in: Living, Podcast, Reading

• Last updated: March 13, 2024

Podcast #922: For Whom the Bell Tolls

Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, is often designated as one of the greatest books about war ever written and has appeared on the Marine Corps recommended reading list. Today on the show, I unpack For Whom the Bell Tolls with Hemingway scholar Mark Cirino. We discuss the background of the novel, its themes, and the literary techniques Hemingway employed in writing it. We end our conversation with our picks for the “one true sentence” in the book.

Resources Related to the Podcast

Connect With Mark Cirino

Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)

Apple Podcast.



Listen to the episode on a separate page.

Download this episode.

Subscribe to the podcast in the media player of your choice.

Podcast Sponsors

Click here to see a full list of our podcast sponsors.

Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is often designated as one of the greatest books about war ever written, and has appeared in the Marine Corps’ recommended reading list. Today on the show I unpack, For Whom the Bell Tolls, with Hemingway scholar, Mark Cirino. We discuss the background of the novel, its themes, and the literary techniques Hemingway employed in writing it. We end our conversation with our picks for the one true sentence in the book. After show is over, check at our show notes at and just a heads up, we do talk about some spoilers with the plot in a general way, we’ll let you know the point in the show to stop listening if you don’t wanna hear them.

Alright. Mark Cirino, welcome back to the show.

Mark Cirino: Hi, Brett, thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: So we had you on last year to talk about Ernest Hemingway, you are an Ernest Hemingway scholar, you’ve written several books about him, you have a podcast all about Ernest Hemingway and his work. I wanted to bring you back on the podcast, to talk about one of my favorite Ernest Hemingway books, it’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. This is often listed as one of the greatest war novels ever written. I know it was the late Senator John McCain’s favorite novel. I’m curious, let’s talk about this. Hemingway wrote this book in 1940, so this was about 14 years after he wrote, The Sun Also Rises, about 10 years after he wrote, A Farewell to Arms. How was Hemingway different from when he wrote those early novels, like who was Ernest Hemingway when he published, For Whom the Bell Tolls, in 1940?

Mark Cirino: Yeah, that’s a great question. So in addition to this being a wonderful novel in and of itself, For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1940 was something of a vindication or an act of redemption for Hemingway, as you mentioned, Brett, Hemingway’s reputation was really launched between 1925 and 1929, those five years, with two really great books of short stories, In Our Time, and Men Without Women, and two iconic novels, The Sun Also Rises in 1926 and A Farewell to Arms in 1929. And so the American 1930s were also Hemingway’s 1930s, which you would think would be the prime of his career, just as it is the prime of his life, but he really only wrote one very poor novel, which is called To Have and Have Not, and some non-fiction pieces in uneven book of short stories. So there were people who considered Hemingway washed up past his prime, so when 1940 comes and For Whom the Bell Tolls comes out, it’s almost like Hemingway’s back, it’s his great come back. And I would only add just parenthetically that the next great book that Hemingway writes is The Old Man and the Sea, which is 12 years later. So if we’re thinking of Hemingway as this iconic American novelist, he does go quite a long time in-between his major works.

Brett McKay: Why did he go so far between his major works, what was going on in his life or his writing career?

Mark Cirino: So I think in the ’30s, he had a lot of distractions. First of all, his personal life, it was conducive to adventure and to experience, he wrote a treatise on bull fighting in 1932, he wrote a chronicle of his Safari called Green Hills of Africa in 1935, and as your listeners would understand, the 1930s in America was really calling for a writer to respond to what was going on at the time, the social and political unrest, the depression. This was something that John Steinbeck responded to, this was something that William Faulkner responded to, Hemingway was off doing his own thing. So a perfect example is For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway spends the last few years in Spain covering the Spanish Civil War as a journalist. He writes a bad play about it, he writes a documentary about it, and of course, he yields this wonderful novel. So I would say that his lifestyle was given to experience that lent itself to writing, but could also take away from it.

Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s dig into For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is set in the Spanish Civil War. This was a very complex complicated conflict, but big picture, what was the Spanish civil War about? And then what was Hemingway’s connection to it.

Mark Cirino: Okay, so the Spanish Civil war was fought between 1936 and 1939, and the adversaries were the nationalists against the Republicans. The Nationalists were fascists, and the Republicans were made up of various factions, including socialists and Communists. The Nationalists were led by Francisco Franco who had attempted a military coup in 1936, so the Spanish civil war was essentially an extension of this plot to seize power. Another way we can think about this is that the Republicans were supported by the Soviet Union, and the Nationalists were supported by Germany. And if you just look at Spain on the map, you’ll see why those countries and the rest of the world had such a vested interest in the outcome of the Civil War.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. Okay, so a lot of people call the Spanish civil war sort of a precursor, a dress rehearsal for World War II because you have…

Mark Cirino: Exactly.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you have Germany, the fascists there. And then you had the Soviet Union involved as well. And yeah, the Spanish Civil War, the outcome was the Nationalists won, and that set up General Franco’s rule from, I guess, the 1930s until 1975, was that when it ended.

