Masterplots II, Short Story Series, Rev. Ed.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro
Author: Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
Type of Plot: Psychological
Time of Plot: The late 1920's or early 1930's
Locale: Tanganyika near the Kenya border, close to Mount Kilimanjaro
First Published: 1936
HARRY WALDEN, an American writer
HELEN, his rich American wife
As the story opens, the speaker, later identified as Harry, is proclaiming that something is painless. As the story unfolds, Ernest Hemingway reveals that Harry and his wife, Helen, are encamped somewhere near Mount Kilimanjaro, which, at nearly twenty thousand feet, is Africa's highest mountain. An epigraph at the beginning of the story before the action is under way describes the snow-capped mountain, mentioning that the name for its western summit is translated from the local Masai language as the House of God.
Near this summit lies the frozen remains of a leopard. Why it was at that altitude remains a mystery, but the leopard, though seldom mentioned, becomes a symbol that Hemingway leaves for his readers to interpret. In "The Art of the Short Story," he calls the leopard part of the metaphysics of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."
Extensive dialogue at the beginning of the story reveals that the speakers, husband and wife, have a combative relationship. Harry has ceased to be in love with Helen, although she adores him. In Harry's dialogue, one quickly detects a deep-seated underlying anger and a contempt for not just Helen, but all women. Indeed, Harry feels and expresses guilt about the deterioration of his relationship with his wife, who has quite willingly put her considerable fortunate at Harry's disposal. The rub is that the comfortable life that Helen has provided seems to have robbed Harry of the motivation he needs to write.
Hemingway likens this trip to Africa, devoid of luxuries, and to the training athletes undertake after they allow themselves to get out of shape. Harry and Helen have left their superficial rich friends behind in Paris, where they are pursuing their inconsequential lives. Harry toys with idea of writing about the idle rich, viewing himself as a sort of spy in their territory.
It is soon revealed that Harry is on his deathbed, suffering from gangrene that is moving rapidly from his lower legs to other parts of his body. He and Helen, along with their African servant, Molo, are stranded in this remote part of Tanganyika because an inept driver has failed to check the oil in their truck, causing it to burn out a bearing and become inoperable. Their only hope now is that a plane will land on their compound and fly Harry to a medical facility.
Harry has gangrene because he ignored a thorn prick to his knee some days earlier. As his wound festered and became swollen, he treated it with a mild solution of carbolic acid, which proved to be too little too late. The gangrene kept one step ahead of Harry's attempts to thwart its progress.
Throughout the story, Harry vacillates between consciousness and unconsciousness. His conscious periods become shorter and shorter. Unconsciousness reveries of his past fill his mind and reveal a great deal about his past. The passages during the unconscious state are printed in italics except for the one very near the end in which Harry hallucinates about the plane coming to rescue him.
As it turns out, Harry's illusion of the plane is just that: an illusion. In the end, Helen has Harry's cot carried into their tent. Before long, she tries to rouse him but cannot. She becomes aware that his breathing has stopped, just as a hyena, a carnivore that feeds on dead animals, howls outside their tent.
Themes and Meanings
An underlying theme in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" illustrates the inroads that wealth can make on talent. Harry was once regarded as a promising author, a part of the expatriate movement that flourished in Paris following World War I. Hemingway, very much a part of this literary group, uses this story to articulate a great many of his own fears and feelings regarding his problems. The story has strong autobiographical elements, although the facts of Hemingway's existence that it often suggests are not intended to be taken as accurate autobiographical accounts of his life.
Harry's friends once relished reading what he was writing. After his marriage to Helen, he moved into a different echelon of society and was thrown into the company of rich people who were more comfortable with him when he did not work. It is from these people he hopes to escape when he and Helen go to Africa for what he considers his own rehabilitation. Therefore, their trip is a basic one devoid of the luxuries they could easily command.
Throughout the story, Helen, seemingly in a state of denial about Harry's prognosis, struggles to keep his attitude positive. In doing so, Hemingway creates a character whose optimistic sentiments strike Harry as the platitudes of a fool. Her sanguine sentiments are counterbalanced by Harry's cynical outlook, with the result that they quarrel frequently. Helen wants to strengthen Harry with broth, which, in rare acquiescence, he drinks. In a moment of guilt over how badly he treats Helen, he uncharacteristically tells her that the broth tastes good.
However, what Harry really wants is his whiskey soda. He asks for it several times and sometimes gets it, but always the request and its occasional fulfillment are accompanied by Helen's refrain, "It's not good for you." Helen's concern for her husband is genuine. She is a mother figure, as Hemingway's wives often were. Harry (Hemingway) both wants and needs a mother but also greatly resents his wife's playing this role. The seeds of the Harry-Helen conflict increase with every nurturing move that Helen makes.
Style and Technique
"The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is told in the third person and is rich with dialogue. In the italicized portions, which represent Harry's mental meanderings during his frequent periods of unconsciousness, the reader encounters a man who has wandered around Europe, has slept with a great variety of women, and has used other people shamelessly.
Always, however, there is a nagging conscience in Harry that is closely related to the overall sense of loneliness that his exploits cannot eradicate. This underlying guilt is much a part of the Harry-Helen interaction in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." It reveals a decency in Harry that on careful consideration eclipses his cynicism and self-serving behavior.
Hemingway is a master of visual imagery. In this story, for example, he writes, "Behind the house were fields and behind the fields was the timber. A line of lombardy poplars ran from the house to the dock. Other poplars ran along the point. A road went up to the hills along the edge of the timber and along that road he picked blackberries." Readers gain a remarkable sense of place through such image-invoking descriptions.
Hemingway suggests Harry's impending death by introducing hovering vultures and a howling hyena into the story, all attracted by the smell of Harry's rotting flesh. He also connects Harry's rotting flesh to poetry--"rot and poetry, rotten poetry."
This story is remarkable in the way it packs so many of the details of Hemingway's life--sex, relationships with women, aesthetic outlook, ethical orientation--into a text of less than thirty pages. The writing is spare and muscular. It makes its points with little fanfare but with memorable clarity.
When Helen asks Harry if he loves her, his answer is that he does not think so, that he never has. This answer evokes memories of his story "Soldier's Home," in which there is a similar bit of dialogue between the mother and her son Harold, a soldier returned from the war. In both instances, the male character feels obliged to dash a woman's expectation of an answer that is begged by her question. Above all, Hemingway sought honesty and truth in his writing and demanded nothing less of his fictional characters.
Harry's final reverie is not italicized as are the rest of his unconscious imaginings. In this one, a plane appears overhead, flown by a pilot identified as Compton. It is guided into a small landing strip by the smoke from smudge pots the servants have ignited.
The plane can accommodate just one passenger, so if Harry is to get medical attention, Helen must remain behind. Harry is loaded onto the plane, which the pilot has said must make a refueling stop in Atrusha. However, once the craft is airborne, the pilot aims it in another direction, flying over the starkly white Mount Kilimanjaro.
In this reverie, Harry sheds himself of Helen, who cannot go along because of the plane's limited capacity, but he approaches the land of the frozen leopard. This ending is reminiscent of the ironic conclusion of Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," which perhaps influenced it. This story ends with the protagonist awakening from a happy dream to find that he is being hanged.
R. Baird Shuman
SALEM PRESS, a division of EBSCO Publishing. · 131 North El Molino Avenue · Pasadena · CA 91101
© Salem Press, Inc. All Rights Reserved.