Why did Hemingway write "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and what makes it so important?
In Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences, the biographer James R. Mellow claims that Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is "unquestionably the great masterpiece among his short stories." Mellow explains that Hemingway wrote the story in the summer of 1935, not long after he and his second wife Pauline had returned from an African safari, so it made sense to write a story set in Africa. Upon his return to America, Hemingway planned to work a while and save money for another African adventure. At that point, he was approached by a very wealthy woman who offered to fund Hemingway's next safari as long as she could go along with him and Pauline. Hemingway simply creates a story which details what might happen to a writer like Hemingway had he married a wealthy woman who could indulge his every whim.
The story's importance lies partly in its depiction of a dying man who is agonizing over his impending death and all of the things which he will never get the chance to write about. It draws heavily on Hemingway's own life and work, and so has a definite ring of truth. Hemingway often claimed that his goal was to write "one true sentence." In "Snows" he has gone further and written a story which exudes the truth of what it might be like to die a prolonged death. The main character, Harry, is not dying gracefully. Instead of attempting to allay the fears of his wife Helen, he becomes cantankerous and dredges up old arguments and incriminations. He tells her he doesn't love her and it is suggested in the narration that he believes Helen is the cause of his neglecting his writing and failing to write the important things "he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well."
The story also contains many of the narrative elements which made Hemingway great. As with many of his stories, the reader is abruptly placed into a time and place with very little early exposition. Instead, Hemingway reveals his plot in drips and drabs. In fact, it takes several pages to find out how Harry got the scratch which has caused his leg to be afflicted with gangrene. Likewise, the epigraph at the beginning of the story is quintessential Hemingway as it presents the mystery of the leopard who has died near the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. This opening is never explained but may suggest that, like the leopard, it will never be known what Harry was seeking in his life. The dialogue of the story also reveals Hemingway at the height of his literary powers. As in "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and "Hills Like White Elephants," the banter between Harry and Helen demonstrates the dysfunction in their marriage. The opening dialogue is brilliant as it nonchalantly introduces the circumstances of a man who is basically on his death bed:
"The marvelous thing is that it's painless," he said. "That's how you know when it starts."
"Is it really?"
"Absolutely. I'm awfully sorry about the odor though. That must bother you."
Harry is indicating that the thing which will kill him is painless but that the smell of his rotting leg may be overwhelming to Helen. After that, the dialogue goes back and forth from polite affirmations of how happy the couple has been to the deeply held resentments which Harry holds against his wife. Ultimately, the story may be considered important because it contains an amalgam of Hemingway's literary characteristics in one short story.