There are many common themes in literature that have become so overused, watered down and taken lightly that they eventually transform into a trope or a stereotype. If you are to read classic literature, you can often find the origins of these tropes in a classic story, and somehow those classics rarely feel so overused as their modern counterparts do.
For example, there are several forgettable war/love movies set in WWII, but the further along we get the more forgettable they get. However, if you watch “Casablanca,” you suddenly realized how a story like that could spur an entire genre of film. Alternatively, many cliché action movies were born from the legitimately good “Die Hard” film.
Hemingway, who had served with the Red Cross during WWI and been seriously injured, could be described as one of these primary sources from the overused: “I’ve seen war therefore I’m inevitably traumatized and unable to function in society” trope that plagues many books and films today. However, if one goes back and actually reads his books, they’ll find that he dives so much deeper into the subject, heading beyond the dismissive idea that war is simply some hazy disease that soldiers catch when they go overseas. His description of the aftermath is not that of helpless victims — it is not about the victimhood at all — he simply just describes a heavy weight and the ways that people carry it. You can see this in “In Our Time” and you can also see it in “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
“For Whom the Bell Tolls” revolves around an American “dynamiter,” tasked with working alongside Spanish locals to demolish an enemy bridge at a specific time, so as to support friendly troops and cut off enemy reinforcements. It’s a very Green Beret type story, set during the Spanish Civil War.
This novel is deserving of several entries in the “Pages of War” series, and I will give it just that. A recurring theme throughout the book is laid out at the very beginning, as Hemingway quotes the book’s namesake in John Donne’s poem:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
How people respond to the act of killing, as described in Hemingway’s book, varies from person to person. Some are sadistic and enjoy it, some do it and care very little, and some do it begrudgingly, thinking it’s wrong but doing it anyway out of necessity. When asked by the protagonist if he has killed anyone before, one of the Spanish guides says, “Yes … Many times and will again. But not with pleasure and regarding it as a sin.”
The book can get quite heavy in parts, but arguably one of the heavier moments is when a 48 year-old, hard and rough woman tells the story of when the revolution began and her village executed a group of fascists (do not conflate that old definition of the word with the controversial definition we have today). The woman, Pilar, remembers a rebel leader by the name of Pablo (who she was involved with) executing four guards after having them explain to him how the pistol in his hands works — and that was the easy part for her to stomach.
She prefaces the story by warning her listeners: “If you have not seen the day of revolution in a small town where all know all in the town and always have known all, you have seen nothing,” meaning that these are people who divided politically and are killing each other, but grew up in the small town together where everyone knows everyone. The effects of civil war in such a place are devastating, if not seen right away.
This is a passage speaking to the capacity of the average person to do terrible things to one another. These aren’t Nazis; they’re not rapists or racists, they’re simple regular village people, and this is what they do.
They round up the supporters of the enemy political ideals, stand in a sort of impromptu gauntlet, and have their 20 fascist prisoners come out one by one. They then proceed to beat them to death with basic, blunt tools and then throw them in the river. Some of them cry for their lives, some of them proclaim their allegiance to fascism with their last breaths, one of them simply cries out to his wife, sobbing on a nearby balcony.
Hemingway beautifully and terribly describes the way that these regular people, after their initial hesitations, put their humanity aside and begin to wail on the poor men walking through their ranks. They go from not having the stomach to strike the first blow to getting so riled up that they interrupt the priest giving the men their last rites, breaking into the church and killing the rest of them along with the priest (who was in their group as well). All of this makes the woman, Pilar, very heavy in the heart.
He describes not only that a sort of blood lust overcomes them, but how the blood lust overcomes them, and summarizing it here does not quite do it justice.
Because the people of this town are as kind as they can be cruel and they have a natural sense of justice and a desire to do that which is right. But cruelty had entered into the lines and also drunkenness or the beginning of drunkenness and the lines were not as they were when Don Benito had come out. I do not know how it is in other countries, and no one cares more for the pleasure of drinking than I do, but in Spain drunkenness, when produced by other elements than wine, is a thing of great ugliness and the people do things that they would not have done.”
That drunkenness that is not from drinking, that blood lust, overcomes the town and they pay the price with their souls. The book is set years after the story the woman tells, and the leader of that rebellion, Pablo, once the brutal executioner and staunch revolutionary, has since slipped into depression and cowardice. Robert Jordan, the main character, meets Pablo to get help with blowing up the bridge. Ever the practical man, Robert Jordan thinks that,
[Pablo] must have quite an outfit. But I don’t like that sadness, he thought. That sadness is bad. That’s the sadness they get before they quit or before they betray. That is the sadness that comes before the sell-out.”
A lot of this book is dedicated to that same theme: the ebbing away of the human soul as one kills another. Not in the dramatic, “shake your fist at the sky” way you see in a lot of movies today, but in a very serious and weighty way. All human life is connected, and, necessary or not, if someone is killed and you hear funeral bells, you don’t need to send someone to find out “for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Featured image courtesy of Paramount Pictures