Mark Cirino: That is exactly right. And so, Hemingway is chronicling the Spanish Civil War, which is what he sees as a noble battle that was lost. Let’s keep in mind that Hemingway began writing the novel. So the Spanish Civil War was 1936 to 1939, Hemingway begins For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1939 as the war is still going on. He went there because he loved Spain, he first visited Spain in 1923 at the behest of Gertrude Stein, mainly because of the bull fights, but he loved the Spanish people, he loved the countryside and nature in Spain, the fishing, the bull fights, the culture, so that when Spain was being torn apart by the Spanish Civil War, he was personally invested in it, he really had his heart in this battle.

Now, if I can Brett, I just wanna say two quick things about that, so when you have a writer who really believes in one side, depicting the war, this is really dangerous terrain for art, propaganda, one-sided-ness rarely leads to excellent art. So one of the things you’ll find in For Whom the Bell Tolls is a concerted effort on Hemingway’s part to present both sides, and I don’t really mean both sides in terms of, “Hey, maybe fascism is a really good thing.” No, what he’s really suggesting is that there are human beings on both sides, and that there are flawed human beings on our side, and there are flawed human beings on the other side, and so he’s pretty concentrated about that.

Brett McKay: So something about Hemingway’s work is, a lot of his novels are autobiographical, so The Sun Also Rises, famously autobiographical, we did a podcast about that novel. To what extent is For Whom the Bell Tolls autobiographical?

Mark Cirino: It’s autobiographical in some really interesting ways. So for me, my favorite aspect of Hemingway’s autobiography that appears in For Whom the Bell Tolls are the few mentions that Robert Jordan, the protagonist of For Whom the Bell Tolls, has of his family. So Hemingway’s father committed suicide in 1928, and the same thing happens with Robert Jordan’s father. He comments about his father being a coward for killing himself, in fact, going as far as to say that Robert Jordan’s mother bullied his father into suicide, which are the same accusations that Hemingway has of his own father. And furthermore, Robert Jordan’s grandfather was a civil war hero, as was Hemingway’s. And so Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls is saying, “I wonder if courage skips a generation, maybe if it went from my grandfather right to me.” And then we see the scene or the memory, where Robert Jordan throws the pistol that his father used off a cliff into the lake in Montana, which is the same thing that Hemingway does. I would also add that Robert Jordan is from Montana, he’s a Spanish professor from Montana. Hemingway loved the American West. To Hemingway The American West was essentially Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, and he ended up dying in Idaho where he had a house.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I thought that was interesting. Another sort of autobiographical thing I saw in the Robert Jordan character, there’s this moment where Robert Jordan’s talking about, “I’m in this fight but when I get back, I’m gonna write the best book ever about this.” And that’s what Hemingway did.

Mark Cirino: That’s exact. So that is a little cheeky, isn’t it Brett?

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Mark Cirino: A little self-referential. He’s like somebody’s gotta write the really great book about this war. So yes, Hemingway challenged himself to write the great book of the Spanish Civil War and I think he probably succeeded. Robert Jordan has those same ambitions.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk more about Robert Jordan. So he’s an American who goes to Spain to fight on the Republican side, falls in love with this woman named Maria, and when Robert Jordan initially goes to Spain to fight, he goes with these high political ideals, but then throughout the story, his reasons for fighting change. Why do people seem to respond to this protagonist so powerfully, I think John McCain. You did an interview with John McCain’s speechwriter and assistant.

Mark Cirino: Yes.

Brett McKay: And he talked about how John McCain would say Robert Jordan is as real to me as any other living real human being. So what is it about this Robert Jordan character that people respond so viscerally to?

Mark Cirino: Yeah, that’s extraordinary. And you see really people across the political spectrum respond to this guy. Mark Salter was the guest of our One True Podcast, who talked about John McCain’s lifelong devotion to this book, and I think the title of John McCain’s documentary is Worth the Fighting For, which is from For Whom the Bell Tolls. Well, I think with Robert Jordan, he’s become synonymous with an individual who puts a cause and other people above himself, in the most simplistic terms, that is what he has come to embody. As you know, Brett, the novel is much more complex than that, and it’s not as heroic or as easy as that, but in basic terms, that is what he did, he had a fine life as a Spanish teacher in Montana, and he put himself in danger, essentially giving up his freedom and his life, for other people and that is something that is the definition of heroism for many people.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you see that throughout the novel, these internal dialogues that Robert Jordan has, he’s just talking about duty, I’ve got this duty, I gotta do this thing. And he’s always kind of steeling himself up to fulfill this task which is blowing up this bridge, says, “I gotta do it, no matter what.”

