Since its publication, the prose style and dialogue in Hemingway's novel have been the source of controversy and some negative critical reaction. For example, Edmund Wilson, in a tepid review, noted the encumbrance of "a strange atmosphere of literary medievalism" in the relationship between Robert Jordan and Maria. This stems in part from a distinctive feature of the novel, namely Hemingway's extensive use of archaisms, implied literal translations and false friends to convey the foreign (Spanish) tongue spoken by his characters. Thus, Hemingway uses the archaic "thou" (particularly in its oblique and possessive form) to highlight the differences in Spanish between the more formal and archaic, but popular "vos" (singular) and "vosotros" (plural) forms from the pronominal "tú" (familiar) and "Usted" (formal). Additionally, much of the dialogue in the novel is an implied direct translation from Spanish, producing an often strained English equivalent. For example, Hemingway uses the construction "what passes that", which is an implied translation of the Spanish construction lo que pasa. This translation extends to the use of linguistic "false friends", such as "rare" (from raro) instead of "strange" and "syndicate" (from sindicato) instead of trade union. In another odd stylistic variance, Hemingway referenced foul language (used with some frequency by different characters in the novel) with "unprintable" and "obscenity" and substitutes "muck" for fuck in the dialogue and thoughts of the characters, although foul language is used freely in Spanish even when its equivalent is censored in English (e.g. joder, me cago). The Spanish expression of exasperation me cago en la leche (which translates to "I shit in the milk") repeatedly recurs throughout the novel, translated by Hemingway as "I obscenity in the milk."
The book is written in the third person limited omniscient narrative mode. The action and dialogue are punctuated by extensive thought sequences told from the viewpoint of Robert Jordan. The novel also contains thought sequences of other characters, including Pilar and Anselmo. The thought sequences are more extensive than in Hemingway's earlier fiction, notably A Farewell to Arms, and are an important narrative device to explore the principal themes of the novel.
Pulitzer Prize controversy
In 1941 the Pulitzer Prize committee for letters unanimously recommended For Whom the Bell Tolls be awarded the prize for that year. The Pulitzer Board agreed. However, Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University ex officio head of the Pulitzer board at that time, found the novel offensive and persuaded the board to reverse its determination; no award was given for letters that year.