Some critics mention the deliberate, and unsual emphasis on symbolism and say there is no doubt Hemingway depicted himself in the story. Other writers have assumed that a biographical interpretation of the story is necessarily incompatible with symbolic interpretation. Do you agree?
“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway
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Ernest Hemingway published "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" in 1938, twenty years or so into his writing career but twenty-three years before he committed suicide. It is difficult for me to read this short story as a completely autobiographical work since so much of his life was ahead of him; it is also not written as a particularly prophetic work, though certainly there may be some identifiable parallels between the story and the remainder of Hemingway's life. For me this story is Hemingway's reflections, at what turns out to be about the midpoint of his writing career, on his writing life.
In another work, Green Hills, Hemingway expressed his belief that "politics, women, drink, money and ambition" all serve as distractions and detriments to American writers. Hemingway always feared that having too much contact with wealthy people might cause him to compromise as a writer, and that theme is evident in this story.
The contrasting bookend symbols, the frozen carcass of a snow leopard who was making his way to the "House of God" and the circling hyenas sniffing out death, are apt for these kinds of reflections. The leopard was on a journey to greatness but died on the way, leaving his task (his work) unfinished. The hyenas smell the emptiness of unfinished work, which is equivalent to death for Hemingway.
And just then it occurred to him that he was going to die. It came with a rush; not as a rush of water nor of wind; but of a sudden, evil-smelling emptiness and the odd thing was that the hyena slipped lightly along the edge of it.
Harry spends his final days thinking, and his thoughts express the fears so common in most of Hemingway's works, though in this story they are specific to his own craft and calling: writing. He enumerates the same basic fear throughout the story, as in the three quotes below:
Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either. Maybe you could never write them, and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting. Well he would never know, now.
Each day of not writing, of comfort, of being that which he despised, dulled his ability and softened his will to work so that, finally, he did no work at all.
For this, that now was coming, he had very little curiosity. For years it had obsessed him; but now it meant nothing in itself. It was strange how easy being tired enough made it.
Clearly these are reflections of Hemingway's fears about his own life and his own craft, so the story does contain autobiographical elements. However, the encroaching hyenas which come for Harry in the end are symbolic more of the death of his craft than his own death.
To read this story as completely autobiographically is probably not accurate, nor is reading it as a purely symbolic work. It seems to be more of a reflection by an author, during a time in which he associated himself as part of the Lost Generation, on his writing.
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