In Hemingway’s short stories, nature is consistently depicted as both uncaring and unyielding. The author eschews any influence from the Enlightenment and Romantic periods. In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” he shows that memories and good intentions are no match for the ruthless onset of disease. “A Natural History of the Dead” sarcastically dismisses the notion of divine providence by documenting the ugly reality of death. And “The Capital of the World” demonstrates that nature can claim the life of a young, innocent man even if he feels no fear. What is important, then, is that men try to live their life according to a code of honor while they remain alive.
Writing in the post-World War I era, Hemingway refused to follow the lead of his literary predecessors of the 18th and 19th centuries when it came to a view of nature. Enlightenment thinker Alexander Pope wrote in his “Essay on Criticism”: “First follow Nature and your judgment frame / By her just standard, which is still the same.” Romantic poet William Wordsworth said in “Tintern Abbey”: “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.” But Hemingway's work clearly dismisses any notion that we can either look to nature for guidance or rely on its kindness when confronted with trials.
In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Hemingway’s choice of gangrene as the route to death for his protagonist, a writer named Harry, is grimly effective. Laid up in a camp on the edge of the Tanganyika plains, Harry contemplates his imminent demise with a tone of attempted detachment: “The marvelous thing is that it’s painless.” But that tone is hard to maintain when he sees “huge, filthy birds” gathering nearby, sensing that soon there may be a corpse for them to feast upon. As he verbally torments the rich woman who has loved him and paid his way for years, his rationalization, “I don't like to leave anything behind,” represents his desire to be as ruthlessly effective in dissecting his experience as nature is in destroying the weak and worn-out.
Harry knows that while he has made mistakes in his love life and career as an artist, it is not particularly his fault that he is doomed to die. Instead, it is a combination of a fluke and a seemingly minor oversight: “[He] had not used iodine two weeks ago when a thorn had scratched his knee as they moved forward trying to photograph a herd of waterbuck.” Evidently, neither the thorn nor the waterbuck intended for Harry to die, but they uncaringly contribute to that eventuality, and nothing can stop it now. He recalls with regret the stories about skiing and travelling and fishing that he will never get to write, but again, the vividness of his memories provides no shield from death. When he finally does die, the “strange noise” of a nearby hyena provides an appropriate closing note: nature will go on...
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Although it is perhaps the least characteristic of any of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, ‘‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’’ is often considered to be Hemingway’s finest accomplishment in the genre of short fiction. Moreover, most critics agree that Harry, the protagonist of the story, is Hemingway’s self-portrait, and this makes the story doubly interesting for students of this giant of twentieth-century American writing. The story recounts the death of a failed writer and a man who is at least unpleasant, if not actually the ‘‘bad man’’ that many of his critics have accused him of being. In describing Harry’s death, Hemingway confronted many of the demons that haunted him: contempt for what he saw as an ignorant audience, alcohol and its numbing effects, war, and the unfulfilled promise of a vastly talented writer. Hemingway and Harry both arrive at a vision of transcendence that is ironically incongruous with Harry’s decidedly degraded character.
But does this vision actually represent transcendence, or does the ending juxtaposition of the story—Harry flying toward the snow-capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro while his wife remains in the humid tent with his rotting leg and a hyena whining outside—simply represent Harry’s final fictionalizing of himself? The story relies heavily on symbolism, and critics generally have used the symbols in the story as the primary evidence for their interpretation of the moral value of Harry’s end. To fully understand the story, however, readers must also take into consideration the styles of narration that Hemingway uses, for the distinction between the roman type sections and the italic sections reflects the distinction between Harry’s exterior persona and his interior memories.
The story moves by means of oscillation. It is structured as a pendulum that swings between two extremes, and this motion works on many levels. On a typographical level, the story moves between roman and italic type. At the same time, the text oscillates between dialogue-driven, almost adjective-free plain prose and a reminiscence-laden, run-on style of thinking about the past. Harry’s attitude toward his wife oscillates between contempt or even loathing for her to affection and respect for her. Most of the symbols in the story are polarities, as well; the hyena at the end of the story and the leopard at the beginning are different extremes of the same pendulum, as are the clean white peak of the mountain and the fetid humidity of the plain.
The sections in roman type are very typical of Hemingway’s writing. In these sections, the protagonist converses with his wife about the events of the immediate present and skims over the details of the past. In this, the story resembles such classic Hemingway stories as ‘‘Cat in the Rain’’ or ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants.’’ But in ‘‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro''—and quite unlike many Hemingway stories—the internal thoughts of the protagonist are revealed as early as the third page: ‘‘So now it was all over, he thought . . . for years it had obsessed him; but now it meant nothing in itself.’’ But for the most part, Harry is a classic macho Hemingway character, staring death in the face and not seeming to blink. ‘‘Can’t you let a man die as comfortably as he can without calling him names?’’ he asks his wife. ‘‘I’m dying now. Ask those bastards,’’ he continues, indicating the vultures who are waiting to claim his body.
The sections in roman type, such as the section discussed above, show Harry to be an egotistical, cruel, callous, and mean-spirited man. Even before readers journey into his thoughts to learn his opinion of his wife, they can already see that he holds her in contempt by the way he brushes off her efforts to be kind and caring to him. ‘‘So this was the way it ended in bickering and a drink,’’ he thinks to himself. As the story progresses, he takes his frustrations out almost exclusively on his wife. When she tries to remind him of things he loved—hotels in Paris, for instance—he snaps back at her that ‘‘love is a dunghill . . . and I’m the cock that gets on it to crow.’’
Harry had been a promising young writer who fell in with a rich crowd because, he told himself, he wanted to write about them. ‘‘He had had his life and it was over and then he went living it again with different people and more money,’’ the narrator states. However, he was seduced by their luxuries and allowed those luxuries to distract him from his true calling. ‘‘Each day of not writing,’’ the narrator continues, ‘‘of comfort, of being that which he despised, dulled his ability and softened his will to work so that, finally, he did no work at...
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