If you read only one Hemingway book, and that would be a shame, but if you do then make it the 1940 novel: For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is certainly his most complete book and stands as a compelling book without the advantage of the halo effect of his previous works. Hemingway explores and formalizes most of his leading themes - The code hero, War, Bravery, Fear of pain, masculinity, nature, even social systems and perhaps most importantly - death.
For whom the bell tolls takes its title from the famous John Donne's 1624 poem and stands for the universal nature of human life - that each life is somehow connected and each death is a little bit of death for everyone. Beautifully said in the lines below, the interconnectedness of humanity is never expressed more than in war, amusingly enough.
"No man is an Island, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."
This is the story of a group of gorilla rebel soldiers in the mountains of spain fighting the fascist forces of Marko during the Spanish Civil War. The ragtag group is both energized and anxious when an American professor is sent by the rebel leadership to blow up a critical bridge. The American - Robert Jordan, a classic Hemingway hero, is a dynamiter, an expert at blowing bridges. The rebel leader, Pablo, drunk and aging, seems to have gone soft, isn't happy to have Robert Jordan in their middle. The leader's wife though, Pilar, understand the need for the american and sides with him. Robert Jordan and another young rebel woman, who is terribly scarred from the atrocities of the fascists, fall in love further complicating matters. As the day for blowing up the bridge gets nearer there is much dialogue, betrayal and mayhem until the fateful day arrives and the day has its own challenges.
Robert Jordan is Hemingway's interpretation of the war and its nuances based on his own experiences in many wars and specially in the Spanish struggle where he was placed as a reporter.
In one of the most brutal scenes I've read in any book, Pilar tells the story of the mass murder of a Fascist village by the gorillas led by Pablo. Yes, this is the murder of men, women and children and by the gorillas. While th fascist brutalities are also described, nothing comes close to the hair-raising description of the destruction of the fascist village. Strangely enough, the incident is almost relived in its entirety in 1982 at a small village called Dos Erres in Guatemala by the fascists in that country falsely accusing the village of hiding rebel guns.
At the heart of it, this is the tale of bigotry - on either side of the fence - an unwillingness to give the other side a chance.
Who knew that the much maligned phrase, a fodder of american pop-culture - 'Did the earth move for you?' -- comes from this book by Hemingway! Jordan asks that of the rebel girl Maria after an intimate moment and it is said genuinely proclaiming great pleasure and not boasting of masculinity. It may even be a reference to the earth-shattering bombs that the rebels are shortly about to face.
One of Hemingway's longer books, For whom the bell tolls is spaced out. It only recounts the story of 3 days but they are filled with details, with conversation with ideas and discussion, accusations and emotions, great fear, pain and also tender love.
The end of the book is the most fascinating of all of his books. Though the themes leading to the end aren't different and what happens isn't hard to predict it still comes as a shock, if only because you've engaged with the characters so much.
This is easily one of the most engaging books I've read and certainly the best Hemingway wrote. Highly recommended.