The Human Connection in For Whom the Bell Tolls

There is something mildly perverse about love at first sight. In one glance, the whole of human experience must be felt. In one glance, the lovers must see parts of themselves unfulfilled, fragments of their future that must be righted, bits of their world that need to be completed. First-sight love – extolled by poets as an emotional apotheosis, denounced by cynics as rubbish, idealized by teenage girls with bubblegum mouths and cordless phones as an expectation – depends, in this way, on the utter destruction of time. It depends on life lived in the instantaneity of “now.” Robert Jordan, the hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemmingway, saw the young Maria at his guerrillero camp over a pot of stew and immediately felt “a thickness in his throat” (22). Their love jammed the cogs of time into a standstill, allowing Roberto the Inglés and Maria the Rabbit, like the first-sight lovers and their furtive glance, to live the entirely of their lives in the few hours of togetherness they had. Their passionate love scenes chart this gradual cessation of time, reinforcing Hemingway’s belief that the most intense reality is of the singular moments when man feels a brotherhood with the entirety of the human race.

Robert Jordan is a dislocated journeyer. Fighting as a Republican in the Spanish Civil War, he witnesses collective atrocities against humankind, nonpartisan and nondiscriminant. “A Spaniard was only really loyal to his village in the end” and Jordan “never felt like a foreigner” (135) in Spain. Like the Spaniards, he was fighting a war not of ideals or hopes or dreams or fears, but of villages, man against man, boy against boy. He questions the moral foundation of his actions and realizes it does not exist. “What were his politics then? He had none now, he told himself.” Instead, unhinged from moral righteousness, he is left with nothing but the mechanical march of duty. “You’re a bridge-blower now. Not a thinker” (17). Without any meaning to call his own, Robert Jordan, at first, sees the transition between his life and his death as nothing but patriotic decoration,

“And you have no fear?”

“Not to die,” he said truly.

“But other fears?”

“Only of not doing my duty as I should” (91)

Ordered to blow up a bridge despite staggering odds and questionable necessity, Jordan shows a martyr’s willingness to the fulfillment of a task doomed for failure.

However, in the wake of this disillusionment, with the loss of purpose and the encroachment of cynicism, Jordan finds a love, deep and sincere, that salvages his hope and redeems his idealism. Maria gives him reason to fight. The burning strength of this human connection manifests itself throughout the course of three days in four passion-filled love-makings.

The fundamental assumption of time is that that it progresses steadily and forever. Like Jordan’s blind march towards fulfillment of duty, life hollowed of any meaning travels unwavingly towards death. Life dies a little with each passing second. However, Jordan’s love of Maria disrupts this assumption, knocking life off its morbid course of gradual, disgusting decay. Their love questions the progression of time. In the carnal repeat-rhythms of love-making, Jordan can surpass physical reality, hanging on “to nowhere, dark, never any end to nowhere” staying “all times always to unknowing nowhere.” At the height of sexual satisfaction, “up, up, up and into nowhere, suddenly, scaldingly, holdingly all time having stopped,” they feel, “the earth move out and away from under them” (159) and their surroundings dissolve away. The passion of their love telescopes inward the meaning of time, suspending – if only momentarily – the systematic, tick-tocking advancement of the world’s clocks and the dreary nock-on-wood existence of anything around them. This allows them to enjoy each other instantly for an entire eternity. “There was no such thing as a shortness of time” (164). Gazing at his watch with Maria by his side, Jordan found “he could almost check its motion with his concentration.” The hand on his wristwatch moved “slowly, almost imperceptibly” and “he held Maria close now to slow it” (378). Because circumstances – like shattering love – bring fulfillment, and not time itself, “It is possible to live as full a life in seventy hours as in seventy years” (166) and to enjoy the whole of the world in only one moment: “You have it now and that is all your whole life is; now…There is only now and if now is only two days, then two days is your life and everything in it will be in proportion” (169). To Robert Jordan, life can be lived untethered from time, for reality only exists in the instant and no truth is beyond the moment.

This transcendence of linearity reinforces Hemmingway’s cosmic perspectives about a world enjoyed through the senses. Sexual fulfillment is an intensely temporal experience: the feeling of the other’s skins, the fragrances of her hair, the movements of her body. It is about experiencing physical pleasure in the world of the present, not intellectual postulation in the world of the future. Life is to be felt and enjoyed, not abstractly speculated. Robert Jordan avoids the “luxury of going into the unreality” (342) because life is to be experience in the now. Life is in the “tongue-numbing, brain warming” cup of absinthe that brings one back to “all the old evenings in cafés” (51). Life is in the beauty of the “the curve of her throat” and the “fluttering of lashes of the eyes tight closed against the sun” that “all his life he would remember” (159). Life is in the rabbit stew cooked by Rafael the useless gypsy, in the smell of crushed heather and the touch of loved one: “He held her feeling she was all of life and it was true” (264). Life is not meant to be skewered and dissected; it is meant to be enjoyed in the perpetual now of the lover’s embrace.