Mark Cirino: That’s exactly right. So that’s his charge, he has to blow up a bridge to prevent a counter-offensive from the fascists, he knows that that’s his job. But meanwhile, human emotions get in the way, and he comes to like this band of gorillas that he is associated with, but of course, he comes to love Maria. And sort of the micro-effect of putting your life in service of a group of people is also putting your life in the service of one other person in a relationship, in love or romantic relationship. So one of the things that Robert Jordan discovers through his love of Maria is that he himself, with another person could be everything, it’s a direct quote from the novel, he himself with another person could be everything. It takes him a long time to learn it. He learns it it takes some entire novel and a few catastrophes to learn it, but that is something that he learned and that really does seem to resonate with a lot of readers.

Brett McKay: Yeah I thought that was interesting, the transformation of Robert Jordan, so in the beginning of the novel, he’s talking about the duty to this abstract cause, freedom, republicanism. And that’s still there at the end, but towards the end, as you said, he learned to love this group that he was with, and he learned to love Maria and he says, “I’m not just doing it for this abstract ideal, I’m doing this for these individual people as well.”

Mark Cirino: Yes.

Brett McKay: Here’s a question I have, as I was reading the novel, I noticed that Hemingway, whenever he referred to Robert Jordan, he always used his full name, it was always Robert Jordan said this, and Robert Jordan said that. A lot of the other characters, they just got their first name Maria or Pilar. Why did Hemingway do that? Is there a reason he did that you think?

Mark Cirino: Did you find that distracting or did you like that technique?

Brett McKay: I didn’t find it distracting, I just thought it was interesting ’cause a lot of other novels you read, they’ll say the character’s full name at the beginning, and then after a while, it’s like, well, it’s just Robert, I know who you’re talking about. Like Hemingway, you can tell his was conscious, he decided when, “I talk about Robert Jordan, I’m gonna use his full name.”

Mark Cirino: So all I can tell you is the effect that it has. I don’t know, Hemingway never said, “This is why I’m doing this.” One way is it seems to add some kind of a grandeur to it, Robert Jordan, Robert Jordan, or there’s sort of something rhythmic to it, it kind of reminds us of the River Jordan, that’s how it seems to me. To me, being a 21st century reader, it reminds me a lot of saying, Charlie Brown. Nobody ever says Charlie or Brown, they always say Charlie Brown. And so I’m not sure that, I think Hemingway does, maybe we’ll talk about this at some point, that Hemingway does do a lot of techniques in this novel that are kind of showy, and to me, that constant thing of Robert Jordan is a little bit, calls attention to itself.

Brett McKay: I think it does, but I think you’re right, it makes Robert Jordan this almost mythical figure. He’s like John Brown.

Mark Cirino: Yes. Right. You wouldn’t call him John.

Brett McKay: You don’t just call him John, no, he’s John Brown, or you don’t say George, it’s George Washington.

Mark Cirino: That’s a great point. For some reason, my mind went to a comic strip and yours went to American history, so take of that what you will, but no, no, that’s a good point.

Brett McKay: So we’ve been taken out some of the themes in the novel, this idea of duty, fighting for people you love, what are some other themes in the novel and are they typical of Hemingway novels?

Mark Cirino: I think the most typical of Hemingway is he wanted to examine how man’s mind functioned at war, and he also wanted to examine how your relationship, let’s say a romantic relationship, can intensify during the urgency or crisis of war. So this is true in A Farewell to Arms, this is true in For Whom the Bell Tolls, also in a later novel called Across the River and into the Trees. When you know you only have a finite number of days left, how does that change the way you have a relationship? All the rules go out the window. And one of the things that Robert Jordan says out loud is, can you live your whole life in three days if you do it with this kind of intensity? So Hemingway’s depiction of men at war was absolutely consistent with what is Hemingway-esque.

I would also point to the title, For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is taken from John Donne, and what that title alludes to is we’re all connected, all of humanity is connected, ask not for whom the bell tolls? It Tolls for thee. When something bad happens to one person, when one person dies, when something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us, not just the people of our ethnicity or who are on our side, it happens to all of humanity. And so Hemingway, even though he’s depicting a man on one side in a war, is also experimenting with the notion of For Whom the Bell Tolls and that level of connection.

Brett McKay: Another thing that I saw, and we discussed this in our last conversation, that you see in a lot of Hemingway’s work, and in fact, you wrote a book about it, Hemingway: Thought in Action.

Mark Cirino: Yes.

