Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
An underlying theme in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” concerns 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 medical condition, 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 strains of the Harry-Helen conflict increase with every nurturing move that Helen makes.