Hemingway develops several themes in the course of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Before we examine the themes which make their appearance in this section, certain facts about the bitterly fought Spanish Civil War should be explained. First, that the war was a completely undisguised war between communism and fascism. Within a month after its beginning, Russia on the one hand and Germany and Italy on the other were using it as a training and testing ground for their men, techniques, and equipment. Second, though in recent years communism has adopted a "soft" policy toward religion, in the communism of the Spanish Civil War religion was completely done away with.
The first theme which makes its appearance in the book is what might be called the theme of "mysticism-superstition." Robert Jordan thinks that it is a "bad sign" that he has forgotten Anselmo's name. This idea of "signs" and "luck" is simply introduced in this chapter, but it is developed to a much greater degree as the book moves on. Its importance in the psychological makeup of Robert Jordan will become more apparent in later chapters.
One of the major ideas in a large part of Hemingway's writing is the irony of life. In Chapter 1, it is tied in with the cynicism of the people involved in the war. We see it first in the scene between Jordan and Golz in which they discuss the proposed attack. The Russian general is interested in the offensive mainly as a military maneuver, and he is cynical because he knows that the Spanish will interfere.
The irony becomes obvious when this same cynicism is expressed by Pablo. The guerilla leader resents the fact that a foreigner has come to tell him what to do. This puts Pablo into a subservient position where he is no longer the spokesman or leader of the group. Consequently, one of the major conflicts in the novel involves Pablo's qualifications as a leader. From his point of view, he is interested only in the preservation of his band and himself. The military maneuvers of foreigners is of little importance to him. Also, Pablo has recently become the owner of a number of fine horses, making him a capitalist for the first time in his life. As a result, he is not nearly so interested in fighting for the cause as he once was, and this adds further to the ironic theme.
This theme of irony, of the relationship between the individuals — the "little people," for whose benefit wars are, ostensibly, fought — and the politico-military machine, is interwoven with other themes throughout the book, but it is the major theme of For Whom the Bell Tolls.
The first chapter, as might be expected, is largely introductory. It is to Hemingway's credit as an artist, however, that it is not blatantly so. This subtlety is accomplished primarily by virtue of the fact that he allows the reader to deduce the situation. For instance, within 500 words after the opening of the book, Robert Jordan has, through his dialog, told the reader that he is carrying explosives and that he is most interested in the bridge. Thus we already know, by the time we are told so specifically some 1,000 words later, that Jordan's mission is to destroy the bridge.
This same subtlety is apparent in Hemingway's introduction of his characters. In fact, rather than to say that he introduces his characters, the dramatic term make their entrance is more appropriate. Three of the most important characters do appear in this first chapter — the protagonist, Robert Jordan, his guide, Anselmo, and the guerilla leader, Pablo. Though we are given physical descriptions of these three men which range from merely adequate, as in the case of Anselmo, to vivid, as in the case of Pablo, most important is the fact that we are made acutely aware of their characters.
And so the stage is set. We know, almost from the beginning that the main dramatic situation is the problem of destroying the bridge. We know, from the flashback scene between Jordan and General Golz, that the manner in which the mission is to be accomplished is highly unorthodox and, therefore, highly dangerous. And we know that there is a dangerous conflict of personalities between Jordan and Pablo.
The main action in Chapter 3 is that Jordan and Anselmo go to look at the bridge, but it is a very important chapter because the moral problems of war are introduced in the conversation between Jordan and Anselmo. Jordan has considered himself an instrument of a war which is being fought for the good of the common people. Thus, while he was idealistic about the aims of the war, he had forced himself to ignore the damage war does to the individual.
So far, Robert Jordan has been pictured as being what any good fighter for a cause should be. He is developing into the Hemingway "code" hero. (See the section entitled "The Hemingway Code Hero.") He is skilled in his work, he is dedicated, he is determined to carry out his orders, since he knows that they are always for the good of the Cause, and he is willing to sacrifice himself as well as others for the Cause. In this chapter, however, we see the suggestion of a change coming over his character. When he sees how simple it would have been to destroy the bridge in the normal way, he resents the fact that he must do it in an unorthodox, dangerous way. He begins to have the first glimmerings of the idea that perhaps a cause is not always worth the lives of the individuals who die for it, but he brushes the idea aside, not wanting to think such thoughts.
Another underlying purpose of Chapter 3 is the characterization of the simple peasants who make up Pablo's band of guerillas. It is shown best in the scene of comic relief in which Jordan and Anselmo are stopped by the guard who has forgotten the password. Agustin is tired, hungry, uncomfortable, and bored; he would rather be almost any place than to be engaged in a war.
The ominous note on which the previous chapter ends reverberates with increasing volume in Chapter 4.
Pablo's announcement that he is against blowing up the bridge creates a crisis. When Pilar says that she is for destroying the bridge, the men side with her, not because they feel that it is their duty, but because Pablo has "gone bad" — another demonstration of the lack of interest of the individual in dying for a cause. The attitude of the men toward the bridge is obviously one of indifference. In fact, they would really rather blow up another train. There was looting at the train which they destroyed earlier, and they had taken a childish delight in the explosion and ensuing wreck. They would like to relive this moment of glory, the high point of their war career. Pablo tries to use this feeling in his argument against the bridge, assuming that the men are most interested in gaining material wealth, such as his own herd of horses.
The near-showdown in Chapter 4 has left Jordan with a problem. Should he have killed Pablo? As much as he dislikes the idea of assassination, he feels that he probably should have, especially when the gypsy tells him that the entire band was waiting for him to kill Pablo. Jordan loses the initiative in the situation when Pablo joins him outside the cave and tries to be friendly. To kill the guerilla leader now would simply be cold-blooded murder.
In Chapter 3, we first saw signs of a subtle change in Jordan's attitude toward this war. That change becomes evident again here. In former days, he would not have hesitated a moment before killing Pablo, but now he gives himself a whole series of excuses for not having done so. He feels that he should take no useless risks and he maintains that it was not clear to him that the gypsies expected him to kill Pablo. Mainly, he excuses himself by saying that he did not know how Pilar would have reacted to the slaying. When Pablo goes to see about the horses, Jordan hopes that one of the others will kill him, but he knows they will not.
As for poor Pablo, he is homesick and he is tired of the war and he does not want to be killed, either by his own people or in the battle of the bridge. He strokes his horse and talks to it gently, but even the horse is relieved when he finally moves the picket pin and stops bothering him.
The nature of the philosophy behind the Republican movement is revealed here in both positive and negative terms. Jordan objects to being called "Don Roberto" because only the ruling class were addressed as "Don" under the previous form of government. That the people for whom the war is supposedly being fought do not take the matter so seriously is a part of Hemingway's theme of ironic contrasts.
The scene of wry humor in which Jordan makes the most of the double meaning of "republican" leads Maria into a feeling of rapport with the American and makes her embryonic love for him begin to grow. The question of Pablo returns, also. Jordan brings up the matter of whether or not he should have killed him, but Pilar says that he was right in not doing so. She, unlike Jordan, understands the change that has begun to come over the guerilla leader.
In spite of all attempts to remain aloof from emotional involvements and to maintain a coldly critical attitude toward his work, Jordan finally finds himself falling in love. There is some contrast between his emotions and his surroundings, but the main item here is the contrast between Maria's rape at the hands of her fascist captors and the act of love between her and Jordan.