Brett McKay: How Hemingway oftentimes he’s seen as sort of this he-man who’s just focused on action, but in the action, you actually see a lot of introspection. And you see this a lot in the character of Robert Jordan, a lot of the scenes are him just talking about, Robert, you gotta stay focused, do this thing, you gotta get the wires right for this bridge. And then there’s a short story, I think we talked about last time, where the guy is building a camp and he’s…

Mark Cirino: Yeah, Big Two-Hearted River, right?

Brett McKay: Yeah. Some of those scenes in For Whom the Bell Tolls reminded me of that short story.

Mark Cirino: Well, your point is really essential because what is the plot of this novel? The plot is man has to go blow bridge. How short do you think this novel could have been if all it was was the action of what Robert Jordan had to do? But you’re exactly right, what we get treated to are the thoughts and then the thoughts about his thoughts, the metacognition, and Robert Jordan is showing doubt, he’s weighing different sides of things, he’s engaging with his memory and his emotions, his fears. So, absolutely, if Robert Jordan were not a thoughtful person, this would be one of the most boring books ever. All it would be was, oh, I wonder if the bridge is gonna get blown or not. There’s a line really early in the book where he is thinking about the people that he’s meeting, and then he says, “You’re not a thinker, you’re a bridge blower. You’re not a thinker, you’re a bridge blower.” So he’s telling himself that his consciousness, his introspection, as you say, are not just extraneous, irrelevant, they’re unhelpful.

It’s almost as if he wishes he were a robot or an automaton or a he-man, “I will go blow bridge and I won’t have any thoughts about it,” but he’s not, so he’s wrestling with those two things. In fact, he spends the entire novel wrestling. Last episode where you and I talked about Hemingway more generally, we talked about the Iceberg Theory. And the Iceberg Theory, I think, is turned upside down in this novel. So the Iceberg Theory normally means Hemingway gives you one-eighth of the information, the knowledge, the emotions, the facts, and you have to interpret, deduce the rest. I don’t think that’s the case in this novel, I think he turns it upside down, he gives you everything that’s on Robert Jordan’s mind, page after page, and some people like it and some people they prefer the earlier style.

Brett McKay: No, I actually, I think it’s one of the reasons why I like For Whom The Bell Tolls so much, is this metacognition, you see Robert Jordan thinking about his thinking and thinking about his thoughts. ‘Cause I think everyone experiences that, when they’re going through something, they’re not blowing up a bridge, but something stressful. We talk to ourselves and we say things like, “Man, snap out of it, you gotta stay focused on what you’re doing and quit thinking and quit worrying about this, this is not doing any good. I think that’s one of the reasons why Robert Jordan is so relatable. Of course, most people aren’t in extreme situations like the character Robert Jordan, but we’ve all experienced that, and that’s probably why it’s considered one of the Great War novels, like why a lot of soldiers relate to the novel, ’cause I’m sure they have the exact same thoughts as Robert Jordan.

Mark Cirino: So Hemingway once said, “The worst thing that a soldier can have is imagination, but it’s the most important thing that a writer must have.” And then right there, that is the tension, right there. You’re absolutely right. And what I would just direct your attention to, and I read, I don’t know how you feel about spoilers…

Brett McKay: No, yeah, go ahead and do spoilers. We’ll give the spoiler alert before the show starts.

Mark Cirino: Oh, okay. If you look at the last, see, I’ll talk about it in general terms, look at the last two pages. So really what we’re thinking of, it’s the last 15, 20 pages when we’re not sure if the bridge is gonna get blown or not. It’s exhilarating and inevitable, it’s such a wonderful last sequence of a novel. But the reason it’s so protracted is that Hemingway is letting us into Robert Jordan’s thoughts and then his thoughts about his thoughts, so he’s coaching himself and I’ll read just a few sentences, “Think about them being away,” he said, “think about them going through the timber, think about them crossing a creek, think about them riding through the heather, think about them going up the slope, think about them okay to… ” So this is almost ridiculous, he’s thinking about what he should be thinking about, and that’s essentially how the book ends.

Brett McKay: Yeah. No the ending is really, it’s… I think the first time I read it, I was like, “That’s it?” But then it sits with you for a while, you think about it afterwards, like, “Oh, actually, that’s actually a really great way to end that novel.”

Mark Cirino: So I think we could have talked about this when we talked about other themes, but now that we’re talking about the ending, maybe one of Hemingway’s most famous notions is grace under pressure, and Robert Jordan does exhibit grace under pressure in that. So he has to blow the bridge, and this rascal in his gang, Pablo ends up absconding with the explosives. So when they get the explosives back, they don’t have the detonators, they don’t have exactly what he needs, so he has to sort of do a make-shift device. And then when he’s wounded at the end of the novel, he has to either quit or behave with honor and help his team anyway, help his side anyway. And so it’s really Robert Jordan exhibiting grace under pressure under all of these doomed circumstances that are really a quintessentially Hemingway-esque theme.

