Does Evans overemphasize symbolic elements in the story and do you think that Hemingway’s symbols are as programmatic as “rotten flesh equals rotten soul”? “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by...

Does Evans overemphasize symbolic elements in the story and do you think that Hemingway’s symbols are as programmatic as “rotten flesh equals rotten soul”?

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway. 

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amarang9 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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If a reader of this story wants to look at it from a limited lens, then Evans does overemphasize the symbols in the story. In other words, if a reader simply looks at the text itself (no autobiographical information and no inter-textual references, etc.) then some of Evans' analysis will seem superfluous. However, if a reader wants to explore the text using analysis that is not limited to one school of theory (i.e. the New Critics who focused just on the text itself and its "textual" or literary qualities), then Evans' analysis is not superfluous; it is thorough. 

A limited analysis might suggest that Hemingway's symbols are "programmatic" and that "rotten flesh equals rotten soul" is simplistic albeit serving a symbolic purpose of the story. But if we look at how the symbols interact, we explore other ways of considering the symbols. On one hand, exploring all possible interpretations can get out of hand, resulting in illogical and academically irresponsible conclusions. But Evans simply doesn't do this. The connections he makes in refuting other scholars' conclusions are all logical and do not get so far out there that they seem to overemphasize the symbolic work in the story.

In Evans' essay, he makes the argument that the rotting leg is a parallel for Harry's rotting soul or his rotting "death-in-life." But he goes further than that, showing that this symbol is not just a simplified programmatic icon. Harry's rotting leg has also become numb just as in his second phase of life ("death-in-life") he has become complacent, bored, and lacking any vitality whatsoever. Evans quotes Harry's opening statement about his infected leg: 

"The marvelous thing is that it's painless," he said. "That's when you know it starts." 

This literally means his leg is going numb and death is beginning; it is also symbolic of his life with Helen. His previous life - before Helen, when he was full of life - dies when he becomes complacent with Helen; he becomes numb and the death of his soul, his "death-in-life" starts as well.

Evans then contrasts the rotting leg/rotting soul with the immaculately preserved leopard which is not rotting, preserved perfectly like the soul after having apparently attempted to reach the peak: a physical/spiritual transcendence. This "rotten leg/rotten soul" connection might seem simple on the surface but when considering some of the other symbols and themes of the story, it is not an overemphasis nor a stretch to see how the numbness of his leg represents the numbness of the second phase of his life. Nor is it a stretch to see how Harry's death is a transcendence from that rotting material world of complacency to the ideal world symbolized by the purity of the snow on the peak of the mountain. And again, the leopard is a link to Harry's first phase of life (Harry, full of life / the leopard, a wild animal) and the leopard is also a symbol of the soul in an ideal state, perfectly frozen forever, a link to Harry's "life-in-death." 

The "rotting leg/rotting soul" connection is obvious (maybe even simplistic) by itself but in contextualizing it with other elements of the story, it becomes a bit more intricate. Evans explores the symbols more thoroughly than those he cites (and some of which he argues with). It isn't just the rotting of his leg that symbolizes the rotting of his soul and/or creativity. It is the numbness of the leg that symbolizes the lack of luster in his life. 

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