The Snows of Kilimanjaro

by Ernest Hemingway

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Explain the title "The Snows of Kilmanjaro."

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The title "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" refers to the purity of death. It suggests the story's subject matter, which is the process of Harry dying. At the end, after his death, Harry sees himself coming to the top of Kilimanjaro, the mountain whose western summit means "the House of God."

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The title can be read in both a literal and a figurative sense. Literally, it refers to the snow-capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, a dormant volcano in the East African country of Tanzania. On a figurative level, the title refers to the realm of death that Harry wishes to enter.

Tired of life, which he finds perennially boring and unsatisfying, Harry is prepared to die in Africa and in a fever dream imagines that he will be buried on the snows of Kilimanjaro, which in the local Masai language means “House of God.”

The figurative meaning of the story's title is therefore the most important as it relates to Harry's innermost desire to escape a life he doesn't enjoy and a wife he doesn't love. Such an escape can only come through death. And in his semiconscious state, his imagination as a writer, long suppressed by a life of indolent luxury, manifests itself once more as he experiences a feverish vision of being rescued by a plane and then subsequently buried in the “House of God.”

There, in the natural world, as opposed to the artificial world he has inhabited for so long, he will find the peace and tranquility that has eluded him in this world.

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Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain peak in Africa, and its western summit, the Masai "Ngaje Ngai," means "the House of God." It is associated with the purity of death in this story, while snow is also associated with purity and death, as well as dreams and their loss. The title of the story foreshadows Harry's death and suggests the subject of the story, which is the process of dying.

Snow and mountain imagery come together as symbols of dying in Harry's first flashback, memories of hiking on a mountain in Bulgaria:

And it was snow they tramped along in until they died that winter.

A snowy mountaintop memory is described in idyllic terms:

Where they ran down the glacier above the Madlenerhaus, the snow as smooth to see as cake frosting and as light as powder and he remembered the noiseless rush the speed made as you dropped down like a bird.

But snow is also the ominous, stained harbinger of death:

The deserter came with his feet bloody in the snow.

They walk on

the sleigh-smoothed urine-yellowed road.

Snow represents loss too, as it is associated with gambling losses Harry suffers and his loss of his dream of writing.

Harry recalls himself traveling on horseback on the mountains at night, themselves another symbol of death. The mountains are clear, sharp, pure, and beautiful:

The mountains, the clear sharpness of the peak in the evening light and, riding down along the trail in the moonlight, bright across the valley.

At the end of the story, after he has died, Harry believes he is in the mountains and finally seems to be heading for the top of Kilimanjaro, the home of God:

There, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.

The title thus refers to what happens at the end of the story, when the dying Harry, who had done good deeds in his life, such as giving away his own morphine to relieve the pain of another soldier in World War I and protecting his wife by not telling her he doesn't love her, ascends to the snowy, mountaintop purity of death.

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The title comes from the great mountain looming over the story. Harry has been on safari with Helen, and a seemingly minor injury has led to Harry's developing a fatal case of gangrene. As Harry lies dying, he contemplates his life and the opportunities he squandered to be a good writer in favor of a life of pleasure. Memories of the past—and especially moments of valor or masculine camaraderie—are interwoven with Harry's realization that he has chosen a life he does not admire with a woman whom he thinks has led him to become a man he does not admire.

The story is framed by mention of the mountain itself. It opens with an italicized portion in which we learn that Kilimanjaro is called in Africa "the House of God" and that a leopard carcass had been found, paradoxically, near the top of the mountain. The end of the story presents Harry falling into a dream from which he doesn't awake, believing that he is being flown out of the valley to a hospital. Instead, the airplane in the dream takes him to the top of the mountain, signifying his death.

In another story, "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," Hemingway established a motif that carries throughout his work. Places that are clean and well-lit are associated with good places where people live honest lives. In "Kilimanjaro," the mountain top is clean and well-lit, especially compared to the places where Harry has been wasting his life and the safari plain where he lies dying. The ending, then, offers a positive note, even though Harry dies.

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The title refers to the snow-capped summit of Kilmanjaro, which is lofty, faraway and, though visible, unattainable. It represents goals or dreams thwarted by unexpected events in life and "detours" one takes by facility or necessity. More specifically, the protagonist in this story dies from gangrene induced by the mere scratch of a thorn.

As Harry is being transported by plane to the nearest hospital, he contemplates the untainted crest of Kilmanjaro, regretting that he did not fulfil his own ambition to become an artist. Harry, a VIP globetrotting playboy, meets an agonizing end after intermittant bouts of fever, suffering and soul-searching. If he comes to terms with his own fragility and mortality, nature is depicted as an entity without pity but nevertheless noble, beyond the preoccupations of man and the human condition in general.

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