Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
As the story opens, the speaker, later identified as Harry, is proclaiming that something is painless. It soon 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.
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 fortune 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. 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...
(The entire section is 482 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1891), “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” tells of a writer, Harry, who faces almost immediate death in Africa from gangrene. A rescue plane is to fly in and rescue him, but his prognosis is grave. In the story, the great, white, hovering plane arrives, sparkling in the bright sun.
The fact is that the plane does not arrive. What the reader is told is Harry’s final dream. His wife, Helen, comes into the bedroom and finds him dead. The story is important in the Hemingway canon because, like A Farewell to Arms and others of his works, it contrasts the mountain (purity) to the plain (corruption). Harry spends the last afternoon of his life quarreling with his wife. Like the protagonist in Henry James’s “The Middle Years,” written in 1882, Harry bemoans the fact that he has wasted his talent. Harry, the supreme egoist, is morally bankrupt. The gangrene in his rotting leg is no worse than the spiritual gangrene that has rotted his soul.
In his prefatory paragraph, Hemingway describes and situates Kenya’s Mount Kilimanjaro—at 19,710 feet the highest mountain in Africa. He reveals that close to its summit is the desiccated, frozen carcass of a leopard, whose presence at that altitude is a mystery. In sharp contrast to the pure, cold mountaintop and noble leopard are the overheated plain below and the hyena that emits almost human cries at the moment of Harry’s death, awakening Helen, who finds her husband dead.
Hemingway places Harry on an acme artistically but shows him being devoured by those for whom he writes—or, perhaps, like the hyena in Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa, he is self-devouring. Certainly like Belmonte, the bullfighter in The Sun Also Rises, he is exceptionally talented but appalled by his audience, represented in the story by Helen and by the hyena, both of whom weep at Harry’s death. The sustained metaphor of the mountaintop/leopard and the plain/hyena presents the sharp, controlled contrasts that make “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” one of Hemingway’s most artistically successful stories.