Sparked by Words

178px-ernesthemmingway_forwhomthebelltolls

I read For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway during the late 1960s when the Vietnam War raged. (The book was published in 1940.) To say I was very naïve would be close to truth. To say I was passionate would be just as close. Every morning the newspaper front page showed images still ingrained on my memory: A Buddhist monk setting himself on fire in protest of the war. A small naked girl running down the road, her body burned by napalm.  A handcuffed Viet Cong prisoner being shot in the head by the South Vietnamese chief of police. A wounded soldier, bandaged and bloody, cradled by his buddy, also wounded. Every night the newsreels showed Vietnamese villagers fleeing in search of safety, cowering in rice paddies, tramping through streams, watching as their huts were torched and blazed. They showed American servicemen hiding in the jungle or marching along dirt roads. Or worse, coming home in coffins. Flag draped, somber in their geometric silence, stark against the airport concrete, one young soldier after another, each having fought on ground thousands of miles from home. From high school through college and the early years of my marriage, the Vietnam War took center stage.

How could anyone not value human life against this bloody panorama? I marched in protests large and small to declare my outrage at the injustice of the war. I gave up a semester of college to campaign for the Twenty-sixth Amendment to lower the voting age to 18, so that young men considered old enough to die for their country as soldiers could also vote. I painted my first serious portrait, of a young Vietnamese girl (I think her name was Nguyen, photographed by Larry Burrows for Life magazine, but I might remember incorrectly) kneeling in front of her hut and looking to the sky moments before her village was bombed. I met Robert Pratt, a young vet home from the war about a year, fell deeply in love, and married him.

Despite that background, I could not understand For Whom the Bell Tolls. It wasn’t Hemingway’s fault that I couldn’t align the story’s moral compass with my own. I think he was intentionally vague about which side was right and which wrong, but that posed a problem for me. I needed to see positions clearly demarcated. Even though we read it in a college class, the professor’s explanations and student discussions didn’t assure me of moral certitude. I was just too young and sheltered to comprehend a multi-dimensional world.

The book tells the story of a small group of guerilla fighters during the Spanish Civil War. They plan to blow up a bridge to foil Franco’s fascist army from advancing on the Spanish peasants on their way to conquering the country. They’re joined by American Robert Jordan who intends to carry out blowing the bridge even though the leader of the group argues against what he thinks will be a foolhardy action. Jordan also falls in love with one of the women in the group, and their lusty affair creates a compelling reason to stay alive despite his fatalistic attitude.

Nearly everyone else in the class defended the book on every count: the amount of sex, drinking, and vulgar dialogue; the criticism of Franco and of the guerillas; the unadorned, almost simplistic language of the book. For me, it was a murky view of the world when I was already struggling with the violence of Vietnam. Years later when I read the book a second time, I grasped its equivocal viewpoint as an asset to goad people into making thoughtful assessments of complex situations. But in college, the ambivalence left me befuddled. How was I supposed to think about a war where everyone was as bad as they were good? I was not mature enough to examine the world through a clear lens. I didn’t know how to challenge on any level but emotional context.

One thing that stood out for me with clarity was the passage written by John Donne from which Hemingway took the book’s title:

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 bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The metaphor of bells ringing at the death of each person echoed throughout the story. The idea that death was as near and prevalent as the ringing of church bells weighed on me even during my first, ambivalent reading of the book. With the then current Vietnam War played against the book’s images of the Spanish Civil War, I sensed even if I couldn’t accept Jordan’s fatalistic attitude about life and death. For Whom the Bell Tolls is not my favorite F book, nor is it my favorite Hemingway Book. (That would be The Old Man and the Sea.) But it had such a deep and profound impact on my life then and now that it’s the book I had to choose.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for F:

Fall on Your Knees by Anne-Marie MacDonald

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Ablom

Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite F fiction books.

 

Book cover image courtesy: Charles Scribner’s Sons

 

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Comments on: "F is for For Whom the Bell Tolls" (29)

  1. I wonder why it wasn’t required reading in high school. I’m surprised that my history teacher didn’t recommend it. Like you, I was a rebel during the Vietnamese War, going to rallies and demonstrations, arguing with my parents and adult relatives. Reading the book, which I still haven’t done, probably would have done me some good.