Brett McKay: Yeah, the scene where Pablo runs off with the explosives, I think it’s a great example, one of my favorites of Hemingway using this metacognition. ‘Cause once Robert Jordan figures out that Pablo ran off, he gets really angry, like super angry, and he’s saying… Hemingway used the word muck, I imagine even then he’s probably substituting that for the F-word. He was like, “Muck this guy, muck the Spanish people, muck POR.” Like muck, muck, muck, muck. And then he said, “Robert, get a hold of yourself. You can’t get angry, anger is a… ” He basically calls it, it’s a luxury that you can’t afford and you have to just… This is the new situation you find yourself in. Yeah, Robert Jordan exhibited that grace under pressure and he improvises. And I find that really admirable ’cause I think everyone’s encountered that experience where someone does something really stupid, just mucks up all your plans and you wanna get angry, but you realize getting angry is not gonna do anything, you just have to face the situation you have now and act accordingly.

Mark Cirino: He’s filtering everything through, what is gonna help me blow the bridge, what is my duty? What is my objective? And he has to stay so disciplined, and of course, Hemingway being a good novelist gives a lot of distractions and a lot of impediments, Robert Jordan deals with those impediments admirably.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. So we’ve mentioned this metacognition idea, so this is an innovation or narrative technique that Hemingway uses. He also did the reverse Iceberg Theory, so typically in a Hemingway novel, he would just say this one line and then leave everything else out and it was left to the reader to figure out what that meant. And For Whom the Bell Tolls, he actually just no, here’s what this means. You get to see the protagonist’s thoughts. Any other narrative or narrative innovations Hemingway used in For Whom the Bell Tolls?

Mark Cirino: So, maybe the most conspicuous one, and I’d love to hear how this landed for you Brett. So as in The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea and Across the River and Into the Trees, Hemingway’s setting his novel in another country. And so he had to convey the language, everybody is speaking Spanish, and so what Hemingway does, I haven’t seen quite done in this way before. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway kind of pre-translates Spanish into English. So he is saying, “The woman of Pablo,” and is it’s what? And so, in other words, he’s using the Spanish phrase and translating it literally into English, which gives it a kind of a stilted effect, it almost sounds like, let’s say a Spanish person who has recently learned English and is using some foreign syntax or foreign vocabulary, and you can totally understand what they’re saying. But you can also identify them as a non-native speaker. And so Hemingway, my addition of the novel is 471 pages, he does this literally for 471 pages. Robert Jordan does not speak to another American during the course of the novel, so was that distracting or were you charmed by that technique?

Brett McKay: No. It was interesting, so I noticed that as well. And when he did the translation, he would use thou, because in Spanish to, in the informal is actually thou. It’s formal in English, but it’s informal in Spanish. And so whenever the Spanish people be talking to each other, they’d be like, “Thou, thou, thou, thee.” And it is interesting, it reminded me, as I was reading the English translation then the Spanish, it reminded me of Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy, when he would have Spanish speaker speak Spanish, he just like, “I’m just having speak in Spanish, and you have to figure it out.”

Mark Cirino: Exactly.

Brett McKay: Hemingway didn’t do that. Actually I found Hemingway’s, I actually like that. I know Spanish, and so McCarthy novel doesn’t bother me when they’re just Spanish there, but I actually liked how Hemingway incorporated the English as well.

Mark Cirino: One of the guests that we’ve had on One True Podcast is Ilan Stavans, who is a Mexican scholar. And we talked about that exact thing about Cormac McCarthy. And Cormac McCarthy, he’ll go a page or two, they’re just talking, they’re just speaking Spanish. And since I don’t speak Spanish, it’s like I’m in a room with two people speaking Spanish, I try to pick up what I can, and McCarthy must have been totally comfortable with that effect. And Hemingway wants to give a slightly different effect, well, I don’t want them speaking Spanish for 471 pages, otherwise you won’t get anything. So I will give you a sense of foreignness without completely alienating you. It’s great to see that these two writers are just having different techniques. It’s kind of like watching an old movie, and you see the two Nazis talking in kind of the weird accent. It’s like it’s not quite a German accent, they’re speaking English, but just in a wacky way that conveys foreignness. It kind of subconsciously reminds you that we’re not in America and we’re not speaking English. In fact, the nickname that they have for Jordan is Ingles. Just to note that he is not a native speaker.

Brett McKay: Any other? Oh go ahead.

Mark Cirino: Yeah, no, no. I anticipated that you were gonna ask if there’s any other techniques. The only other one I wanted to mention, and it is kind of an important one, is narrative perspective. So narrative perspective simply means, who is telling the story and what is that person’s relationship to the story, emotionally, time and space? How is that person related? And so in Hemingway’s first two great novels, it was a first person narrator, and so that person controlled the entire story. In For Whom The Bell Tolls, it is a third-person narrator. So Hemingway when he started writing For Whom The Bell Tolls, he started writing it in the first person and then he changed it to third person. And the benefit of that for Hemingway, and even though Hemingway during the writing of this novel said, “I don’t like writing like God. I don’t like being omniscient.” But in this case, he was.

