For Whom the Bell Tolls



Profound novel offers brutal view of Spanish Civil War.

What parents need to know

Educational value

Through internal monologues, flashbacks to conversations, and changing points of view, Hemingway reveals the complex political and religious ideas behind the Spanish Civil War. Readers of For Whom the Bell Tolls learn about the different factions opposing Franco's fascist armies, weaponry used during the war, and some Spanish geography. Hemingway also directly compares the guerrillas' courage to the feelings of bullfighters in the ring, so that aspect of Spanish culture is described in detail, too.

Positive messages

In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway is not squeamish about revealing the hypocrisy, violence, and flawed principles of the Spanish Civil War. The novel gives an intense portrayal of the bravery and pointlessness that coexist on both sides of the conflict. This is not an uplifting novel by any stretch, but it's a very meaningful one.

Positive role models

Regardless of whether the reader, or the author, considers Robert Jordan's mission pointless, Hemingway's anti-hero is a brave, capable, intelligent man who is acting on his belief in the anti-fascist cause. Jordan also has very well-formed internal strategies for mustering his courage when he needs it, and for controlling his temper. Oftentimes, he sees the danger of letting anger consume him, and he finds ways to subdue his own emotions. Also, he is very loving and gentle to Maria, despite the fact it could be argued that their "love" has a pretty thin foundation.


Battles rage in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the destruction is described at length. Men, including main characters, are shot and killed. People also talk about having the courage to shoot each other to avoid capture and torture. One female character is emotionally and physically damaged after having been gang raped.


Two characters' lovemaking is explained up to a point. The feeling of a woman's body is described, and it is evident that they have sex, but the act itself is conveyed in lyrical/poetical terms ("the earth moved") rather than graphically. One character has been raped in the past, and her physical and emotional scars affect her relationship in the novel.


The words "whore" and "bitch" are used, as well as some Spanish curse words. However, the author uses an affected device to address more taboo curse words, replacing them with words like "unprintable" and "obscenity."

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

One character is often drunk on wine, and a good deal of wine is consumed by all. A few men drink whiskey, and one drinks from a flask of absinthe. Alcohol is unapologetically used to help the guerillas cope with their stress and discomfort.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that For Whom the Bell Tolls takes an unvarnished view of the Spanish Civil War. It's emotionally and politically complex, and creates a profoundly honest picture of war and the individual personalities involved; parents and teachers will want to bolster readers' understanding of fascism and communism in Spain in the late 1930s. Though the lead character, Robert Jordan, finds some pleasure and humanity under extreme duress, he lives in a brutal world full of violence, death, and deprivation. Many consider For Whom the Bell Tolls Hemingway's greatest literary achievement, but it is not for the faint of heart. Also, one note on the text: Hemingway uses an unusual literary conceit in this novel: All of the conversation that takes place between Jordan and his Spanish comrades is written as a literal translation from Spanish, to inform the reader that these people would actually be speaking to each other in Spanish, so the language can sound slightly strange.

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What's the story?

In 1937, American professor Robert Jordan is working with Spanish guerrillas in the mountains of Spain, attempting to sabotage fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War. Assigned to blow up a bridge, Jordan struggles to obtain the manpower and supplies he needs to achieve his objective at the appointed time. Dissent among the guerrillas, and his affection for a beautiful young girl, distract from Jordan's mission, but he is committed to performing his duty, even though he has lost some faith in its purpose.

Is it any good?


FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS is a rich, complex novel about the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway offers several points of view into the tragic events -- from Jordan's personal memories of his family, which explain the man he is and wants to be, to the inner workings of the Communist Party members in Madrid, to soldiers on the battlefield -- creating an enormously effective and multifaceted picture of what the war did to individuals. This is a profound novel, on a grand scale -- just as upsetting and confusing and sad as it should be.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about what Hemingway is trying to tell readers about the Spanish Civil War, and about war in general. Is war glorified in the novel?

  • What kind of man is Robert Jordan? Do you admire him? Is he doing the right thing?

  • What do you make of Jordan's relationship with Maria? What is Jordan doing when he fantasizes about what their life will be like after the war?

  • Many consider For Whom the Bell Tolls Hemingway's greatest novel, and one of the greatest novels ever written about war, and it is often required reading in school. Why do you think this is the case?

Book details

Author:Ernest Hemingway
Genre:Literary Fiction
Book type:Fiction
Publication date:October 21, 1940
Number of pages:480
Publisher's recommended age(s):14 - 18

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