How does Hemingway use the, "Iceberg Theory," in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro"?

Expert Answers
agrinwald eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In English literature courses, the iceberg theory refers to the idea that the meaning of a work of literature is hidden under the surface; in other words, understanding what the story is about will take some digging and thorough investigation. Hemingway once wrote on his work,  “I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg . . . there is seven-eighths of it under water for every part that shows.” With works like "Hills Like White Elephants" and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber", Hemingway certainly crafts intricate and psychologically complex stories under stories that are deceivingly simplistic.

In Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," which is perhaps one of the author's most notable and widely discussed works, the iceberg theory is vital in unraveling an understanding of the text. The story's protagonist, Harry, is descending into a fatal illness caused by a gangrenous infection in his leg. As the story progresses, Harry reflects on his life, particularly with his lover Helen, whom he claims to despise.

The gangrenous infection, which causes his leg to stink and rot, can be seen as a decomposition of his dedication to his morality and his personal ideologies. Even more than that, the rotting of his leg is a symbol for the rotting of his own talent. The story reads,

He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals himself and what he believed in, by drinking to much that it blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice, by hook and by crook.

Reading this passage and comparing it to the character's slow death and the literal decomposition of his body, it becomes clear that Hemingway has crafted a tale about more than a man's physical death.

While it is never entirely safe to read works of fiction as autobiographical, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" shares many characteristics with Hemingway himself. Hemingway held a certain contempt for the middle and upper classes, a trait shared by Harry, who finds himself morally compromised by loving the rich woman named Helen. Hemingway also loved African safaris, was a professional writer, and held traditionally masculine traits--like refraining from showing emotional affection to women--just like Harry. In this case, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" acts as a perfect of the iceberg theory in several levels. There is, of course, the metaphorical aspects within the story, but there is also a psychological analysis of the author himself through his own work.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The iceberg theory is used to comment a lot upon the subconscious of humans. It is estimated that we only see about 20% of the icebergs floating on top of the water, and that the majority of the iceberg lurks unseen below the water. So it is with our consciousness. We display very little of who we are as humans.

We can relate this theory to this brilliant story by refering to the character of Harry and how his daydreams and flashbacks reveal more of him than his appearance and his comments and actions at the time of the story do. In particular, one of the most memorable hallucinations that could be argued to express his subconscious is his flight of fantasy at the end, when he imagines he has been saved in time and he describes flying above the peak of Kilimanjaro:

...and then they were out and Compie turned his head and grinned and pointed and 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.

Throughout the story, Harry seems to be a character who is eaten up by the way he has betrayed his artistic talent and sold himself out. The symbol of the gangrene slowly eating up his leg is a powerful metaphor for the way that his perceived failures eat up his psyche, and he himself equates the two, saying, "Rot and poetry. Rotten poetry." Even though he could be said to squander his gifts in his life, as he dies he returns to the purity of artistic creation. The beautiful scene of the peak of Kilimanjaro is a sight that creates awe in him because of its purity. Ironically, it is only as he dies that his artistic ability is able to fully manifest itself in creating a transcendentent experience that emerges from his subconscious. The iceberg theory therefore shows Harry for who he really is, in spite of the way that he has lived his life.

Read the study guide:
The Snows of Kilimanjaro

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question