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    • We read The Old Man and the Sea in high school. Every English teacher struggles with what books to choose – there are many excellent ones and only so many can be read. We read a lot of British lit in high school. Thankfully my college professors introduced me to a much broader, more varied reading list. The British lit was outstanding but lots of books beckon to be read. I’m still trying to get through the list I created decades ago.

      A university protest in favor of three professors got me thrown out of my house. I was ready to leave anyway and certainly old enough to be on my own. Some day I may write about the experience. Do you have a favorite F book, Glynis?

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  2. I remember reading Flowers for Algernon (the short story) in 8th grade. It killed me inside.
    My high school English teacher focused on Hemingway for her master’s degree and showed me newspaper clippings from his time injured during the war. Because I read his novels in high school I think I struggled with their deeper meanings and preferred Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, but I was a huge fan of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories. His version of masculinity appealed to me (can’t remember why).

    The Frog and Toad books are the only ones that come to mind for F. Yeah, more kid books but the illustrations and beautiful friendship!

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    • Every F book on this list made an enormous impression on me for one reason or another. Flowers for Algernon left me devastated as well. Now I deal with my mom’s Alzheimer’s problems, a different foundational problem but similar effect as her ability to function rationally and thoughtfully diminishes every day. Johnny Got His Gun is another book that reamed me out. I also read it during years of the Vietnam War but had already met the man I would marry.

      The Frog and Toad books were favorites of my sons. I love well illustrated and well written kids’ books. Thanks for your thoughts, Adrienne. I always enjoy your contribution here.

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  3. I loved this Hemingway book, maybe primarily for it’s ambivalence, allowing readers to find what resonated with them.

    On a separate topic, John Donne’s poetry not only inspired Hemingway, but long before him, William Blake (1700’s). His poem “The Clod and the Pebble” carried Donne’s ‘clod’ imagery to the next step. My brother and I were both so struck by that poem, we nicknamed each other ‘Clod’ and ‘Pebble’. Guess which one was me???

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    • It was the ambivalence that threw me off. As I said, I was immature and needed surety.

      Jacqui, thanks for the info about Blake’s poem. Of course I know it, we shared it often in college, debating which one had the truest idea about love. But I had no idea John Donne’s poetry inspired Blake’s poem. How totally fitting. This may have been discussed by brighter more insightful students, but it missed my ears and my brain.

      I’m guessing you were the clod? Though it bears the less lovely moniker, it advocates the more altruistic view of love.

      Here’s one of my favorites, from William Butler Yeats: In wise love, each divines the high secret self of the other and, refusing to believe in the mere daily self, creates a mirror where the lover or the beloved sees an image to copy in daily life.

      Makes me want to aspire to nobler conduct though I most often fall far short.

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  4. I’ve never developed any affection for Hemingway’s work, but I loved Flowers for Algernon. I read it two or three times and cried every one.

    My favorite “F” book, though, is Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flag. (Is that enough F’s?) I read it after seeing the movie and, as usual, the book has so much more depth and nuance than the film.

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    • I agree with you, Ilene, Fannie Flagg has my vote all the time and I’ve read many of her books. She is always charming and captures the humor of every adventure.

      Hemingway isn’t for everyone. He has an unusual style, probably based on his experience as a journalist – spare and to the point. It’s how much he captures the essence of human behavior in simple language that many people like about his work. And he suggests a lot of meaningful symbolism that lends nuance to his work. He isn’t my all-time favorite author but I couldn’t write this list of books without reviewing one of his stories.

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  5. Powerful piece of book review.

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  6. Sharon you have described my Vietnam war perfectly except that I did not meet and fall in love with a Vietnam Vet. Those images of war were the first images of war ever that made it into our living rooms and they will be images we will not forget. Now we are bombarded with images and I fear it is making a lot of us immune to the enormity of the situations being shown, retreating from knowing about it or seeing it as something approaching normal, impacting only when it affects someone that you align with yourself. Such a sad world.
    I have not read For Whom the Bell Tolls although it has been sitting on the bookshelf for years (and is now packed in a box) but your discussion has decided me that it will certainly be read when unpacked. I am struggling to think of any F book although I’m sure that I must have read many.

