12 March 2014

The Bell Tolls Disappointment

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (pp 490, Vintage 2005)

This might be the most tedious book I ever read. That is a pity because it is written well, according to all the stylistic rules. The problem is the story; it is a short story with one conceit and one interesting plot line, stretched to almost five hundred pages. Worse, that plot is introduced early, with nothing till its conclusion but meandering prose, repetitive scenes, and bland, flat personalities. The main plot engages. Whatever. Hundreds of pages that avoid that plot and even ancillary lines is a mistake. Intermittent goals and their catharsis might have saved the story. Without them, the narrative simply bores.


The review contains spoilers.

1. Narrative Adequacy

One character is developed, Robert Jordan. Due to the catharsis' delay, he is impossible to care about or empathise with. By the time the story ends, all propulsion is dwindled. The words begin to slip away between the eyes and the page.

The main conflict is often relegated to the background. Running conflicts are therefore generated by Robert Jordan’s relationships with others. Ernest Hemingway’s overriding pre-conceptions about what those characters should reflect ensures no character conflict truly exists. Pablo for example may vex Robert Jordan but Hemingway is reluctant for him to change. Without changes, Pablo has nothing to do. He need not suffer or gain, because he must always mirror Hemingway's Spain. For Pablo to change, Hemingway would have to admit Spain is not or was not a single, stable entity, and For Whom the Bell Tolls would not satisfy Hemingway’s stereotypes.

This is unfortunate. Pablo is a rebel leader, staunch in political belief, protective of his people. But when Robert Jordan meets Pablo, he has already lost his passion and vigour. Hemingway portrays Pablo as a harmless and tired drunk. Hemingway observes this, and writes a relevant quotable phrase:
’I liked you better when you were barbarous,' the woman said [to Pablo]. 'Of all men the drunkard is the foulest. The thief when he is not stealing is like another. The extortioner does not practise in the home. The murderer when he is at home can wash his hands. But the drunkard stinks and vomits in his own bed and dissolves his organs in alcohol.' (Vintage 2005, p 217)
Pablo, then, is nothing more than an inconvenient mess to clean up. Or, for Robert Jordan, an untidy obstacle to step over.

2. Boredom and Problems

Hemingway is mundane. I expected much more from For Whom the Bell Tolls. I soon realised Hemingway challenged himself to repeat as few words as possible as many times as possible in as many arrangements as possible. The result is a hodgepodge of ‘thee’s, ‘thou’s, ‘obscenity’s, ‘unprintable’s, and lots of pissing in ancestral or communal buckets of soured milk.

The fundamental problem is the story’s length. The main plot is interesting, and if it were not for the hundreds of pages between its inception and conclusion it might hold attention long enough to be enjoyed. As it is, however, Robert Jordan has almost as little to do as Pablo. His only task is to persuade some cowardly personas--who are by definition reluctant to act--not to perform until Robert Jordan instructs. Worse, the rebels in Hemingway’s Spain are painted as bland and fearful even though their very existence was to risk severe military wrath and repercussion.

3. Strained Praise

Hemingway is an enviable wordsmith. One can turn to any page and find a quotable passage. This is not entirely due to his reputation. Hemingway is a name to cite when discussing strong prose. His continual hostility to adverbs and the ambiguous results in crisp lexical rhythms.

While most of the words in For Whom the Bell Tolls are pleasant they are soft and filler-like. Hemingway had a sound short story but wanted to write it as a long novel. In the end, the text could be halved and still be a novel.

4. Bigger Problems Notwithstanding

Hemingway delays catharsis for too long. Maybe this is intended: the delay manifests something profound about war. Rather than race--or even trot or stroll--to a conclusion, Hemingway draws concentric cycles (sic) of behaviours and events round and round. Every passing adds one minor detail. Rather than have characters learn through variety, they tread the same scenarios over and over and over. Again, this may be purposeful--perhaps to imbue the story with war’s endless apathetic waiting and waiting, and killing, and waiting.

Even the sex scenes are dull. How does he manage it? Simply writing ‘sex’ livens most pages. Sex. Sex is sex. See? But Hemingway writes it as a puritan eunuch might. The story is just flat--in the word's every negative sense.

5. Reluctant Praise

None of this is to suggest Hemingway is trite. He appears to be concerned with subtle character nuances: reluctances to share or compromise in adversity; willingness to let fears control actions; individual tastes. He builds little cameos to develop these traits in everyday contexts that, within the everyday of war-zones, highlights weakened social structures.

By the end, every character's life feels lived. The problem is, I don’t care. Hemingway gives no reasons to empathise with Robert Jordan or the others. I know what it is to sit and eat a meal, to drink with friends and strangers and strangers-turned-friends, even to share drinks on rainy days. Hemingway should have spent more time persuading me to want to see his characters do these things. Without such reasons, the characters’ doing them is empty.

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe I grasped the themes and purposes but missed something more important. For Whom the Bell Tolls is anti-climactic. If this is a device to help readers understand war’s futility, it fails because it is alien from the plot, which might have grounded the idea. This seems not to be the case, though, because Hemingway’s more obvious purpose--poorly executed--is to show how exciting and successful war is when you’re on America’s side. Whatever truth there is to this statement--though I assert nobody wins in war--to contrast one American hero against indigenous characters designed weak and diminutive in comparison is not the way to do it.

6. Conclusion

Hemingway’s prose suggests he was just bored and short of cash. The final product is awful. If I am right about the underlying themes but wrong about the poor execution, I wish Hemingway were more blunt about it.

Created: 20 February 2014. Version 1.0.





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