For Whom the Bell Tolls is overrated, and why McCain is probably the Manchurian Candidate

Ernest Hemingway’s famous war novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, is often cited as an exploration of the effects of war on people — in particular, the Spanish people during the tragic Spanish Civil War. The novel’s protagonist, Robert Jordan, is an American professor who volunteers on the side of the Spanish Republic, and, through the course of the novel, exhibits all the traits of a rugged Hemingway hero. Although set in the midst of the civil war, the war atmosphere Hemingway created is poorly executed, and his characters — with the exception of Robert Jordan — are hardly credible. It is really a novel about Ernest Hemingway’s ideal man: heroic, graceful in the face of death, enduring, macho, and, more than any of the other characteristics, a rugged individual. But it took him 400 pages too many to explain this.

Robert Jordan has been sent by a Republican general to blow up a bridge behind enemy lines, and to do this he enlists the help of a band of Republican guerilleros hiding out in a cave. They are led by Pablo, a disillusioned fighter who is more concerned about keeping out of the war, and his wife Pilar, whose strong convictions and storytelling serve to bolster Robert’s flagging confidence in the rag-tag group of guerillas. Also, there is Maria, who, we learn, had been raped by fascist forces after witnessing her father’s execution. She becomes Robert’s lover over the course of the next three days, and becomes the object of many long passages by Hemingway about ideal love. He actually writes about how the “earth moved” when they made love.

After treachery by Pablo, the disillusioned rebel leader, Robert sends one of the young fighters off with a message to a Republican general stating that the mission to blow up the bridge has been compromised. The young fighter is delayed by a Soviet bureaucrat who suspects him of falling out of the party line. This is an important, but under-used theme by Hemingway — depicting how communist intrigue and lack of coordination on the Republican front ultimately lost them war against the better-organized and equipped fascist front. But it’s a short section, and, like the few pages dedicated to the day-to-day conversations of the fascist troops, it’s really the only part of the novel dealing with the real tragedy of the Spanish Civil War. To be fair, Pilar, the woman leader of the guerilleros, also has war stories – in particular one memorable one about the systematic annihilation of fascist sympathizers in a small town – but they are long, strewn with clumsy English transliterations of the Spanish language, and needlessly repetitive.

The biggest problem with this novel is precisely that: its over-use of repetition to emphasize points — and lots of times the points are unimportant to the story. Like this passage, describing Robert and Maria making love: “For him it was a dark passage which led to nowhere, then to nowhere, then again to nowhere, once again to nowhere, always and forever to nowhere …” Or this passage: “So a woman like that Pilar practically pushed this girl into your sleeping bag and what happens? Yes, what happens? What happens? You tell me what happens, please. That is just what happens. That is exactly what happens.”

Another language problem, which hugely distracted from the novel’s credibility is Hemingway’s decision to self-censor his novel. He says “there is no language so filthy as the Spanish language”, which he attributes to a sort of cognitive dissonance resulting from their deep religiosity. For some reason this “filthiness” bothered him, so he wrote things like, “I obscenity in the milk” instead of “I shit in the milk”, or, in Spanish, “Yo cago en la leche.” A more rigorous writer would have left the Spanish obscenities in, and made them understandable by their context. But I think Hemingway’s decision was in part laziness, and in part one of his techniques for making the band of Spanish guerilleros — and really Spanish people in general — seem like quaint romantic characters straight out of a Cervantes novel. It just did not ring true to me. And, of course it’s fiction, but it’s supposed to be a war novel. Not a pretty romance.

He also utilizes a strange translation of the Spanish formal “usted” — formal “you” in English — to “thou”. Even after the Republican fighters and Robert get to know each other intimately, and even after he leaves a couple of untranslated dialog snippets using the informal “tu”, he still reverts to the use of “thou” for the entirety of the book (“Thy mother”, “Thou never had one”). For someone who is bilingual, who can translate back from his clanky English sentences into Spanish, this is just sloppy writing. Imagine watching a movie taking place in Spain, where all the Spanish men dress in in gaudy torero uniforms, and all the Spanish women wear flamboyant flamenco dresses, yet it is set in modern a modern Spanish town. For a bilingual speaker of Spanish and English, the language decisions that Hemingway made have the same kind of incongruity. I was born forty years after the Spanish Civil War, but after living in Spain for eight years, and talking with people who actually lived through the war, I think I can safely assume that no one went around constantly thouing and theeing each other – especially guerilla fighters on the front lines. And if they did use the formal “usted” to the extent he implies, Hemingway’s decision to translate it to “thou” simply makes any English-language reader think of the middle ages, unnecessarily creating a false, romantic picture of the Spanish Civil War. It’s too bad his editor didn’t notice this.

