Saturday, October 9, 2010

“He did not wish to write a political novel, but one in which political events should form the setting for a timeless story of personal tragedy.” Discuss this statement with reference to For Whom the Bell Tolls.

A Human Document
Leicester Hemingway records in My Brother, Ernest Hemingway “The early spring of 1938, Ernest worked intensely while he was in Key West, revising The Fifth Column and thinking beyond it, he began to feel that there must be a great novel buried in the treachery, courage, and sacrifice that he had seen during recent months in Spain.” Of course Hemingway’s personal sympathies were with the Loyalists yet what impressed him more than the struggle of the Spanish people for a decent life was “the treachery, courage, and sacrifice that he had seen ... in Spain.”
The fact that this happened in Spain is incidental : what is more significant is that these traits are human traits and will be found anywhere in the world. In this respect For Whom the Bell Tolls is not purely a political novel ; it is basically a human document which praises what is good in man and condemns, though with a deep understanding, what is evil.
Focus on One Minor Event
Hemingway has chosen to write not of the Spanish Civil War in its entirety but of a minor incident in the war. Although the story extends beyond the Guadarrama mountains due to what the hero learns of some other events from other characters, yet what we are shown is confined to the action that takes place in the vicinity of the bridge. Jordan’s arrival in the company of Anselmo, the split in the band due to Pablo’s decision not to participate in the blowing up of the bridge, Jordan’s love-making, El Sardo’s willingness to help and his destruction by the Fascist planes, Pablo’s treachery and his eventual return to the band, and finally the destruction of the bridge and Jordan’s death-these are the key events. The flash-back scenes take us to Madrid and Hotel Gaylord’s where the Russians are staying, Pablo’s home town where he destroyed the Fascists, Maria’s home town where her father and mother were killed and she herself was raped, the dynamiting of the Fascist train by Kashkin and Maria’s rescue. The only action which takes place away from the bridge is Andres Marty’s journey to the head-quarters of General Golz. The Spanish Civil War was a complex affair, as we are told by a number of intellectuals including George Orwell in his Homage to Catalonia ; therefore, it would be naive to believe that the war was confined to the hills near Segovia ; nor are there any political discussions in the novel which highlight the issues involved. What we are told is the experience of a young American volunteer during his three-day stay in the hide-out of a guerrilla leader. And this does not qualify it as a political novel.
A Fruitless Action
The political events and discussions, if any, are no more than a backdrop against which a personal drama is enacted. It is a tragic story of the failure of an individual who is swayed by idealism, and his strong common sense––one could call it his pragmatism––creates a conflict in his mind whether what he is doing is worth doing. He suppresses his doubts and persuades an indifferent band of guerrillas to help him to destroy a vital bridge so that the Fascist reinforcements may not reach the pass which Golz is attacking. On a purely personal plane one could argue that Jordan’s effort is highly admirable but he knows as well as any one else that what he is doing and at such a heavy price is fruitless. The Fascist reinforcements have been carried across the bridge already; they have known before-hand of the attack and they are a disciplined army. On the other hand Fernando informs Jordan that he learnt in Segovia that the Loyalists were going to launch an offensive in the vicinity of Segovia and that it was an open secret. The loose tongues of the Loyalists have been the cause of their ruin. At best, one could say that the events narrated here are representative of what went on elsewhere in Spain but it is not the whole truth about the Spanish Civil War or the, political situation in Spain.
Jordan’s Sole Purpose
As a personal story of an individual it is admirable. When Golz tells Jordan : “I do not like to ask people to do such things and in such a way……I could not order you to do it. I understand what you may be forced to do through my putting such conditions” Jordan promises that whatever be the difficulties he will blow up the bridge on time. Having seen how the guerrilla morale stood in Pablo’s band he cleverly wins over the loyalty of Pilar and the other guerrillas and he thus isolates.  Pablo. When El Sardo’s band has been wiped out by the Fascists his devotion to duty compels Pilar to take on some of the responsibilities of “the very select” offensive that Jordan is planning to launch against the Fascist posts on both sides of the bridge. He loves the good things of life but he will not let them interfere in his work. Pilar very aptly remarks : “You are a very cold boy.” Before he becomes committed to Maria he declares : “I have not found one [woman] that moved me as they say they should move you.” And when it has become obvious to him that due to the absence of the exploder and the fuse the assignment might prove fatal to him he is prepared to carry out his job, even though he would have liked to live, and for a long time, with Maria. Love is one of the good things of life but he rejects it in favour of his duty to the Republic which he equates with “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”. When it is a question of duty even Maria, whom he loves more than his life, has no place in his life. He tolerates Pablo, a murderer, and is not too critical of him. He is useful to the Republic even though he is highly debased, therefore, he may be allowed to live. He is ready to exploit the guerrillas for his own purpose but once the bridge has been blown up he sacrifices his own life so that they may escape to safety. He does not like to murder men but he kills the Fascist cavalryman who threatens to invade their privacy and thus spoil the chances. of his successfully blowing up the bridge. He shoots the Fascist guard on the bridge because it is essential. He orders Anselmo to kill because knowing Anselmo’s Christian character he makes sure that he does not falter and thus endanger the success of the operation. He is an intellectual and still he suspends his thinking for the duration of the war because too much preoccupation with unnecessary thought might hamper him in his work. Such a devotion to duty (to the solidarity of Man) borders on fanaticism but it is admirable in a partisan who, even though an American, is fighting for the Spanish people.
