Bravery and Altruism: Coming to Terms with Mortality in For Whom The Bell Tolls

Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is a narrative about a young combatant and expert dynamiter, Robert Jordan, fighting with the anti-fascists in Spain during the civil battles. The main leitmotif explored in For Whom the Bell Tolls is mortality. The story which revolves around the violence of war explores death in different angles, but the central subject is each key character faces or comes to terms with their own death or others. During his assignment to destroy the target site, Robert meets Anselmo who is the guide and intercessor between him and the guerrilla rebel soldiers. His quest, however, clashes with the reluctance and aggression of the rebel leader Pablo to take on a mission that will imperil his troop. Pilar, Pablo’s wife who does not agree with his husband stance on the operation, arrogates leadership and supports Robert’s mission. They gain more support from El Sordo, the leader of another rebel camp however they are later delimited and killed by fascist troops. The guerilla leaders all contemplate their own deaths individually, as their plan experiences obstacles and setbacks all through. Each of the key characters is faced with dilemmas and choices through the assignment, that either prompts bravery or self-sacrifice in the face of demise hence coming to terms with their own mortality or of others.

At the start, Robert Jordan is unmindful of mortality until he falls in love, and has to gain valor and altruism to contemplate his own death for the mission. Jordan as a soldier desensitized to the horrors of war but his newfound love with Maria transforms the meaning of death. As death no longer marks the conclusion of a mission but the end of a period adorned by love for Maria prompts a harder choice in altruism that may lead to his own demise. At the end of the book, Robert faces mortality by accepting his fate and sacrificing himself as he is waiting for the impending death (Hemingway 250). Jordan chooses his own mortality over being captured and prepare himself to be exterminated in order to avoid internment. Although as he prepares to sacrifice himself through suicide, he still hopes to avoid killing himself as his father did, who he considered a coward. As he contemplated before that “you have to be awfully occupied with yourself to do a thing like that” (Hemingway 182). Hence the choice of self-sacrifice and accepting his own demise is a complex decision for Jordan at this point. The story concludes as he bids farewell to Maria and the guerrillas as he hopes to strike back at the enemy with his last breath as the rest escaped.

Pablo, the rebel leader, is illustrated as afraid of his own death but through the course of the mission gains bravery and comes to terms with his own mortality. As Anselmo utters about Pablo “He is very flaccid. He is very much afraid to die” (Hemingway 15). Pablo’s fear to put his life and his soldiers in danger is illustrated as he also admits his fear of death to his wife Pilar. His fear of death is actually a symptom of more general despair caused by his guilt over the people he’s killed. Pablo still not committed to the operation steals bomb detonators and equipment dumping them to prevent fascist retaliation, however, he later returns to aid. He exhibits courage admitting his part in destroying the equipment; though still not accepting of the strategy, he overcomes his fear of mortality for his spouse Pilar. As everyone is willing to put their lives on the line, Pablo comes to terms with risking his own life as well in order to not lose Pilar.

Other characters Pilar, El Sordo and Anselmo also contemplate their own deaths and of others as they gather their bravery and altruism to undertake the risky mission. Aware of the early Republic attack, each of the characters anticipates risking their own lives, as surviving seems fairly impossible. El Sordo faces looming death after the attack, as he is dying the narrator states “…one’s death is difficult to accept. Sordo had accepted it…” (Hemingway 168). Illustrating the bravery that had to be gained to come to terms with one’s own demise. While Pablo is reluctant to take on the operation, Pilar makes a stance and takes on the responsibility to participate in the mission regardless of the risk. The highly superstitious Pilar also reads Jordan’s palms and sees his death. Despite her reluctance to admit it, Pilar anticipates Jordan’s death in the near future which she simultaneously contemplates with her own mortality. Moreover, Anselmo feels remorse of the killings in the war while contemplating on atoning for his sins through self-sacrifice. The story illustrates each character’s acceptance of mortality before, during or after the main operation.

The characters in their path during the operation face difficult choices that demand bravery and altruism in the face of adversity prompting contemplating and coming to terms with their own mortality or of others. Robert Jordan undergoes a character arc clearly illustrated by his lack of passion about anything to his heroic act for the greater good. He has to have a resolution regarding his mortality at the end of the mission, by sacrificing his happiness with his love Maria for the operation. On the other hand, Pablo overcomes his fear of death and gains bravery for his troops and his spouse Pilar. Furthermore, Pilar, El Sordo, and Anselmo face the same complex impasse that has to be overcome by true bravery and altruism in the face of demise. The John Donne’s quote that introduces the story interprets to that every man needs others and the brotherhood of society. The story illustrates the essence of the quote through the transition and arcs of a majority of the characters in the book from Robert Jordan to Pablo.

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