Finally, and perhaps the worst language offense of all, is Hemingway’s repeated use of false cognates in place of proper English translations. False cognates, or false friends, are words that sound similar in English to their Spanish counterpart, but have completely different meanings. Like the word “molestar” in Spanish, which means “to bother” in English. When he writes sentences like “Do not molest me”, it is unintentionally comical. Other words he failed to translate properly are words like “raro” which means “strange” in English, but which he translated as “rare”. He also made literal translations of sentences, like “what passes that” for “que pasa”, when it would have been less confusing to write, “what’s happening”. I couldn’t figure out if Hemingway was intentionally using false cognates – for whatever reason – or if he was just plain sloppy. Either way, it makes the novel — for anybody with knowledge of the Spanish language — read like a primer on how not to translate Spanish.

Ultimately, the novel reads like a patchwork of different short stories that Hemingway overheard in bar. They don’t form a strong narrative thread, and the only thing they have in common is their temporal placement in the Spanish Civil War. Robert Jordan has long musing passages about life, about his father’s dishonorable suicide, the heroics of his warrior grandfather, and his search for personal fulfillment. These are perhaps — if one took out a lot of the gratuitous repetition — the strongest parts of the novel. Bringing me back to my original point that this novel is really about Hemingway’s ideal man: strong, individual, macho, graceful in the face of imminent death. A good editor would have sat Hemingway down and told him: print the cuss words, it’s a novel about war and death, and brother against brother; chop the gratuitous repetition; stop writing behind your closed door and take out the stories that don’t really need to be in there; and turn this into a fine novella, not a rambling 471 page book. I really wanted to like Hemingway’s masterpiece, but this is probably the most overrated book I have ever read.

* I read this out of curiosity after reading that both Barack Obama and John McCain cited Robert Jordan, the book’s protagonist, was their favorite fictional hero. Robert Jordan is portrayed as an idealist who fights with the Republican side against the fascists, which means he had to fight alongside communists and anarchists. Why both John and Barack chose Robert Jordan is probably for mere political expediency (hero, anti-fascist, Hemingway-american-icon). But did they realize Robert Jordan was “palling” around with commies? Maybe that crazy un-American community organizer did, but John? Hmmmmm. Maybe he is the McChurian candidate!

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71 Responses to “For Whom the Bell Tolls is overrated, and why McCain is probably the Manchurian Candidate”


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  2. 2 Tom

    Better than the aristo-terrorist, McCain!

  3. 3 Matt

    Hemingway *doesn’t* translate “usted” as “thou.” “Thou” is the English *informal* second-person pronoun, and it is a historical cognate of the “tu” that Hemingway translates it from. “Thou” is just Hemingway translating “tu.”

    It still doesn’t work. Despite technically being informal (which is why Quakers still use it), “thou” feels archaic and pompous to most English speaker, which is exactly the opposite of what Hemingway is trying to convey with it. Basically, “thou” is another falsely over-literal translation, like “rare” from “raro.”

  4. 4 john

    I saw the Farewell to Arms when I was ten years old. I will not read the novel at 75. The “discours indirect libre” is as archaic as the backlot settings of the film. Fooled me once,etc>

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  6. 6 ToWhomTheBellBores

    This book is extremely boring. The dialogue could not be any more unremarkable. It is extremely repetitive and filled with redundancies. I thought that perhaps after a few chapters I would have adjusted to Hemingway’s painful narratives but by the halfway point, with all the yawning I did, enough tears had rolled down my cheeks to irrigate the Nile Delta. Eventually I decided to type in “To Whom The Bell Tolls”, confusing the novel with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and found this site. Great review though, I have to admit, I only read the first two paragraphs, Hemingway’s tired me enough for the day.

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    “He also utilizes a strange translation of the Spanish formal “usted” — formal “you” in English — to “thou”.”

    It’s actually the other way around: Hemingway uses the word “thou” to translate the informal Spanish “tu”, not the formal “usted” – hence why soldiers speak to each other using “thou” (It’s actually a very literal translation: In English “thou” used to be the informal form of “you”, the English equivalent of “tu”. People get confused because nowadays they assume that archaic=formal when it’s quite the opposite. We dropped the informal form and kept the formal “you”) Anyway, I agree with you that it you don’t know Spanish it makes the book sound like it was set 400 years earlier than it really was!

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