one's life, is one standard used to separate the men from the boys (or women). But perhaps still more important – and central to the protagonist – is the ability to control one's emotions and urges, and to "take it straight" (just accept reality and deal with it – no whining). The protagonist might be seen as an ideal male by those standards.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. We've suggested that, for Robert Jordan (and maybe Hemingway), being a man amounts to exercising self-control and being able to "take straight" whatever comes your way. Would you challenge that characterization? Do you see any other elements at work in it?
    2. On the basis of the men you see in this book, and especially the character of Robert Jordan, would you agree or disagree with the common stereotype that Hemingway's writing centers around a cult of the macho man?
    3. Do you think Robert Jordan lives up to his own ideal? Why might he not? If he doesn't, do you think this is a failing on his part, or is the ideal the problem?
    4. Are there other ideals of masculinity presented in the book besides that of Robert Jordan? Which characters might represent them?
    5. Does Hemingway's vision of masculinity entail a corresponding picture of femininity? For instance, a weaker, servile woman?

    Chew on This

    Robert Jordan subscribes to a vision of "tough-guy" masculinity to which he himself fails to live up.

  • Politics

    For Whom the Bell Tolls is about the Spanish Civil War, and the Spanish Civil War is all about politics: it's a conflict between the leftist "Republic" and the fascist Nationalists. All of the characters the novel focuses on fight for the Republic, some of them with a zeal which borders on the religious. Yet what the Republic stands for is somewhat up for grabs: it's a troubled coalition of Communists, anarchists, and those who simply believe in "freedom" or "the people." The optimism or idealism felt by some characters is sharply contrasted with the reality of Republican politics – constant lying, infighting, control by foreigners. The protagonist's loss of a naive idealism is a major step in his "education."

    Questions About Politics

    1. Robert Jordan is clearly committed to the Republic (remember that sense of duty?). But why is he committed to the Republic, from a political point of view? How does the Republic correspond to his political ideals?
    2. We've seen both Pilar and Robert Jordan make comparisons between their political engagement/patriotism and religion. What's the connection – what does it mean for politics to be like a religion to these characters? Are there any other characters to whom this also applies?
    3. At the end of the day, do you think Robert Jordan has become a hardened "realist"? Or do you think he might still be an idealist, looking at the Republic through overly rose-colored glasses?
    4. Do you think Robert Jordan's willingness to accept the deception and hard-nosed "discipline" of the Communist party is consistent with his commitment to freedom?

    Chew on This

    While Robert Jordan might be classified as an idealist because he believes the Republican cause is straightforwardly the cause of "freedom," his position makes sense when it is considered that the loss of the Republicans would mean the victory of the fascists.

    Even if he does not consider himself to be a communist, Robert Jordan is still a communist insofar as he is willing to serve the Communist Party without objection to its more doubtful practices.

  • Friendship

    For Whom the Bell Tolls revolves around the idea of communion between human beings expressed in its epigraph. Connecting to others is the only way to overcome the emptiness and loneliness at the heart of each individual, especially in the hopelessness of war. It's their camaraderie which keeps many of the characters afloat. The most everyday activities and expressions of friendliness – being humorous, telling stories, touching, even swearing together – preserve some sense of normality, of humanity in the midst of "barbarism." The protagonist is transformed by the bonds he forms with the people around him over the course of only a few days.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Why do you think Robert Jordan is able to feel so close to the guerillas in so short a time? How is it that they begin to bond?
    2. You've heard our two cents about Pablo in the character section, but what do you think of him? Is he motivated by his concern for his friends from the start? Or is it really something which dawns on him at the end?
    3. Do you think Robert Jordan ultimately dies for his friends rather than for the Republic? Does friendship prevail over duty?

    Chew on This

    It is seeing his sacrifice as something he does for his friends that gives Robert Jordan's death a purpose, and that serves as his ultimate consolation.

  • 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

    1. 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?
    2. 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?
    3. 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?
    4. 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.

  • The Supernatural

    There's a thread about the supernatural which runs throughout For Whom the Bell Tolls. Near the book's beginning, another character, Pilar, appears to see the protagonist's "fate" in his palm. The protagonist, Robert Jordan, makes nothing of it, since he believes superstition is so much stuff and nonsense which doesn't "take the world straight." Throughout the rest of the book, there's something of a competition between Jordan and Pilar, who claims to see into parts of reality to which he is simply "deaf." Many of the other characters are inclined to believe in the supernatural, whether filtered through Pilar or through Spanish Catholicism.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. Do you think Robert Jordan does completely disbelieve in the supernatural, as he claims to, or is he less sure than he admits? Why does he seem so fascinated by it?
    2. Is there something significant about the fact that Pilar, a female character, is the main spokesperson for the supernatural in the book?
    3. Do we think Pilar's talk about the supernatural is genuine? Or is she using it to try and attract attention or gain power over others?
    4. In what ways does Robert Jordan and Maria's love seem supernatural? How does Robert Jordan square this with his own rejection of things supernatural? Does he?

    Chew on This

    Robert Jordan is completely convinced that belief in the supernatural is "superstition," and is only curious about it because it seems so strange to him.