The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Ernest Hemingway - Essay

Ernest Hemingway


(Short Story Criticism)

"The Snows of Kilimanjaro" Hemingway, Ernest

The following entry presents criticism of Hemingway's short story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." See also, The Old Man and the Sea Criticism, "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" Criticism, and Ernest Hemingway Criticism.

One of the best-known writers of the twentieth century, Hemingway played a crucial role in the development of modern fiction. In his renowned short stories, including "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," he drew from his own experiences to create fiction that was praised as direct, immediate, and powerful. Hemingway consciously adopted the central Modernist tenet that form expresses content, and he strove to imitate the rhythms of life in his fiction, augmenting meaning through repetition, counterpoint, and juxtaposition. "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" offers numerous examples of this literary style, with collage-type effects employed to convey the protagonist's vivid memories of his childhood and youth.

Plot and Major Characters

The epigraph to "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" describes the frozen carcass of a leopard preserved near the icy summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. This image stands in startling contrast to the opening details of Hemingway's story. Stranded on the hot African plain, within sight of the snow-capped mountain, the protagonist, Harry, suffers from a gangrenous leg wound. He is accompanied by his wealthy lover, Helen, on whom he is financially dependent. As they await rescue by plane, Harry bitterly reflects on his once-promising writing career. He realizes that he has sacrificed his talent for the material pleasures offered by Helen. Filled with rage and self-disgust, Harry responds with sarcasm to Helen's thoughtful ministrations. The couple fruitlessly bicker, and as they argue he has a premonition of his own death. He wistfully recalls his life, packed with experiences he once planned to translate into art: the purity of skiing in the Austrian alps; the torment of first love; the charm and absurdity of bohemian Paris; the stark beauty of his grandfather's farm in Michigan; and the horror of trench warfare during World War I. As night falls and a hyena flits past the camp, Harry once again senses the approach of death. He feels a sudden sensation of weight on his chest, but as he is carried to his tent his discomfort is abruptly relieved. The following morning the rescue plane arrives and Harry is airlifted to apparent safety. However, as the plane rises into the clouds, he suddenly realizes that he is headed not for the hospital but for the blindingly white summit of Kilimanjaro. At this moment, the story abruptly cuts to the sound of Helen's sobs as she discovers Harry's corpse and we realize that the "plane trip" was, in fact, the final flight of Harry's imagination.

Major Themes

"The Snows of Kilimanjaro" reveals the preoccupation with mortality common to much of Hemingway's fiction. As in his novel The Sun Also Rises, a significant distinction is drawn between spiritual and physical death. By compromising his literary talent, Harry has already embraced a kind of death-in-life. The corruption spreading from his gangrenous leg simply makes manifest his moral decay, an irony of which he is painfully aware. Elsewhere in the Hemingway canon the theme of death is examined with an almost journalistic realism. "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" presents a fascinating exception to this rule by making use of a group of recurrent symbols. The figures of the frozen leopard and scavenging hyena contrast two attitudes to death: while the leopard's preserved corpse suggests the possibility of permanence through fame, the hyena signifies the inevitability of death. Kilimanjaro itself offers a powerfully multifaeeted symbol. Its dazzling heights provoke a wealth of associations from Chaucer's House of Fame to Shelley's Mont Blanc. Most importantly, however, the mountain represents the mystery of death, a mystery underlined by the double closure of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."

Critical Reception

Hailed by critics as one of Hemingway's greatest short stories, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" has garnered a wealth of interpretations in the past half-century. In general, discussion has focused on two related issues: the significance of the epigraph and the meaning of Harry's final death-flight. While some commentators have found parallels to the frozen leopard in Dante and in biblical passages, others have viewed the frozen leopard as an uncomplicated symbol of heroic perseverance. It also has been asserted that the association of the leopard with idealistic aspiration reinforces the story's rejection of material pleasures. However the reader views the leopard, the question of Harry's success or failure remains. Most critics have perceived the final scene as a moral triumph, as the protagonist Harry rises above a lifetime of failure in his final moments, imaginatively matching the leopard's achievement. Others have rejected this view, arguing that Harry miserably fails to redeem himself. Additional critical studies have examined the story's autobiographical elements and misogynist qualities, as well as identifying the possible influences on Hemingway's work.

Carlos Baker (essay date 1952)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lesson from the Master," in Hemingway: The Writer as Artist, Princeton University Press, 1963, pp. 191-96.

[In the following excerpt, which was originally published in 1952, Baker explores the autobiographical aspects of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro. "]

"The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is a tragedy of a different order [from "The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber"]. Its setting is the final afternoon and evening in the second life of a writer named Harry, dying of gangrene in a camp near the edge of the Tanganyika plains country. "Francis Macomber" proceeds through and by action; "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is an experiment in the psychology of a dying man. Like Across the Riverand Into the Trees, it contains almost no overt physical activity, though much is implied. Judged in terms of its intention, it is a triumphant piece of writing.

