Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls in Havana, Cuba; Key West, Florida; and Sun Valley, Idaho in 1939. In Cuba, he lived in the Hotel Ambos Mundos where he worked on the manuscript. The novel was finished in July 1940 at the InterContinental New York Barclay Hotel in New York City and published in October. It is based on Hemingway's experiences during the Spanish Civil War and features an American protagonist, named Robert Jordan, who fights with Spanish guerillas for the Republicans. The characters in the novel include those who are purely fictional, those based on real people but fictionalized, and those who were actual figures in the war. Set in the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range between Madrid and Segovia, the action takes place during four days and three nights. For Whom the Bell Tolls became a Book of the Month Club choice, sold half a million copies within months, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and became a literary triumph for Hemingway. Published on 21 October 1940, the first edition print run was 75,000 copies priced at $2.75.
The book's title is taken from the metaphysical poet John Donne's series of meditations and prayers on health, pain, and sickness (written while Donne was convalescing from a nearly fatal illness) published in 1624 as Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, specifically Meditation XVII. The poem is commonly given to schoolchildren to study. Hemingway quotes part of the meditation (using Donne's original spelling) in the book's epigraph, which in turn refers to the practice of funeral tolling:
- 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.
The point made by the choice of this title and epigraph is that the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, a major topic of debate in Western intellectual and political circles, is not of importance only to Spaniards; it matters to everyone. Furthermore, the title and epigraph can be interpreted as a reference to the themes of death within the novel, particularly between the characters of Robert Jordan and Anselmo.