Sexual embracement – needed for the survival of the species and the regeneration of the individual – thus, is ultimately universal, and, lying on nature’s simultaneous birthplace and cemetery, the forest floor, Robert and Maria unite with all species of all time when they make love. “Now in the night he lay and waited for the girl to come to him…The trunks of the pines projected from the snow that covered all the ground, and he lay in the robe feeling the suppleness of the bed under him” (258). Their union with each other embodies their union with the world. When Jordan holds Maria, he is coalescing mankind’s natural heritage and inevitable destination with its current reality. He is embracing Mother Nature manifest, Maria, whose skin is “tawny as wheat” (158), breasts “like two small hills that rise out of the long plain” (341) and hair “rippling” like “a grain field in the winds on a hillside” (23). Like the Spanish countryside that was pillaged by planes that “move like mechanized doom” (87), Maria’s body too was traumatically violated. However, like the redemption of Jordan and the salvation of the beautiful serenity of natural Spain, if Maria is “loved” then “it would take [the destruction] away” (73).

Love is a force of salvation, a catharsis for the wronged Maria and an awakening for the hollowed Robert Jordan. In their love, they unite two disparate bodies under the fundamental commonness of humanity. They unite under the forces of brotherhood. As Anselmo, the old, wise guerrilla fighter waits in the snow, the reader can hear the fascist soldiers too waiting cold in the snow. Anselmo remarks “The fascists are warm…and they are comfortable, and tomorrow night we will kill them” (192). Political distinctions – fascist, communist, Republican, anarchist – are spurious categorization of humanity because they undermine the fundamental sameness of all people. Robert Jordan’s enemies are neither gods nor beasts, they are humans, beautiful, sensitive and flawed. “How could the Inglés say that the shooting of a man is like the shooting of an animal?...[T]o shoot a man gives a feeling as though one had struck one’s own brother” (442). This human connection is achieved gloriously and idealistically in the spiritual connection of Maria and Robert Jordan. Maria remarks, “Afterwards we will be as one animal of the forest and be so close that neither one can tell that one of us is one and not the other. Can you not feel my heart be your heart?” (262). Likewise, Robert reminds her, “‘I am with thee…I am with thee now. We are both there.’” When Jordan sacrifices himself for the safety of his hillside brethren, he is really sacrificing himself for the safety of all mankind everywhere; When Maria unites with Robert Jordan, she is uniting with all mankind everywhere.

Conversely, cowardice is not the individual’s abandonment of himself (“‘It is not cowardly to know what is foolish’” (54) says Pablo), it is the individual’s abandonment of his brother. Of Finito, Pilar’s past bullfighter lover, she remarked, “Never have I seen a man with more fear before the bullfight and never have seen a man with less fear in the ring” (185). Bravery is not lack of fear; it is a solemn willingness to conquer fear and to defeat the wild, savage bulls within. After the second night with Maria, Robert Jordan waked and felt the “long light body” of Maria “comforting against him, abolishing loneliness against him, magically, by a simple touching of flanks, of shoulder and of feet, making an alliance against death with him” (264). They need not fear death, because they are spiritually bound to protect each other with the depth and intensity that they would protect themselves: Robert “kissed her once” and then “pulled the pistol lanyard up and put the pistol on his side where he could reach it handily” (264).

The novel begins with Robert Jordan lying “flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest” (1) and it ends with his “heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest” (471). At the beginning of the novel, Jordan is united with nature. At the end, the same is true, but his heart, beating against the soft needle-strewn ground, is awoken. Born cold and calculating, he spent “all [his] life” in the three days on the hill eating rabbit stew, with Anselmo as his “oldest friend” and Maria as his “true love” and “wife” (381) and he dies with a heart, wild and alive.

Robert Jordan, fulfilled and purposive in his final hours, at the height of sexual experience, realizes that he will live always in the instant of Maria’s love, They were having now and before and now, and above all now, there is no other now, but thou now and now is thy prophet. Now and forever now” (379). As he waits to die on the pine-strewn forest floor he finds solace in the life he lived that day in the darkness from dusk to dawn, a string of singular, eternal moments. He is “completely integrated” (471) and never alone, always alive, and forever united with the whole of mankind.



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