Sunday

The Turning Point: Plot Movement in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls


In a previous post, we explored the proposition, advanced by a prominent screenwriting guru, that all dramatic scenes must contain turning points. In contemporary literature, such turning points are commonly associated with changes in a characters’ perceptions of himself, someone else, and/or the world over the course of the story.  This is roughly equivalent to what Aristotle called “recognition.”   

Another kind of movement, more difficult to execute, is what Aristotle called “change of fortune.”  In the most basic sense, this means getting from plot point A to plot point B in a way that is 1) plausible, and  2) organic to the story. 

The more the characters’ fortunes change in any given scene, the greater the danger of losing one’s hold on verisimilitude and the chain of causality – that is, of falling into the common trap that Lajos Egri, in The Art of Dramatic Writing, calls “jumping conflict.”

Chapter Four of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is quite an admirable achievement in this sense.  The characters’ fortunes shift dramatically in the span of only ten pages. Yet the change is plausible, and indeed seems almost inevitable, within the larger framework of the novel.

Robert Jordan has just arrived at a cave in the Sierra de Guadarrama near Segovia that is the base of operations for a band of anti-Fascist guerillas.  His mission is to blow up a bridge, and it must be timed exactly to coincide with a major Republican offensive.   In order to succeed, he requires the cooperation of the fighters, and he must convince them to follow his orders precisely.  It’s a daunting task, the more so because the leader of the band, Pablo, is dead-set against helping him.  

The movement that must occur in the chapter is a shifting of allegiance from Pablo to Robert Jordan.  This is a huge change of fortune. Moreover, it’s an essential link in the long chain of causality that constitutes the plot. For the late 1930s Hemingway, who badly needed a critically acclaimed book to restore his place as America's preeminent novelist (Steinbeck was breathing down his neck), this was high-stakes writing.

The chapter opens with Robert going through the contents of his backpack.  Those contents are literally “explosive”: bricks of dynamite, a bomb switch and fuses, a disassembled submachine gun, and some Russian cigarettes.  Robert lingers over this inventory, setting a tone of looming danger. 

Soon afterwards, in the first exchange of dialog of the chapter, Robert is plunged into open conflict:

“What do you carry?” Pablo said. 
“My things,” Robert Jordan said and set the two packs down a little way apart where the cave opened out on the side away from the table. 
“Are they not well outside?” Pablo asked. 
“Someone might trip over them in the dark,” Robert Jordan said and walked over to the table and laid the box of cigarettes on it. 
“I do not like to have dynamite here in the cave,” Pablo said.
“It is far from the fire,” Robert Jordan said.  “Take some cigarettes.”
The cigarettes are a rare commodity in wartime; Robert Jordan uses them as a way to demonstrate his generosity, as a physical token of his goodwill, a bribe with which he hopes to win over Pablo’s group of fighters.  When Pablo refuses the cigarettes, Robert is careful to note how many in the group follow suit. One man takes a cigarette and two others refuse, demonstrating that Pablo still has their loyalty. 

The high level of tension is communicated from Robert’s perspective: “All of his concentration was on Pablo”—and also from the appearance of the others in the cave: “Even the gypsy was not at ease.”   

The first indication of a change in fortune—the first sign that Pablo’s position as leader of the group is not unassailable—comes in the following exchange:
“Is there wine?” Robert Jordan asked the table at large, leaning forward, his hands on the table.  
“There is little left,” Pablo said sullenly.  Robert Jordan decided he better look at the other three and try to see where he stood. 
 “In that case, let me have a cup of water.  Thou,” he called to the girl.  “Bring me a cup of water.”
As in Homer’s Greece, in Hemingway’s Spain being a good host is a crucial point of honor. By denying Robert Jordan wine Pablo relinquishes his honor in front of the others in the cave.  And of course Robert’s ordering “the girl” (María) to get him a cup of water is a not-so-subtle way of asserting his authority. 

Robert adjusts his pistol.  He’s ready to use it at any time, and the tension in the cave is palpable.
Pablo watched him.  He knew they were all watching him too, but he watched only Pablo. 
María brings the cup of water, and Robert pours his absinthe into it. 
“It is too strong for thee or I would give thee some,” he said to the girl and smiled at her again.  “There is little left or I would offer some to thee,” he said to Pablo.
The taunt is a direct public reminder of Pablo’s lack of generosity.  “There is little left,” Robert repeats, but then he offers some to the gypsy.  Pablo is being mocked, but he doesn’t fully understand how. 

Robert turns to the other men and offers them cigarettes again.  This time they accept.  Houston, we have plot movement. An incremental shift in allegiance has occurred. 

