Nature in Hemingway’s Short Stories: Uncaring and Unyielding

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1176

In Hemingway’s short stories, nature is consistently depicted as both uncaring and unyielding. The author eschews any influence from the Enlightenment and Romantic periods. In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” he shows that memories and good intentions are no match for the ruthless onset of disease. “A Natural History of the Dead” sarcastically dismisses the notion of divine providence by documenting the ugly reality of death. And “The Capital of the World” demonstrates that nature can claim the life of a young, innocent man even if he feels no fear. What is important, then, is that men try to live their life according to a code of honor while they remain alive.

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Writing in the post-World War I era, Hemingway refused to follow the lead of his literary predecessors of the 18th and 19th centuries when it came to a view of nature. Enlightenment thinker Alexander Pope wrote in his “Essay on Criticism”: “First follow Nature and your judgment frame / By her just standard, which is still the same.” Romantic poet William Wordsworth said in “Tintern Abbey”: “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.” But Hemingway's work clearly dismisses any notion that we can either look to nature for guidance or rely on its kindness when confronted with trials.

In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Hemingway’s choice of gangrene as the route to death for his protagonist, a writer named Harry, is grimly effective. Laid up in a camp on the edge of the Tanganyika plains, Harry contemplates his imminent demise with a tone of attempted detachment: “The marvelous thing is that it’s painless.” But that tone is hard to maintain when he sees “huge, filthy birds” gathering nearby, sensing that soon there may be a corpse for them to feast upon. As he verbally torments the rich woman who has loved him and paid his way for years, his rationalization, “I don't like to leave anything behind,” represents his desire to be as ruthlessly effective in dissecting his experience as nature is in destroying the weak and worn-out.

Harry knows that while he has made mistakes in his love life and career as an artist, it is not particularly his fault that he is doomed to die. Instead, it is a combination of a fluke and a seemingly minor oversight: “[He] had not used iodine two weeks ago when a thorn had scratched his knee as they moved forward trying to photograph a herd of waterbuck.” Evidently, neither the thorn nor the waterbuck intended for Harry to die, but they uncaringly contribute to that eventuality, and nothing can stop it now. He recalls with regret the stories about skiing and travelling and fishing that he will never get to write, but again, the vividness of his memories provides no shield from death. When he finally does die, the “strange noise” of a nearby hyena provides an appropriate closing note: nature will go on devouring.

“A Natural History of the Dead” lacks the grandeur of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” but its critique of the notion we can find God’s love reflected in nature is an incisive one. Writing in an inflated style that sarcastically mimicks that of a 19th-century naturalist, Hemingway alludes to the explorer Mungo Park, who allegedly took hope when he found a small flower out in the desert: “Can that Being who planted, water and brought to perfection, in this obscure part of the world, a thing which appears of so small importance, look with unconcern upon the situation and suffering of creatures formed after his own image? Surely not.” The rest of the story is devoted to debunking the notion that God cares for us.

Hemingway’s observation that war casualties often die “like animals” is intended to show that God does not afford his human creations any special dignity. Likewise, his graphic discussion of “mucus” and “maggots” points to a nature that mindlessly and tastelessly consumes its victims, rather than evoking some pretty garden of pleasure. In the final part of this story, Hemingway reverts to his usual concise, blunt style to describe an argument between a doctor and an artillery officer about how to dispose of a badly wounded man being kept in “the dead-house.” It culminates with the doctor’s tossing iodine in the officer’s face, an action which seems to indicate that humans, under such trying conditions, hardly reflect the love, justice, wisdom and power that God supposedly implanted in us. This is an ugly story with an ugly moral.

“The Capital of the World” is chilling as well in terms of its deviation from the Romantic ethos. In Spanish culture, bullfighting (the topic of this story) is often depicted in rosy terms: the handsome matador, his noble conquest and so on. But in this “tragic tale,” such ideals are asking to be shattered (Lynn 456). The protagonist, Paco, has come to Madrid to work as an apprentice waiter while he dreams of becoming a matador, but the young man glories in all his experiences; even his work at the restaurant seems “romantically beautiful” to him.

One night in the kitchen, Paco is performing moves in an imaginary bullfight when the “cynical and bitter” dishwasher Enrique, a few years older and a failed matador himself, claims Paco would be afraid of the bull if he actually got in the ring. There is something appealing in Paco’s insistence that he would not be afraid, but soon this turns to horror when the two young men decide to put this to the test. Enrique attaches a pair of knives to a chair and runs bull-style at Paco, who completes a couple of successful passes before getting stabbed in the stomach. The ending is “extremely ironical” (DeFalco 92), for Hemingway sets Paco's death in the context of scenes from real bullfighters’ lives, which do not fully match the heroic ideals the waiter cherished. Also, Paco tries to perform “an act of contrition” before his life seeps away, but he cannot get all the words out before he dies, emblematic of God’s inability to save those who cry out to Him. In contrast, Hemingway focuses on nature’s uncaring, unyielding reality: “A severed femoral artery empties itself faster than you can believe.” Paco’s death is sudden and perhaps unfair, but in the grand scheme of things it cannot be dubbed unexpected.

