As we go into the week ahead when For whom the bell tolls will be read I’d like to set the scene after the first four chapters. The main character is an American called Robert Jordan who is fighting against Franco’s fascist forces with orders to blow up a bridge. We start the story with an American volunteer in the Spanish Civil War being ordered by general Golz to blow the bridge and then his scouting of the bridge and the rebel base in the company of an old man, Anselmo.
Bullet points between pages 1-59
*Jordan has to blow up a bridge
*The group Jordan has to work with are led by someone against the plan, a man named Pablo, but the others are generally supportive.
*Pablo has an argument with his wife where she calls him a coward and takes the dominant role
*The group Jordan is sent to work with have had previous experience of an American explosives expert Kashkin who seemed to have lost his nerve after his mission to blow up a train and later died
*Jordan meets Maria, a prisoner who was released in the train explosion the group was involved with and he is attracted to her and the feeling is mutual.
At the end of chapter 4 Hemingway has built up the tension about the mission, the group dynamics and the chances of success against the fascist forces. You don’t know if the bridge will be blown or if it will but the group will be killed. Maybe Pablo will try to stop him and will he end up disappearing after the mission with Maria?
A great book should ask the reader questions and get you excited about when you next open the pages. So far Hemingway is living up to his reputation and the painting of the scene is excellent and the characterisation is good. My one complaint would be that unless you had some basic historical knowledge about the Spanish Civil War you would struggle to understand fully what the context of the story was. Some of the language – the use of Thou in particular – is obviously of the time and maybe hasn’t aged well.
But he may put some historical background in later on let’s see what comes in the next 100 pages tomorrow…