And we have several moments in the novel, especially towards the end, where we’re following an entirely different character during a scene where Robert Jordan would not be present, would not have been able to witness what was going on, in fact, one of the most famous scenes is El Sordo’s last stand. This is the scene that gave Metallica the inspiration for For Whom The Bell Tolls, that song. Well, it’s a very famous set piece, Robert Jordan is not present. And then the other thing towards the end, one of the big tensions in the plot is will this guy, Andres, be able to deliver a message to the general which will call off the attack? Will he be able to get through the bureaucracy and through the Republican lines? And we follow Andres, we leave Robert Jordan entirely, and that is a kind of comfort that Hemingway did not have in his first two novels where he clung to the first person.

Brett McKay: Yeah, this reminded me… Writing the third person reminded me of, we had a podcast guest and we talked about Jane Austen. And then Jane Austen, whatever innovations was free indirect style. So you narrate the third person, but the narration is sort of percolated through the consciousness of one of the characters. And so this happens too with For Whom The Bell Tolls. Hemingway is using free indirect style. Whenever you see the narration in third person going on for Robert Jordan, it’s coming through Robert Jordan’s eyes and all his fears and preoccupations.

Mark Cirino: That’s exactly right. And then we’ll get to a moment where he’ll say, Oh, this character did not know that then, or would come to know this, so you’re sort of plotting their consciousness and their knowledge through time. So it’s a little bit more of a complex thing, this is a sprawling war as we were saying at the beginning, it’s very complex. And Hemingway must have found it beneficial to be able to investigate and enter into the motives and consciousness of various characters.

Brett McKay: Okay, so literary techniques, narrative styles, use the reverse Iceberg Theory, the metacognition, that’s my favorite part, that’s what makes this novel so gripping, for me at least, and so appealing. Using the Spanish mixed with English, and then the third person in different type of free indirect style. There’s all sorts of famous episodes in this novel, episodes of violence, graphic depictions of violence. The one that stood out to me was Pilar. So she’s one of these gorilla warriors, and Hemingway has her recount this execution of fascist in her, I guess is her hometown. Is there any significance to the fact that Hemingway had a female character recount this story of violence?

Mark Cirino: Yeah. I think that’s extraordinary that she’s essentially the leader of their gang. And when Robert Jordan comes and presents the mission, “I’m here as an outsider, and we have to blow this bridge, which is going to be amazingly dangerous.” If Pilar had overruled it, they wouldn’t have done it. Jordan would have had to find other people to do it. So Pilar is sort of… She finds herself, she believes in Robert Jordan and she’s aligned with him, and she is a strategist. So in many ways, she is protecting the rest of the cast of characters that we’ve come to know. So whenever Hemingway is derided for some of his female characters and there’s certainly… We can have that debate and go on a case by case basis. Pilar is a woman of great strength, of enormous heart, and so she’s just a wonderful character.

I don’t know who that would make people think of. The way she’s described it almost is like Hemingway is describing either Gertrude Stein, or his own mother. If you just look at her physical description, that actually resonates those two very powerful figures in Hemingway’s life that he would have a sort of a love-hate relationship with. There’s also the figure of La Pasionaria, who was a female kind of rabble rouser, somebody who galvanized the Republic during the Spanish Civil War, and Pilar might be emblematic of a figure like that. So she’s essential to this novel.

Brett McKay: Yeah, she’s one of my favorite characters. I like her a lot.

Mark Cirino: And so, Brett, the moment that you’re talking about is also, maybe we can talk about it for just a minute, the episode that she’s describing is the way that the republic in a small town, which is not mentioned over throws the fascist control of that town. And the way they do it is essentially by massacring the town leaders, including the religious officials. So I guess one of the motivations for the Spanish Civil war is that the workers of Spain, the disparity between the owners and the laborers was so egregious that this motivated this kind of dispute. And so when the workers, the peasants are trying to overthrow the fascists, and Pilar is recounting this anecdote in painstaking detail. These guys go through a gauntlet where they’re essentially stabbing them with pitch forks, shooting them, tossing them off cliffs, and it’s really being described in painstaking detail that really impresses Robert Jordan, he’s really learning about the brutal nature.