Hemingway Writes of the End
Jordan represents certain aspects of Hemingway’s character and thus in Jordan he expresses some of his own fears and hopes. Kashkin, the Russian authority on Hemingway, remarks that in the middle years (1928-38) his activity “was the purposeless activity of a man vainly attempting not to think, that his courage was the courage of despair, that the obsession of death was taking hold of him, that again and again he was writing of the end––the end of love, the end of life, the end of hope, the end of all.”
As An Elegy
In Jordan’s courage, critics have detected an element of, despair. The picture of the world that Hemingway delineates in For Whom the Bell Tolls is that of “a fatalistic world”. “Not an epic of the war, nor even the story of Robert Jordan’s education in the war, but almost an elegy sung in praise of the lonely rebel, serving in a foreign country with a foreign army, though now with the illusion of a cause ; a lost man whom the war overwhelms without changing him. In the face of this central feeling of the impossibility of belief, the Marxist ideal, can only be the opium of the people, an austere facade hiding deceit.” The book is a monument to the confused thinking of a man who really belongs to “no-man’s party”.
Jordan is Lost but Perseveres
There are four distinct stages in the novel when Jordan is, compelled to think that the cause he is espousing is lost irredeemably. On his arrival Pablo’s initial hostility, which he later on successfully conceals, is the first indication of what he might expect in this oasis. El Sardo’s destruction should have made any man wiser but Jordan persists. He also has learnt that the Fascists know of the attack and they have made preparation for the attack but he continues to harp on the theme of his choice. Finally, Pablo’s treachery and Pilar’s lapse arouse his ingenuity and out of sheer desperation he decides to use handgrenades in place of the fuse and detonators. All through his three-day stay in this hide-out with the exception of the love of Maria and Pilar’s unquestioned loyalty to him he meets nothing that could cheer up his spirits. The novel is concerned with what happens between “two supine postures” ––Jordan lying on the floor of the forest in the beginning of the novel, and then at the end of the novel. Nemi D’Agostino remarks
                The utter uselessness of the attempt on the bridge, upon which the future of the human race might depend, is made clear from the start, as is the uselessness of the pathetic heroism of that group of solitary eccentrics which Hemingway selects as his chief characters. The sky overhanging the sierra is without depth and beyond the mountains there is no crusade but only the confused movements of heterogeneous crowds, a massacre iii a betrayed land. Jordan is a new Frederic Henry, who finds a code of behaviour by which to endure life in the exact fulfilment of his mission, and in the end is driven to ‘sacrifice’ more by desperation than by any certainty. His drama is too oppressive and restricted to reflect the so much wider and more complex tragedy of Spain.
There is too much disenchantment with Jordan’s idealism in the novel.
Borders on Melodrama
For this very reason the heroics produce an effect not very different from melodrama. But for the sure touch of the novelist the tragedy of Jordan could have become an actual melodrama and the bathos of his death could have degenerated into pathos. The presence of such heroic figure as Joaquin, El Sardo and Anselmo redeem the novel and the author from absurdity. But for Anselmo’s true sentiment and El Sardo’s true heroism the book would not have been what it is.
Irony Saves the Novel
Last but not the least, For Whom the Bell Tolls cannot be a partisan novel because of the extensive use of irony in the novel. Some critics feel that it goes against the main drift of the novel. Hemingway who supported the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War could not shut his eyes to the realities of the Spanish life. He remains an artist first and foremost ; therefore, he could not be a partisan as a novelist. Lieutenant Berrendo is portrayed with sympathy and understanding, even though he is fighting against the Loyalists. The Fascist discipline is shown superior to the commitment of the Loyalist supporters ; and the fact that they are irregular gypsies hardly mitigates the adverse criticism.
Remains an Imperfect Novelist
Lincoln Kirste in his article on Hemingway, “The Canon of Death”, writes :
                Hemingway is an incomplete tragic artist whose wilful limits, as yet exclude him from the company of creators of living characters, but they have the signatures of his choice attached, and he had personally endowed them with their characteristics. They do not exist independent of his approval, as do Anna Karenina, Starbuck, or Leopold Bloom. Convinced and a master of a physical world as he now is, can he dare to acquire a knowledge of the others ?

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