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Response paper to For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Todays Date: December 15, 2018

One work that has suffered from critics reading it as either a successful or flawed attempt to put forward a particular ethical or political position is Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. The critical history of the novel is itself a narrative of reduction in which the novel is read as denying either the political or the ethical dimension of action and never as affirming the legitimacy of both claims and acknowledging their essential conflict.

Certainly one consequence of this critical history is to prevent the novel from speaking with a serious voice about what would constitute an adequate ethical or political account of an individual’s responsibility for and within a revolutionary action. The immediate need of the critics to conceive of the novel as endorsing either a particular political or ethical position has blinded them to the insight that For Whom the Bell Tolls tells narrative as a mode of understanding. But this novel is obsessed with narrative as the means for comprehending the fundamental conflict between political duty and ethical responsibility. And Luce Irigaray (1985) insists that the writer’s task is not to give in to slogans, cynicism, or self-pity, but to “keep it accurate” (p. 466). Part of the reason that For Whom the Bell Tolls is a difficult novel to place ethically and politically is a consequence of the peculiarity of its narration.

The novel’s handling of the atrocities of the Spanish civil war creates what, at first, appears to be a paradox. The novel says little about the cruelties committed by the Fascists while it gives a detailed account of the Republican atrocities that marked the beginning of the civil war. Since Hemingway is unquestionably committed to the Republican cause, why did he choose a narrative strategy that seems to indict the Loyalists? The presentation of the Republican atrocities has led some critics like Jackson J. Benson (1969) to claim that the novel tries to undermine a political understanding, so that one comes to question the validity of political positions and see only the human beings involved (p. 159). But this reading must surely be wrong.

First, Hemingway’s political critics are right: there is no balance in his presentation of the atrocities. The rape of Maria, which is not as fully realized as the killing of the Fascists and which closes before showing the most important atrocity, the rape itself, is the only Fascist atrocity shown. The most heinous atrocity committed by the Fascists, when they retake Pablo’s town, is pointedly not shown even though Pilar tells us that it was worse than that committed by the Republicans. Second, the recognition of the humanity of the enemy does not undercut the rightness in killing them. Anselmo’s moral dilemma is occasioned precisely because killing is wrong, but killing the Fascists is necessary.

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