A Book In Another Book

All the Bright Places, by Jennifer Niven, was the fifth book I read for the 2017 Reading Challenge.

Here’s a passage from page 194. It’s Violet’s chapter. Violet’s parents are having breakfast with Finch:

When [Mom] asks Finch if he’s thought about what he wants to do beyond college, as in with his life, I pay attention because I actually don’t know the answer.

“It changes every day. I’m sure you’ve read For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

Mom answers yes for both of them.

“Well, Robert Jordan knows he’s going to die. ‘There is only now,’ he says, ‘and if now is only two days, then two days is your life and everything in it will be in proportion.’ None of us knows how long we have, maybe another month, maybe another fifty years – I like living as if I only have that two days.”

For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway, was first published in 1940.

Unlike Violet’s parents, I’d never read it before now.

For Whom The Bell TollsThe 471 pages in this novel span a few days in May, 1937.

Robert Jordan is an American in the International Brigades, assigned to a group of republican guerrilla fighters in Spain. They’re fighting against Franco’s fascists. As an expert in demolition, he’s been given the job of blowing up a bridge, at the right time, by a Russian General.

While sharing a meal at the guerrilla camp, Robert Jordan meets a woman with shockingly short hair, named Maria. Three months earlier, she’d been a prisoner at Valladolid, where they’d kept her head shaved. She’d escaped, and her hair has been growing back. Robert Jordan learns that Maria “belongs” to no one. The abuse she received in Valladolid has made her fiercely independent. Robert Jordan admires her and falls in love with her. He calls her “little rabbit”.

“He was violating the second rule of the two rules for getting on well with people that speak Spanish; give the men tobacco and leave the women alone; and he realized, very suddenly, that he did not care.”

And, Maria falls in love with Robert Jordan.

As Robert Jordan falls for Maria, he clashes with Pablo, the leader of the guerrillas. Pablo feels that blowing up the bridge is too risky, too big a job for their group, and that attempting it will get them all killed. He wants to take Robert Jordan’s dynamite away.

Robert Jordan is a loyal man. He was given the assignment to blow up the bridge, and he intends to follow his orders. Yet, there is some doubt in his mind. Pablo may be right, he decides.

As demolition day approaches, the colorful band of guerrillas drink wine, discuss death and philosophy, and swap stories of their pasts. Robert Jordan and Maria, meanwhile, talk of the future.

Pilar is Pablo’s woman, and Maria’s guardian. She considers herself old and ugly, and is a little jealous of Maria’s youth. Pilar is happy that Maria has found someone as kind and intelligent as Robert Jordan. (In Robert Jordan’s mind, it was Pilar who pushed him and Maria into the same sleeping bag.) Pilar considers herself the true leader of the guerrillas, since it is obvious to her that the men have lost faith in Pablo.

Robert Jordan has been living in Spain for twelve years. He speaks Spanish and Castilian fluently. He considers himself as much Spanish as he is American. The guerrillas don’t consider him a foreigner – when they call him Inglés, it’s in a sense of friendly jest. Because of his involvement with the International Brigade, if he were ever to return to Montana, he would probably be branded a communist.

And, as Finch reminded Violet’s parents, things do not end well for Robert Jordan. He is loyal, introspective, and a hero to the end, however.

I have fought for what I believed in for a year now. If we win here we will win everywhere. The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it. And you had a lot of luck, he told himself, to have had such a good life. You’ve had as good a life as grandfather’s though not as long. You’ve had as good a life as any one because of these last days. You do not want to complain when you have been so lucky. I wish there was some way to pass on what I’ve learned, though.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a war story. It’s also a love story. It’s a story about loyalty, bigotry, religion, and political beliefs. It is a complex story. Hemingway put it all together into a masterpiece.

It lives up to its reputation as a classic. For Whom the Bell Tolls in a wonderful book, and I loved it.

  • A book that’s been mentioned in another book

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