After the onslaught of so-called American values Philip Roth conjured up in American Pastoral, reading John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano was almost jarring. Everything that Roth disavowed in his novel, Hersey makes an overwhelming case for in his; everything that Roth showed to be a facade in his novel, Hersey attempted to make genuine in his. One of these two authors is clearly propagating me.
I have a feeling it’s Hersey.
A Bell for Adano is the story of Major Victor Joppolo, an American officer stationed in the town of Adano in 1943 Italy, during World War II. During his tenure of overseeing the daily activities of the town and its people, he comes to be incredibly well-liked by everyone there—not so much because of his personality, but because of how truly American he is. To the townspeople, he represents the America that drove out the evils of Fascism and replaced them with freedom and democracy; he represents the America that is fair and just, the America that guarantees equality.
There are a few troubling things about this character, however: he consciously made every effort to ensure that he was well-liked by the townspeople. If he felt that he was losing popularity, he did whatever it took to gain it back. So, although Hersey wants the reader to believe that Joppolo’s main concern was the well-being of the town, and I do believe that was a great concern for him, I really think that he was more interested in keeping up appearances; in making sure that he presented himself in such a way that would make the townspeople believe that he was some sort of American Messiah, sent to cleanse the town of Fascism and provide salvation for those who believe.
Knowing that Hersey was a war correspondent in Italy during this time, and presuming that he wrote this book partly based on his experiences, seems to suggest he had bought into the notion of the cleansing powers of American democracy just as much as his Joppolo.
Maybe Joppolo was an extension of Hersey?
This book couldn’t have been more timely on Hersey’s part either—it was written and published in 1944 and won the Pulitzer in 1945, during the last two years of World War II, when the Allies had finally regained momentum and, ultimately, defeated the Axis Powers. This was a time when Americans were questioning their country’s involvement in “Europe’s war” and were anxious to believe that going to war was the right thing to do. With this novel, it seems as though Hersey’s intent was to restore a sense of nationalism amongst his fellow countrymen.
The only thing that offsets this theory is that Joppolo isn’t the only American character in this book—he is, however, the only American that is portrayed in a positive light. Surrounding him are Sergeant Borth, a total meathead/complete nincompoop; Captain Purvis, a nervous do-gooder; Lieutenant Livingston, a pushover; and General Mavis, a despicable ass.
Furthermore, the conclusion of the book is one of the most puzzling endings I’ve come across yet: Joppolo countermands a direct order from General Mavis, Mavis finds out about it, comes down on him hard, and has him reassigned to Algiers. So after all the good that Joppolo did for Adano and its people, he is relieved of his duties and banished away. Furthermore, according to the conversations in the book, Mavis replaced him with a different Major that was utterly disinterested in everything.
So, if Hersey was trying to get across a pro-American message, why the confounding ending? The only thing that comes to mind is that Hersey really wanted Joppolo to portray, like I said before, “the American Messiah.” In order to most accurately paint him as a savior, Hersey would have had to have Joppolo martyred somehow—maybe fearing that execution or casualty would have been a little too obvious, he chose to simply have him banished. I really don’t know; this is the best I could come up with to justify the ending.