Robert Jordan and the Spanish Country: Learning to Live in It "Truly and Well."(protagonist in Ernest Hemingway's Novel, for Whom the Bell Tolls)

By Martin, Robert A. | The Hemingway Review, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Robert Jordan and the Spanish Country: Learning to Live in It "Truly and Well."(protagonist in Ernest Hemingway's Novel, for Whom the Bell Tolls)


Martin, Robert A., The Hemingway Review


ONE THING THAT CAN be said about For Whom the Bell Tolls, probably without much argument, is that in those few short days preparing for and carrying out the mission, most of the characters have the opportunity to see some kind of truth or relation unfold before them. They are in highly unusual circumstances, and in such situations people very often become acutely aware of what is important to them and why. But Hemingway, because he is Hemingway, turns it up a notch, especially for Robert Jordan. Jordan is unlike any of the other characters in the book, both in his philosophy and by the things he does perhaps less consciously--the gestures and motions--and finally by the absolutely unique way Hemingway places Jordan into his surroundings.

As Tony Tanner has noted, with Hemingway in mind, "to find any truth a man must be alone, alone with his senses and the seen world" (30). This is an easy thing to say knowing about Hemingway's love for the outdoors; but it is also difficult to generalize in this manner without thinking of the way Hemingway has handled Robert Jordan. Through abundant, actually pervasive and detailed descriptions of nature, especially of the pine trees, Hemingway suggests that man is not merely an interloper or casual observer of nature, but rather, he is an integral part of the wild, an active participant. He must, therefore, if he is to grow and mature, be not only a participant in nature, but also a pupil of it as well.

It all starts, of course, with Hemingway. He once told some friends in Chicago in the early 1920s that before his own creative processes could begin to make any sense or progress, he had to"see it, feel it, smell it, hear it" (Fenton 103). Hemingway invented, of course; he was proud of that. But he really could not be satisfied that he was on the right track with his writing until he could satisfy these four senses. This method is echoed in Death in the Afternoon when Hemingway says "let those who want to save the world if you can get to see it clear and as a whole. Then any part you make will represent the whole if it's made truly" (278). These, then, are the two elements against which Robert Jordan must be measured--seeing the world clear and as a whole, and seeing it "truly."

Tanner has described Robert Jordan as "earth-bound, earth-committed" (26). This is a precise way of describing both Robert Jordan and how Hemingway merged Jordan and his surroundings into one. From page one of the novel the reader cannot mistake the intimacy between Jordan and the hills and forest where the mission is being prepared. Indeed, the very first line of the book tells us that Jordan "lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees" (FWTBT1). There is no such thing as reading Hemingway too carefully. It cannot be done, and this opening sequence of flowing images sets the mood and the tempo for all that follows. Our first image of Robert Jordan is predictive--he is lying on "the pine needled floor of the forest." At this point, Jordan is not particularly aware of the pine trees or the wind, or even of the grass. He is in the midst of all of them, but he is, more or less, an intruder. He is looking at the bridge and mentally preparing his plan of action. And the forest around him is, at this point, merely where he happens to be at the time, and where the action will take place later. Steadily, though, as the novel progresses, Jordan will be exposed to, and will become more and more aware of the forest--especially the pine trees.

Hemingway's descriptions of the wilderness for the first three-quarters of the novel are, mostly, incidental--to Robert Jordan, at least. The complete awareness of his surroundings has not yet taken place for Jordan, and will not, until much later. But a prelude to Jordan's realizations about the pines and the forest and all of nature occurs when El Sordo prepares to meet his death.

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