In fact, and just to extend the point, Hemingway is not shying away with talking about the brutal nature of Republican tactics. So I think that’s an important advancement of this novel, that he’s not suggesting that everyone on my side is noble and pure and everybody on the other side is evil. When he talks about this episode that Pilar is telling about the massacre of the fascists, you can gain sympathy for the people who oppressed all of the townspeople. It’s a very slippery presentation of this moment.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I thought it was interesting how Pilar described it. I think Hemingway did a great job of capturing how violence can be. At the beginning of this massacre, the townspeople weren’t really into it, they were kind of like, oh, you know, I don’t feel good throwing this guy off a cliff and stabbing him. But then he said there reached a moment where it all turned. The crowd mentality took over and no one had a problem with it. It just became, it wasn’t like individuals doing this, it was just like this new crowd entity that was doing this. And so it dispersed accountability.

Mark Cirino: It’s mob mentality and they were drunk and they were laughing. And so Pilar is really disquieted by this. I mean, she’s obviously, nobody needs to say, she’s obviously on the side of overthrowing the fascists so that the town can get liberty back. But on the other hand, she’s saying it’s making me sick to my stomach. And you know, Brett, you’ll remember that Robert Jordan has these discussions with other characters in the novel, it’s like, “How do you feel about killing people? How does it make you feel even if it’s the enemy?” And some people would say, “I love it.” And other people don’t think about it, and then other people, it tortures their conscience to do things like that. So Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls, really does capture that kind of complexity.

Brett McKay: And I also think he did a good job of describing how in war there are some people who aren’t fighting or doing violence for any ideals, they’re just doing violence ’cause they like violence. There’s a lot of people, a lot of these peasants, they were anarchists basically. They didn’t care about the Republican cause, they were just glad they got to do some stuff for a while and get away with it.

Mark Cirino: That’s exactly right. Yep.

Brett McKay: And these scenes of violence, this is connected to Hemingway’s aesthetic of witnessing violence, what is that?

Mark Cirino: Yeah, I think this is, to me one of the most important career long challenges that Hemingway gave himself. So in Death in the Afternoon, which is that bullfighting treatise I was talking about earlier, he said, “I wanted to go to the bull fights because I wanted to look at death, I wanted to look at violence and challenge myself not to turn away. No writer can turn away from violence that you have to look at the world in all of its gruesome horror.” And that may sound a little bit over the top, but that was Hemingway. And so one of the things that emerges from Pilar’s scene, and there are other examples too, is Pilar is always careful to talk about what she saw, what she tried to see, and couldn’t see, what was kept from her view. And so she actually talks about standing on a chair so she could look through the window and see other people being executed. It’s almost like she wants to bear witness, she wants to take that responsibility.

One of the great examples of this and oh, and before, I want to mention one aspect of this in Hemingway’s life, but, just one final point about that episode. Robert Jordan, for his own part, tells a story about when he is a child. And apparently there was some kind of a racial lynching. And Robert Jordan was a little kid and wanted to see it, and his mother pulled him away from the window, pulled him away from it. He says, “So I saw no more.” But it shows that, that his instinct was there, he wanted to see it, he had the curiosity, he didn’t want to turn his eyes at violence. And just to punctuate this idea on his posthumous novel, the Garden of Eden, there is an unbelievable unpublished sentence that says, “I’ve been to the Boulevard Arago at 5:00 AM and I’ve heard the thud.”

And I love that sentence because, so the Boulevard Arago was where they had the public guillotine in France, in Paris. And for Hemingway to say that he went there at 5:00 AM obviously, he went there intentionally, that he sought out a public execution. He wanted to see it happen, that he wasn’t, he’s like, I’ll just absorb the good things in life or the pleasant things. If he wanted to be a real writer, a war writer, somebody who told the truth, a realist, you have to observe the world in all of its unpleasantness and all of its horror.

Brett McKay: Okay, so the killing of the fascist, great scene of this aesthetic of witnessing violence.

Mark Cirino: Yes.

Brett McKay: Talk about one of my other favorite scenes, just Robert Jordan prepping to blow up the bridge and actually blowing it up. It’s just so gripping, once you get to that point, you can’t put the book down. You want to keep reading ’cause you get to see Robert Jordan’s thoughts as he’s doing this high stress thing. It just becomes instantly relatable on the way Hemingway uses that metacognition to describe it. I’m curious, are there good guys and bad guys in this novel? Like what’s the moral code in For Whom the Bell Tolls?

Mark Cirino: So, I don’t want to equivocate, Brett, I want to answer this in two ways though. Of course there are good guys and bad guys and a fascist is never gonna be a good guy and we’re always gonna root against them. The second, the other hand is that there is humanity in both of them. He’s not presenting one as a monster and the other people as angelic. It’s helpful to remind ourselves that the bad guys think they’re good guys and the bad guys think the good guys are bad guys. So it’s moral subjectivity, a bad guy doesn’t wake up in the morning and say, “I’m gonna go do bad things,” he thinks he’s doing good things. I think most of the time that is the case. And so people on the other side of the war, on the other side of the line, are fighting for something that they believe in, just like you are. And you have every right to call that evil and despicable. But there is a humanity to it. And a great example, and this is the reason why I believe For Whom the Bell Tolls kind of transcends any kind of a propaganda or didactic book. Do you remember that moment where Robert Jordan and Maria, they wake up in the morning and there’s a cavalry man that Robert Jordan has to kill.