Hemingway once wrote that the world “kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you, too, but there will be no special hurry” (quoted in Selkirk 6). This outlook comes through vividly in the approach of his short stories toward nature. Writers, soldiers, aspiring bullfighters . . . none possess any overriding right to life in Hemingway’s bleak kingdom. They can only do their best in the limited time they have.

DeFalco, Joseph. The Hero in Hemingway’s Short Stories. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1963.

Lynn, Kenneth. Hemingway. Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Selkirk, Errol. Hemingway for Beginners. Writers and Readers Publishing, 1994.

Hemingway’s Styles of Narration in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1942

Although it is perhaps the least characteristic of any of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, ‘‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’’ is often considered to be Hemingway’s finest accomplishment in the genre of short fiction. Moreover, most critics agree that Harry, the protagonist of the story, is Hemingway’s self-portrait, and this makes the story doubly interesting for students of this giant of twentieth-century American writing. The story recounts the death of a failed writer and a man who is at least unpleasant, if not actually the ‘‘bad man’’ that many of his critics have accused him of being. In describing Harry’s death, Hemingway confronted many of the demons that haunted him: contempt for what he saw as an ignorant audience, alcohol and its numbing effects, war, and the unfulfilled promise of a vastly talented writer. Hemingway and Harry both arrive at a vision of transcendence that is ironically incongruous with Harry’s decidedly degraded character.

But does this vision actually represent transcendence, or does the ending juxtaposition of the story—Harry flying toward the snow-capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro while his wife remains in the humid tent with his rotting leg and a hyena whining outside—simply represent Harry’s final fictionalizing of himself? The story relies heavily on symbolism, and critics generally have used the symbols in the story as the primary evidence for their interpretation of the moral value of Harry’s end. To fully understand the story, however, readers must also take into consideration the styles of narration that Hemingway uses, for the distinction between the roman type sections and the italic sections reflects the distinction between Harry’s exterior persona and his interior memories.

The story moves by means of oscillation. It is structured as a pendulum that swings between two extremes, and this motion works on many levels. On a typographical level, the story moves between roman and italic type. At the same time, the text oscillates between dialogue-driven, almost adjective-free plain prose and a reminiscence-laden, run-on style of thinking about the past. Harry’s attitude toward his wife oscillates between contempt or even loathing for her to affection and respect for her. Most of the symbols in the story are polarities, as well; the hyena at the end of the story and the leopard at the beginning are different extremes of the same pendulum, as are the clean white peak of the mountain and the fetid humidity of the plain.

The sections in roman type are very typical of Hemingway’s writing. In these sections, the protagonist converses with his wife about the events of the immediate present and skims over the details of the past. In this, the story resembles such classic Hemingway stories as ‘‘Cat in the Rain’’ or ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants.’’ But in ‘‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro''—and quite unlike many Hemingway stories—the internal thoughts of the protagonist are revealed as early as the third page: ‘‘So now it was all over, he thought . . . for years it had obsessed him; but now it meant nothing in itself.’’ But for the most part, Harry is a classic macho Hemingway character, staring death in the face and not seeming to blink. ‘‘Can’t you let a man die as comfortably as he can without calling him names?’’ he asks his wife. ‘‘I’m dying now. Ask those bastards,’’ he continues, indicating the vultures who are waiting to claim his body.

The sections in roman type, such as the section discussed above, show Harry to be an egotistical, cruel, callous, and mean-spirited man. Even before readers journey into his thoughts to learn his opinion of his wife, they can already see that he holds her in contempt by the way he brushes off her efforts to be kind and caring to him. ‘‘So this was the way it ended in bickering and a drink,’’ he thinks to himself. As the story progresses, he takes his frustrations out almost exclusively on his wife. When she tries to remind him of things he loved—hotels in Paris, for instance—he snaps back at her that ‘‘love is a dunghill . . . and I’m the cock that gets on it to crow.’’

Harry had been a promising young writer who fell in with a rich crowd because, he told himself, he wanted to write about them. ‘‘He had had his life and it was over and then he went living it again with different people and more money,’’ the narrator states. However, he was seduced by their luxuries and allowed those luxuries to distract him from his true calling. ‘‘Each day of not writing,’’ the narrator continues, ‘‘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.’’ To purge himself of this luxury and to remind himself of the hardships that drove him to his best work, he and his wife took this safari ‘‘with the minimum of comfort’’ so that ‘‘in some way he could work the fat off his soul the way a fighter went into the mountains to work and train in order to burn it out of his body.’’

