“For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Islands in the Stream”

The Bee Gees and Ernest Hemingway have two titles in common: Islands in the Stream and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway’s 1941 novel set in politically violent Spain reflects on the contending trends of communism – which, for Hemingway, seems to suggest order and discipline – and what Hemingway critics often generalize as “anarchism”. Written in the face of an overwhelming spread of Fascism, the novel reflects on the individual’s choice in sustaining meaning and relevance in a society which is in the throes of (and partly fearing) transition. The novel is centered on Robert Jordan, a young American connected with the rebel faction in the Spanish War; and is stationed as a dynamiter in the siege of a city. Notions of loss, decay and destruction consistently overarch, submitting a sense of angst for the receptive reader.

Young Hemingway’s passport photo

The Bee Gees, in their 1993 album Size Isn’t Everything, records a catchy song by the same title – a song which articulates thoughts of break up, loss and longing. The 1993 album, in many ways, is a bridge in the career of the Bee Gees, connecting them to a whole new era of pop, detracting them from the “age of disco” where the trio had scored well. Songs such as “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, for instance, indicate the transition justly, even though the song was not well received by charts outside the UK. Mysterious and ambiguous as the connection between the Hemingway text and the Bee Gees song may appear, both evoke a distinct melancholic strain which facilitates a less unobvious relation: one with John Donne’s series of Meditations, written and published in the early 1620s.

In Donne’s now celebrated words, he signifies the holistic and overarching spirit by which humankind, in many ways, stay bound. This is the very composition where Donne’s much quoted lines “No man is an island, entire of itself / Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” appear. “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind” it further reads; “[a]nd therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”. The sentiments here constitute of a strict catholic essence, in spite of the irony where Donne, in later life, becomes a satirist of the very same faith. However, the ideas of death, suffering and the inevitability of the individual as being a part of a wider corpus – hence, the impetus and the object of a wider fate – permeate the three texts.

Young Bee Gees

Hemingway’s posthumously published work, Islands In the Stream (1970), again, evokes similar strains as already highlighted. The story is centered on the life of an artist, Thomas Hudson, and the novel is set out in three sections: it opens with a younger, romantically moved Hudson, who is a painter settled in the art-inducing outpost of Bahamas. The novel builds up through the radical changes that he undergoes, and in many ways the second and third sections of the narrative contrast with the opening. Hudson’s traumatic experiences at losing those near and dear to him (his sons succumb to death in the World War) accentuates an existentialist outlook in him, which, if at all, was docile and passive in his early years. The third section, in this regard, has a distinct echo of Jordan’s experience in For whom the Bell Tolls. The Bee Gees song, written for Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, becomes a successful hit in 1983. The song, in contrast to the novel, is a celebration of love and life – re-living, in many ways, the notion of Donne that “no man is an island”.

Dolly Parton

If at all, the opening of Hemingway’s novel has a light resonance of the air and atmosphere which the Bee Gees lyrics enhance. This, again, is more owed to the Bimini setting of the idyllic Bahamas, predating the torment and uncertainty of war and violence that would change Hudson’s life and convictions for good. Returning to John Donne’s dogmatic notion, the idea of suffering and of penance is heavily resonant in the novel – for the breakout of and the breakdown caused by the war can be traced back to humanity of which one and all – winners and losers, sufferers and inflictors – are a part. The older Hudson, again, is a deviation from the stoic outlook of his youth and he matures, questioning and reacting to the pain and impact of death. The novel culminates where he, in his own way, comes to terms with life after loss. Much alike Jordan of For Whom the Bell Tolls, who chooses the communist cause above suicide, Hudson, too, seems to find an outlet back into life.

In spite of this pedantic meandering, it can also be that the Bee Gees song titles are mere finer artistic choices, and that they do not necessarily presuppose a high and dry connection with either John Donne or Hemingway. Artists are known to borrow and copy, and freely too, where the imagination fancies and pedantic hypotheses call to be facilitated.

 

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