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  7. My favorite F book is Fall of Giants. I adore reading historical fiction. Ken Follett had me hooked by the end of the first few pages and I’ve continued the series since finishing the first book. Honestly, I have a better understanding of world history because I was allowed to be entertained while learning.

    One day, I’ll read For Whom the Bell Tolls. I’ve read a lot about it, and I have read some Hemingway. I admit my appreciation needs tuning.

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  8. The only thing I remember from the book is a line about “the earth moving”. It was my first introduction to sex as a young teen-ager . . . I’ve been waiting for that to happen for over 50 years . . . (Correct me if it was from another Hemingway book!).

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    • Can’t correct you, don’t know, but that would be a good line, especially as it’s a comment made often about sex. Maybe Hemingway is the original voice and we should all thank him, every time the situation warrants.
      Now wait – just what have you been waiting for, for 50 years? Maybe not to be discussed on my blog. In that case, no correction possible, Judy.

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  9. it was a difficult book for me as well, almost turned me off to Hemmingway. thank goodness it didn’t, though, as am amazed by his short stories – such intelligence & feeling, so much compressed into small vivid words. old man & sea is short yet unforgettable

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    • I tend toward agreement with you, Daal. Though I struggled with the first reading, being in a college class helped me gain some perspective though I wasn’t ready to internalize the context of the book. I’m glad I gave it a second chance many years later, when my own life’s experiences grounded me and gave me more depth to comprehend it. Youth has its assets in passion, and for some an amazing ability to comprehend. Me, I needed more maturity and less sheltering to find my own lens.

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      • Sharon – sorry that I left out commenting on the first part of this post. It was my fave part! Would love to see it as a stand-alone – with pictures!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Daal, thank you for the kind comment. Adding pictures – a great idea I hadn’t thought of. I post very few pictures, partly because I almost never take any. I’m cautious about posting photos that belong or might belong to other people. Even giving credit is not always a legal right to post. Most of the images I talked about are decades old, not sure I could find them, and they are the property of the news organizations/photographers that first took and published them.

        I do want this series of favorite books to reflect their impact on me, so some are not really my absolute most favorite for that particular letter, or my favorite for that author. But these are the books that shaped my life and mirror the political and social times in which I read them.

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      • & that’s what makes your blog such a great one 🙂

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  10. I enjoyed FWTBT. But I read it relatively recently, last ten years or so. Living in Spain (and Gib) I enjoy reading classic British/American takes on Spain, especially older Spain. I liked Hemingway’s style, and there was always a brooding ominous feel to the novel. It was never going to end well. Have you read Laurie Lee’s books? Similar timescale, also includes civil war experiences (although challenged as being made up).

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    • A brooding, ominous style – that’s a perfect description of Hemingway’s style. I didn’t expect a happy ending, but everyone’s attitude was so fatalistic, the story seemed hopeless. But I may be remembering this aspect incorrectly. I should read it again to see how I feel about the book now.

      No, I’m not familiar with Laurie Lee, but will look her up. Thank you for the suggestion. And thank you for reading this post.

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      • Laurie’s a him. Cider with Rosie, which oddly, like your Hemingway experience, I read in school and loathed. Read it recently and really enjoyed it. That’s set in the UK. The next book is As I Walked Out … and that’s about his wanderings in Spain. The third is the civil war one but I’ve forgotten the name. I read them in a single volume trilogy which I thought worked well. I knew a lot of the places he went to so it resonated with me. Not as powerful as Hemingway, but a good storyteller. No brooding ominous fatalism!

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      • Thanks for correcting me about Laurie Lee. I had a feeling I should look up the author’s name before I started babbling.

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  11. I catalog my books by author’s name, so choosing a favorite book starting with F is a bit tricky. But from your list above I loved Far From The Madding Crowd (but then I love all of Hardy’s books), The French Lieutenant Woman and Fried Green Tomatoes. By author’s name, my favorite F author would probably be Antonia Fraser for her delightful historical biographies, which are non-fiction but read with the thrill of thrillers!

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