In "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," what was Harry's initial reaction to seeing the vultures?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The vultures are introduced at the beginning of the story. Harry, who is dying, seems only partly rational, as if he is already succumbing to the slow, gradual onset of death. He is not the least frightened or disturbed by the big, ugly birds. He seems interested and curious. He knows he is dying and that those vultures would like to feast on his body, but he doesn't seem to care in the least. He accepts the fact that the birds are hungry, just as he accepts the fact that he is going to die. 

"Look at them," he said. "Now is it sight or is it scent that brings them like that?"

Harry is very obviously a writer and interested in his own impressions of things because he would like to be able to capture those impressions in words. He has been doing this for so long that it has become a force of habit with him, even though he is observing his own death.

"They've been there since the day the truck broke down," he said. "Today's the first time any have lit on the ground. I watched the way they sailed very carefully at first in case I ever wanted to use them in a story. That's funny now."

He is in fact using them in a story. Hemingway himself was very much like his character Harry. Hemingway's descriptions show his keen interest in all aspects of nature. His writing often seems like the paintings of artists like Monet and Van Gogh. He had a painter's eye. Characteristically, he was always writing about the outdoors. He was extremely susceptible to sensations. His description of the vultures is admirably graphic. In just a few words he makes us see the three birds squatting "obscenely" and a dozen more just like them circling in the sky, "making quick-moving shadows as they passed." These opening sentences, including the dialogue which characterizes the speakers, represent Ernest Hemingway at his best. "Squatted obscenely" is a perfect description of the way vultures perch on the ground. Their ugliness seems appropriate to their nature as scavengers, always attracted to the dead and the dying. Hemingway's decision to open his story with a description of these very real and ominous but symbolic birds seems admirably correct. 

Hemingway's descriptions of the thoughts of a dying man strongly resemble those by Leo Tolstoy in "The Death of Ivan Ilyich." Hemingway was a great admirer of Tolstoy, one of the few writers he ever acknowledged to be better than himself. 

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