The Bell Tolls For Thee

In September, the Pharos Book Club met to discuss Ernest Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls. The book begins with an epigram from a sermon by John Donne:
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.

Hemingway's story is set in central Spain during the Spanish Civil War and follows the role of an American fighter with the International Brigades as he carries out a seemingly futile mission. In the span of three days, Robert learns of horrific atrocities committed by Loyalists, develops a close affinity with the rebel fighters assisting him, and falls in love with a young woman who was victimized by the Nationalists. Robert reflects on his reasons for fighting, and how the fighting transforms him:

It gave you a part in something that you could believe in wholly and completely and in which you felt an absolute brotherhood with those who were engaged in it [...] But the best thing was that there was something you could do about this feeling [....] You could fight.

So you fight [....] And in the fighting soon there was no purity of feeling for those who survived the fighting and were good at it.

We talked about Americans fighting on foreign soil, and about the parallels of such fighting with the current conflict in Iraq. We spoke about Robert Jordan as a Christ figure, with conspicuous references to a three-day span of the story's action like the resurrection, and of Maria washing Jordan's feet with tears and drying them with her hair, etc. We talked about hares in the story as generally being symbolic of the rebels and their vulnerability, and specifically of two hares shot copulating in the snow as foreshadowing the demise of Robert and Maria's relationship.

It was a wide-ranging discussion that also broached the background surrounding the Spanish Civil War, the rise of fascism, and the tragedy of suicide in the novel, Hemingway's life, and Hemingway's death. We talked about where the Loyalists in a Catholic nation like Spain sought solace for their consciences after renouncing the Church.

Then we returned to the epigram and its message regarding the connectedness of humanity, specifically as it relates to war. Deaths on both sides of the battle lines diminish us. Having a hand in those deaths alters and ultimately corrupts us.

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