But the presence of his wife reminds him of all of the damage he has done to his ‘‘soul,’’ and because of that he is neither able to return to his ‘‘fighting trim’’ or to arrive at genuine love for her. The portrait of his wife that readers have is created by the narrator, but Harry’’s prejudices color it, and the description of his wife becomes the battlefield on which he fights his inner conflict about who is responsible for the atrophy of his talents. ‘‘She shot very well this good, this rich bitch, this kindly caretaker and destroyer of his talent. Nonsense. He had destroyed his talent himself,’’ he thinks to himself. The wife, on both a symbolic and literal level, represents the destruction of creativity. She has had love—the ultimate symbol of creativity— and children, but her husband died when she was young, and, later, one of her children followed her husband in death. She replaces love and fecundity with sex (through a succession of lovers) and alcohol, both of which Harry also indulges in but disdains. She has also learned to shoot and kill—two of Harry’s other passions.

As the story continues the oscillation between Harry’s present situation and his reminiscences accelerates, and each section becomes shorter. Harry’s attitude toward his wife, as well, veers more quickly between contempt and grudging affection. Finally, the ‘‘reminiscence’’ section blurs into the ‘‘real-world’’ section as Harry imagines that Compton has come to take him to the city to be healed. Only at the end of the section, when he flies into the snow-white peak of Kilimanjaro, do readers realize that this, also, takes place in his own mind and not in the real world.

Although the story is much more explicit and revealing than almost any other piece of writing by Hemingway, it still leaves readers with a number of questions. The primary question is whether Harry’s journey into the peak of the mountain represents transcendence. Many critics have argued that it does; Harry’s wife represents the unfeeling, ignorant audience that the true artist must face, and although Harry is an unpleasant man he has been driven to be so by his failures as an artist—failures that are the fault of the misunderstanding audience. On a symbolic level, then, Harry’s festering leg represents his talent, that is rotting due to a lack of understanding, and the leopard of the story’s epigraph represents Harry himself: he scaled the heights only to die there. The vultures are the literary critics who await his death to metaphorically feast on him by attacking his writing; the hyena symbolizes the critics who attacked him during his life only to mourn his death. And Kilimanjaro itself represents the heights of art: the savanna is humid, rotting, hot, and teeming with life, while the mountain peak is clean, arid, pure.

Hemingway, though, does not make things so simple. Rather, he undermines this simple dichotomy between clean-high-cold and rotting-low-warm just as he undermines the dichotomy between reminiscences and ‘‘real-world’’ narration. The final vision of the mountain is not one of transcendence and salvation for the artist. No: the final vision of the mountain is the last manifestation of Harry’s profound ability for self-deception.

The story centers on Harry’s failures as an artist, and readers ask themselves why a writer as promising as Harry seems to have been ended up failing and never writing what he wanted to. The answer lies partially—not solely, but perhaps largely—in his experiences in the war. Harry’s final reminiscence before the italics sections and the roman-type sections blend into one another is of the war. Specifically, he remembers a companion of his, ‘‘a fat man, very brave, and a good officer,’’ who was wounded and caught in the barbed wire with ‘‘his bowels spilled out.’’ Harry thinks about how he and this officer had discussed how such pain would, or should, cause a man to pass out, but how the officer did not pass out.

Harry is now in the same situation, and that is the immediate cause of the memory. But it is the larger cause of the memory, as well. The rest of Harry’s memories had been of his pleasant experiences and his failure to write about them—experiences skiing in Austria, for instance, or fishing in Germany. But when the memories boil down readers arrive at one thing: the war. Harry’s experiences in the war left him unable to write truly, fully, and honestly about experience because he simply could not face the horrors that he saw there. It is for this, readers then recognize, that he seeks out the wealthy, for they are best able to turn the dramas of life and death into sports and into representations of the real. The safari itself is an attempt to come to grips with the problem of death, and for this reason Harry is attracted to it, but since he has seen honest human death as closely as a person can see it he is both repelled by and inexorably attracted to it. This conflict—he must write about death, but he cannot write about it too accurately for fear that he might disturb his worst sleeping memories—drives his inability to write fulfilling work.

For this, his final vision of the peak of the mountain is ironic. Harry is powerless, drawn to life in the form of hunting, sex, and adventure, but he is also repelled by the sheer teeming, rotting, consuming nature of life. The peak of the mountain, constituted only of snow and rock, is transcendence to him. He cannot connect with life, for life, and its essential fertility, is something he needs to escape. The hyenas, the vultures, his leg, and his wife meld together as symbols of life; but they are symbols of life as something that feeds off other life—just like war itself. As he comes to the realization that life must feed off other life, he rejects life itself, and welcomes the apparition of the clean, white, sterile peak of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Source: Greg Barnhisel, in an essay for Short Stories for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Barnhisel holds a Ph.D. in English and American literature and currently teaches writing at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. He has written a number of entries and critical essays for Gale Group’s Short Stories for Students series.

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Critical Overview


The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Ernest Hemingway