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The leopard in Ernest Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is referenced in a short kind of prologue before the story ever begins.
Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai "Ngaje Ngai," the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.
One symbolic interpretation of this dead, frozen leopard is his foreshadowing of what is going to happen in the story. When we read about death before the story even begins, we should expect that there will be death in the story. We are not disappointed, as one of the first things we learn is that the protagonist, Harry, is dying of gangrene.
The leopard is also symbolic of all that is strong, noble, and courageous; it dies in a symbolic quest to find the "House of God." In truth, the leopard and his valiant, purposeful attempt to reach the pinnacle of the mountain are a stark contrast to the journey Harry undertakes. The leopard, then, is the symbol of what Harry wanted to be. When he flies over Mount Kilimanjaro in his dream, he sees the shining whiteness, "and then he knew that there was where he was going." He will die, just like the leopard, and both are going to heaven (at least in his dream).
The leopard becomes even more symbolic of these qualities when it is compared to the hyena at the end of the story. Though both of them are animals, the hyena is a scavenger who never ventures far from death. It is not noble, nor is it courageous; it is a skulking creature who hovers on the plains. This image, which comes at the end of the novel, is a stark counterpoint to the leopard which comes at the beginning of the story.
The leopard is a symbol who Harry might have been, could have been, and was (but only in his dreams); the hyena is symbolic of the reality of Harry's gangrenous, disappointing death. Despite that, when Harry sees the leopard on the mountain, he is somehow released from this life and its trials to something more heavenly. The death of the leopard in the prologue, then, is a kind of hopeful epitaph for Harry.
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