In Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," how significant is it that Harry suffers a mortal wound from something as mundane as an infected scratch from a thorn? How does this cause of death relate to the ideas of Modernism?
In Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” it seems significant – and also a reflection of literary “modernism” – that Harry ultimately dies from a wound caused by something as apparently minor as an infected scratch from a thorn. This cause of death seems full of implications in various ways, including the following:
- The ultimate cause of Harry’s death is unheroic. The “modernist” period in literature was a period in which old, traditional assumptions and ideals were often coming into question. This was especially true of heroic, romantic ideals often associated with the nineteenth century – ideals that undercut by the grim horrors of World War I. If Harry had died as the result of a heroic fight with an impressive enemy (human or animal), his death might seem to make some sort of larger “sense.” In might seem to have some deeper “meaning.” Instead, death as the result of an infected scratch seems highly ironic and also highly unheroic. It seems almost accidental and meaningless. It implies that humans are not in significant control of their lives or destinies but can be killed by the tiniest, most accidental causes. Harry lives in a universe that seems to make no great “sense.” His death seems somewhat absurd. In all these ways, then, his death seems to reflect many “modernist” assumptions about the nature of life.
- Contemplating Harry’s wound and the extreme consequences that have resulted from it, Harry’s wife at one point says,
“I don't see why that had to happen to your leg. What have we done to have that happen to us?"
Harry’s wife is operating here under assumptions that were heavily questioned during the modernist period. She assumes that life has some meaning, when many modernists doubted the very existence of ultimate meanings. She assumes that there should be some correlation between what happens to a person and what that person deserves. In other words, she assumes that the universe is meaningful, even moral, and makes some coherent sense. All these assumptions were strongly questioned by many modernists, who often believed that life was chaotic, random, absurd, and alienating. If suffering made some ultimate sense it could be endured more easily, but for many modernists suffering is just as pointless and lacking in meaning as anything else in life.
- Harry, replying sarcastically to his wife’s question (see preceding quotation), says,
"I suppose what I did was to forget to put iodine on it when I first scratched it. Then I didn't pay any attention to it because I never infect. Then, later, when it got bad, it was probably using that weak carbolic solution when the other antiseptics ran out that paralyzed the minute blood vessels and started the gangrene."
Harry’s sarcasm implies his alienation from his wife, and alienation – a sense of ultimate human loneliness – was a very common theme of modernist literature. Nothing in the story clearly suggests that there is any afterlife for Harry – that his existence on earth will be redeemed and compensated for by some pleasant existence in the hereafter. The word “god” or references to the Christian “God” are never really mentioned in the story except twice, as parts of curses. The lack of any consoling religious vision is another indication that this is a modernist work.