History: Published in 1940.
Plot: This novel is told through the thoughts and experiences of Robert Jordan, a character inspired by Hemingway's own experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Robert Jordan is an American who travels to Spain to oppose the fascist forces of Francisco Franco. Robert Jordan has been assigned the difficult military mission of blowing up a bridge behind enemy lines. After making contact with a small band of guerrilla fighters, he plans the bridge-blowing operation against the wishes of Pablo, the leader of the band. During the three-day period of the novel’s action, Robert Jordan falls in love with Maria, a young woman living with the guerrillas. The two have an intense affair in which they become committed to each other. The guerilla leaders and fighters all see the inevitability of their deaths. All are faced with their mortality, an urgent mortality. Each deals with their doubts and fears in the face of death differently; some are brave and dutiful while others are weak and cowardly.
The structure of the novel is centered on the bridge-blowing operation, with flashbacks and narrative subplots which reach out from this central focus to the larger incidents and issues of the war to create an epic scope.
Like other Hemingway heroes, Robert Jordan has a life filled with the enjoyment of simple, sensuous pleasures--the experiences of eating and drinking, the brotherhood of comrades dedicated to living life fully, the intense bond between man and nature. As the novel builds toward its climax, he also exemplifies the Hemingway ideal of commitment to meaningful physical action.
Although fatally wounded, Jordan completes his mission. The novel ends with Jordan awaiting his death, Maria has gone with the guerrillas in order to save herself, tearfully and tragically. In his very struggle to live life in the best possible way, whatever the cost, he achieves the status of a tragic hero, and thus he affirms our existence.
Review: Reading Hemingway is like slipping on an old, worn jacket. His prose seems to fit the contours of my mind and my thoughts. His darkness, while offputting for some, warms me because it is balanced by such honor and nobility. Hemingway said, "I believed life was a tragedy and knew it could only have one end." That encapsulates half of Hemingway's perspective. Most of his characters are facing death or believe they are facing death. But, for Hemingway, that wasn't the end of the inquiry. For him, what comes after settling on that conclusion is what life is about. In this case, watching Robert and Maria defy death and wring life and love out of every minute they have is inspiring. And watching Robert and Sordo, one of the guerilla leaders, defy death and nobly execute their duty, is humbling.
Some will find Hemingway's unusual language choices in the dialog between the characters odd. He uses archaic terms and leaves out most foul language in favor of the word "obscenity." It helped reinforce that the story was being played out in a language and culture foreign to its hero, Jordan. It also helped carry some of the beauty of the Spanish culture and language into the narrative.
I was moved by Robert Jordan's plight and his discovery of life and love. I was shamed by the honor and nobility of Robert Jordan and Sordo and Pilar. These cahracters will live long in my imagination, long past closing the cover on the book.
Opening Line: “He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.”
Closing Line: “He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.”
Quotes: "It is right, he told himself, not reassuringly, but proudly. I believe in the people and their right to govern themselves as they wish. But you mustn't believe in killing, he told himself. You must do it as a necessity but you must not believe in it. If you believe in it the whole thing is wrong."
Rating: Very Good, but very sad.