Brett McKay: Right.

Mark Cirino: So, okay, good. He killed one of the bad guys, right? We’re all happy that he killed one of the bad guys. And maybe 30 pages later, I’m guessing, he goes through the letters and the material from this dead cavalry man’s body and he learns about him, and he learns about his family, and who he was, and what town he’s from. And that extra step reminds Robert Jordan that he’s just killed a person. Of course he’s done his job, he did a really good thing, he’s saved his friends, but he killed somebody else’s friend, who was doing his job. There’s a great, sentence in this novel, “There’s no one thing that’s true. There’s no one thing that’s true. It’s all true. You don’t own the only truth and what the other person holds to be true is not false necessarily.” That we have this, life is a lot more complex than that and even war is more complex than that.

Brett McKay: So Hemingway had this idea of writing one true sentence. In fact, your podcast is called One True Podcast.

Mark Cirino: That’s right. Yeah.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And You asked your guest, what’s your favorite one true sentence from Hemingway? What do you think was Hemingway’s one true sentence in For Whom the Bell Tolls?

Mark Cirino: Okay. So mine is in chapter 42. So I think there’s only 43 chapters in this novel, and I find this to be one of the most beautiful moments. So please allow me to read from chapter 42, “In their steel helmets, riding in the trucks in the dark towards something that they only knew was an attack, their faces were drawn with each man’s own problem in the dark and the light revealed them as they would not have looked in day from shame to show it to each other until the bombardment and the attack would commence, and no man would think about his face.” Now I wonder, taken out of context how many people would identify that as a Hemingway sentence, because it is so long and so detailed and complex, but is also so insightful into the psychology of the man at war. What I love about this is their faces were drawn with each man’s own problem. It’s almost like you can look at somebody, you can look at a group of people and you can see that they’re concerned, you can see that they’re worried or even scared, but then you go the next step and say they’re all scared in a separate individual way. I find that so incredible. So that is my choice for the sentence that rings truest in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Brett McKay: Okay. So mine was, and this actually, this was, John McCain’s favorite sentence.

Mark Cirino: Oh, great.

Brett McKay: “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.” I like that sentence ’cause it reminded me of another one of my other favorite sentences and another one of my favorite novels, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. The character there Augustus McCrae, he says, “It’s a fine world, though rich in hardships at times.” I just like that idea. I love the idea that the world can suck sometimes.

Mark Cirino: Yep.

Brett McKay: But even though it can be terrible, it’s still, I don’t regret being here, I love it. I think it’s fantastic, and you have to embrace, like you said, there’s no one true thing, you have to embrace all of it. And I just like that idea that Robert Jordan conveys.

Mark Cirino: I love that. And Mark Salter is in our book, One True Sentence, and that’s the sentence that he chose, it’s the world is a fine place and and worth the fighting for. And yeah. And Gus in Lonesome Dove has that sort of world weary, but sort of a broader acceptance to it. And I think that it is a great philosophy. I also want to kind of juxtapose that with A Farewell to Arms where Frederick Henry is the protagonist and why did he get into the war? He’s like, “I don’t know. I was in Italy, I spoke Italian, why not?” He kind of like stumbled into the war. And meanwhile you have Robert Jordan saying, “Blowing this bridge is the pivot point of the rest of the world. The whole world will depend on the successful execution of this action.” So the commitment to a cause, and there’s that episode where he’s saying being part of something bigger than yourself is like being a short cathedral, it’s, seeing great art. It’s these moments of transcendence when you give yourself, when your life gets enriched because you’re giving yourself to something greater than just yourself. And I think that’s what McCain was getting at and that quote really does exemplify that.

Brett McKay: Well, Mark, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?

Mark Cirino: Well, the first wave of One True Sentence choices and episodes is in a book called One True Sentence Writers and Readers on Hemingway’s Art. And Mark Salter is in there discussing that McCain quote. So I would urge, that book if you’re interested at all in Hemingway, and our podcast is One True Podcast, which is available anywhere you get your podcasts.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Mark Cirino, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Mark Cirino: Brett, always a pleasure.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Mark Cirino. He’s a Hemingway scholar and the author of multiple books on Hemingway. His latest book that he edited is One True Sentence Writers and Readers on Hemingway’s Art, it’s available on Also, check out his podcast, One True podcast available on all podcast platforms and check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Make sure to check out our website at where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support and until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

Related Posts