Robert mentions his plans for the bridge, but Pablo steers the conversation to their recent success in blowing up trains:
“That is what we should do now,” Pablo said.  “Another train.” 
“We can do that,” Robert Jordan said.  “After the bridge." 
He could see that the wife of Pablo had turned now from the fire and was listening.  When he said the word bridge every one was quiet. 
“After the bridge,” he said again deliberately and took a sip of the absinthe.  I might as well bring it on, he thought.  It’s coming anyway. 
“I do not go for the bridge,” Pablo said, looking down at the table.  “Neither me nor my people.”
The story has reached a crisis point.  Pablo and Robert have both asserted their authority. Now it's up to the men in the cave (and Pilar, of course—it’s no accident that Robert becomes aware of her at this point) to choose between them. 
Jordan raised his cup to Anselmo.  “Then we shall do it alone, old one.” 
Without this coward,” Anselmo said.
Once again, it’s a matter of honor.  Robert Jordan and Anselmo present a heroic front, and their open contempt of Pablo makes him look bad.  Now the ball’s in his court.  It’s now or never. He’s got to act if he wants to shore up his eroding authority:
Then we will blow the bridge without thy aid,” Robert Jordan said to Pablo. 
“No,” Pablo said, and Robert Jordan watched his face sweat.  
“Thou wilt blow no bridge here.” 
“No?”
“Thou wilt blow no bridge,” Pablo said heavily. 
“And thou?”  Robert Jordan spoke to the wife of Pablo who was standing, still and huge, by the fire.  
She turned toward them and said, “I am for the bridge.”

The tide has turned.  One by one the other men follow Pilar’s example.  Pablo appeals to logic, tactics, and safety, but it’s too late. The men’s allegiance has transferred, irrevocably, to Pilar, and by extension, to Robert Jordan. 

The movement has been effected, but it still needs time to settle. The rest of the chapter is dedicated to portraying the fallout from the shift.  For one thing, it takes awhile for Pablo to come to terms with his changed status.  Pilar helps ease him into it:
“Listen to me, drunkard. You understand who commands here?" 
“I command.” 
“No. Listen. Take the wax from thy hairy ears. Listen well. I command.” 
Pablo looked at her and you could tell nothing of what he was thinking by his face. He looked at her quite deliberately and then he looked across the table at Robert Jordan. He looked at him a long time contemplatively and then he looked back at the woman, again. 
 “All right. You command,” he said.

Alluding to Pablo’s thought process is important. In order to avoid “jumping conflict,” time has to pass, and the strong feelings of the principals must be accounted for.   Along the same lines, the movement has to be consolidated, and accepted by all involved.
“There is enough wine for all,” the woman of Pablo said to Robert Jordan.  “Pay no attention to what that drunkard says.  When this is finished we will get more.  Finish that rare thing you are drinking and take a cup of wine.” 
Pilar’s expansive generosity stands in clear contrast to Pablo’s sullen miserliness. Her decision to be hospitable not only confirms Robert Jordan’s new stature, but increases her own.  

Pablo’s lapse in honor is put into even starker relief, and Pilar's authority is confirmed in the eyes of the men.  They are impressed with Robert Jordan’s detailed sketches of the bridge.  Their spirits rise in newfound camaraderie as they contemplate the project. And Pablo is left to stew in impotent fury.

In a matter of a few pages the complex dynamics between Roberto, Pilar, Pablo, and the other anti-Fascists have been precisely and realistically portrayed, and they've undergone a complete sea change. The stage is now set for everything that follows: Robert’s engaging friendship with the strong-willed Pilar, his sometimes cringe-inducing love affair with pliable young María, and the preparations for blowing up the bridge, which can now proceed in earnest, with the menacing figure of Pablo sulking in the background.   


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Hemingway rose brilliantly to the challenge of effecting a major Aristotelian “change of fortune,” taking the time necessary to let the change occur incrementally, and to acknowledge the characters’ reactions to it.  Best of all, the plot movement, in retrospect, feels inevitable. Given the depths to which Pablo has sunk, his followers abandoning him seems obvious. Robert Jordan's quest to blow up the bridge only provided the catalyst. 

It’s notable that Hemingway sticks to the dramatic mode instead of just summarizing these events. One reason for this is purely mechanical: in order to avoid “jumping conflict,” a certain amount of fictional time had to pass. Another reason is literary integrity: this important turning point in the novel has to be dramatized so that the reader will accept it, having experienced it as opposed to simply having been told about it.
           
My takeaway? Major turning points must be incremental. They must account for the emotional responses of the characters involved, and they must preserve the organic relationships of causality contained in the story itself.  Finally, if the turning point is important to the plot, it must be dramatized rather than summarized. 

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For more craft-based analyses of Ernest Hemingway's fiction, click here and here. For more on plot, click here, here, here, and here