Hemingway’s Shocking Depiction of Revolution
Why Chapter 10 of For Whom the Bell Tolls is One of the Most Intense Scenes In All of Literature
For Whom the Bell Tolls follows an American who has inserted himself into a group of antifascist guerillas during the Spanish Civil War (just as Hemingway inserted himself in a similar group during the conflict).
The novel tells the story of these guerillas preparing for a dangerous but decisive act of destruction against their enemies. They intend to blow up a bridge and cut off an enemy supply line.
And though the novel is sympathetic to the communists and revolutionaries who make up the band of guerilla fighters, it holds no illusions about the nature of war.
Hemingway, upon returning from the Spanish Civil War, held no illusions about any of it. He may have sympathized ideologically with the communists, but he saw with his own eyes that, in the heat and passion of battle, those you thought were the good guys can be just as murderous and depraved as those you thought were evil.
In Chapter 10 of the novel, after Hemingway has carefully introduced us to this band of guerillas and made us like them, he allows them to tell their story, and we realize there is a lot more to them than we thought.
We realize that, in the brutality of revolution they have tapped into the darkness of their own hearts and committed unforgivable atrocities.
Our band of guerillas is marching through a forest. They’ve stopped at a stream to rest. At the urging of the American, the matriarch of the group, Pilar, tells the story of how she got involved in the revolution.
“It was early in the morning when the civiles surrendered at the barracks,” Pilar began.
She’s describing how the war played out in her village, how the government officers surrendered after an extended fight with the revolutionaries.
Then the narration shifts directly into the story Pilar is telling.
Pilar’s husband, Pablo, makes the remaining government officers stand against the wall of the barracks. Pablo has a gun in his hand, the gun that the head of the barracks used to kill himself.
Pablo asks the officers to explain to him how the gun works so he can shoot them with it.
It’s one of the most visceral, gut-wrenching images in the book.
Pablo, the revolutionary, is a poor farmer. He’s never held a pistol and doesn’t know how it works, but he has one in his hands now, and is asking his captives to explain how to use it so he can kill them with it.
And they do.
It’s a jaw-dropping sequence.
“Pull the small lever down,” the man said in a very dry voice. “Pull the receiver back and let it snap forward.”
As soon as Pablo figures out how to operate the pistol he uses it to execute every officer in the barracks.
And it just gets crazier from there.
Told in Hemingway’s signature style of terse sentences, we watch as the peasants, having destroyed the military presence in the town, round up all the officials from the fascist government, lock them in the courthouse, and prepare to execute them in the town square.
The whole scene has a Lord of the Flies feel to it as these formerly innocent peasants succumb to the bloodlust of war.
The town square backs up on a cliff, and the villagers intend to execute the government officials, one at a time, by throwing them over the edge.
But only after they’ve done a death march across the square, with a line of peasants forcing them along.
The peasants are nervous, and talking each other into it.
I have never killed a man, one of them says.
Then you will learn, says another.
It’s that uncertainty, that naivety, that makes the scene so brutally compelling. Hemingway describes how some of the men came in from the fields wearing the work clothes, but others, not knowing how to dress for a mass killing, wore their Sunday clothes.
They form two lines, making a corridor through which their prisoners must march. The first prisoner to emerge is the mayor of the town. He marches nervously and unencumbered for a few steps, but then he passes a former tenant of his who dislikes him. The tenant punches him, screams obscenities, and the two lines become a riot, beating the mayor as they push him along until finally a group of them throw him off the cliff.
The mob now energized with its first taste of blood, they call for the next victim.
One by one, the mob kills the fascists in increasingly violent and anarchic fashion. Before the scene is done the mob is smashing people’s heads into rocks and lighting bodies on fire. The mob is taunting the wives of the men they are murdering who scream out in agony as they watch.
It is, without question, the most brutally intense scene I’ve ever read.
But never once does the violence feel gratuitous. Never once does it feel like Hemingway is being sensational in this scene. Even as he writes a scene of extraordinary brutality, he does it in a way that the reader feels like every word is important. Because it is.
For Whom the Bell Tolls is an honest accounting of the nature of war, one that does not choose sides in the ideological battle of the conflict, or create villains and heroes, but rather, explores the darkness in every human heart that makes scenes like this possible.
When I read Chapter 10, I feel somber, having been reminded of the severity of what’s at stake when conflict comes to a head.
For Whom the Bell Tolls is a novel that every Internet troll, every cynical rabble rouser, and every aggressive activist should read. It’s a book I’d like to put on the desk of every high school and college student who allows himself to rationalize bad behavior when he engages in the immature goading and agitating that is so common now on the Internet, and is already spilling over into the real world.
I’d like everyone who thinks that aggressive, violent behavior in our charged political environment is justified to experience that moment in the book when seemingly civilized people suddenly turn into a murderous mob, a mob whose actions grow more and more heinous with each kill. I’d like them to see, in the way Hemingway shows us, how natural, how human it is to quickly and irredeemably become the evil you thought you were fighting against.
This piece is part of a series of the five chapters from literature that impress me most. The previous piece, on Chapter 1 of Frank Herbert’s Dune, is here. The next piece in the series, on a chapter from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, is here.
Spencer Baum is the author of 7 novels. He is releasing the audiobook of his newest novel as a free podcast.