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