Hemingway's own experiences on safari help to account for the origin of the story. The undeveloped germ of "Francis Macomber" may have been the occasion when Hemingway and M'Cola entered a bush-covered area in pursuit of a lion they heard but never saw. The general outline of "The Snows" was almost certainly suggested by Hemingway's own grave illness, the flight out of the plains country, and the distant view of the enormous, snowcapped mountain of Kilimanjaro. During the flight east, and no doubt also during the period of treatment in Nairobi—his head aching and his ears ringing from the effects of emetine—Hemingway had ample time to reflect on a topic which would naturally occur to him in such a situation: the death of a writer before his work is done. As in "Francis Macomber," however, most of the other circumstances of the story were invented.

Like Hemingway, the writer Harry in the story has been "obsessed" for years with curiosity about the idea of death. Now that it is close he has lost all curiosity about it, feeling only a "great tiredness and anger" over its inexorable approach. "The hardest thing," Hemingway had written in The Green Hills of Africa, is for the writer "to survive and get his work done." This is mainly because the time available is so short and the temptations not to work are so strong. Harry has succumbed to the temptation not to work at his hard trade. Now his time is over, and possessive death moves in.

The story gains further point and poignancy from another obsession of Harry's, the deep sense of his loss of artistic integrity. Despite the difference between London and Tanganyika and the lapse of time between the rule of Edward VII and that of Edward VIII, Hemingway's position is that of Henry James in "The Lesson of the Master." Harry's dying self-accusations are well summarized in the words of Henry St. George, the sold-out novelist in James's novelette. "Don't become in your old age what I have in mine," he tells his young admirer, "—the depressing, the deplorable illustration of the worship of false gods .. . the idols of the market; money and luxury . . . everything that drives one to the short and easy way." The dying writer in Hemingway's story has followed that route, and his creeping gangrene is the mark he bears. He knows that he has traded his former integrity for "security and comfort," destroying his talent by "betrayals of himself and what he believed in." Henry or Harry, England or Africa, the lesson of the master is the same: Thou shalt not worship the graven images of false gods, or acquiesce in the "life of pleasant surrender."

Although the setting of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is as completely un-Jamesian as one could possibly imagine, the themes which the story engages are, on the contrary, very close to those regularly employed by James. "I wonder," Hemingway once ruminated, "what Henry James would have done with the materials of our time." One answer might be that a modern James would simply have altered the costume, the idiom, and certain of the social customs which appear in his novels. The themes, which were matters of greatest interest to him, would scarcely need to be changed at all. The close reader of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" easily recognizes and responds to its theme of confrontation. The dying writer is far different from the ghost of his former self, the young, free, unsold writer who took all Europe as his oyster and was seriously devoted to his craft. As he listens to the self-accusations with which Harry tortures himself, the reader acquainted with James may be reminded of "The Jolly Corner." In this long story, an American expatriate, returning...

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Marion Montgomery (essay date 1961)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Leopard and the Hyena: Symbol and Meaning in The Snows of Kilimanjaro'," in The University of Kansas City Review, Vol. XXVII, No. IV, June, 1961, pp. 277-82.

[In the following essay, Montgomery analyzes the significance and implications of the central symbols in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro. "]

In "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" Ernest Hemingway employs specific symbols—a mountain, a hyena, a leopard—to dramatize a favorite theme: heroic perseverance. But the symbols' relationship to the action of the story arouses questions of interpretation which are not easily resolved. It is the purpose of this [essay] to analyze the story to see just where the symbols,...

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Oliver Evans (essay date 1961)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "'The Snows of Kilimanjaro': A Revaluation," in PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association, Vol. LXXVI, No. IV, December, 1961, pp. 601-07.

[In the following essay, Evans delineates the differing critical interpretations of various symbols in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro, " in addition to offering an alternative reading of his own.]

When "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" first appeared in Esquire (August 1936), it attracted immediate attention. It was promptly reprinted (in Best American Short Stories of 1937) by Edward J. O'Brien, who, praising it in his preface, remarked: "Nothing is irrelevant. The artist's energy is rigidly controlled...

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R. W. Stallman (essay date 1961)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A New Reading of The Snows of Kilimanjaro'," in The Houses That James Built: And Other Literary Studies, Ohio University Press, 1961, pp. 173-99.

[In the following essay, Stallman provides a structural analysis of Hemingway's story.]

When in doubt, it seems, when in fear, when taken by surprise, when lost in bush or desert and without a guide, the human, the animal, heart prescribes a circle. It turns on itself as the earth does and seeks refuge in the movement of the stars.

—Laurens Van Der Post: Venture To

The Interior (1951)

What has...

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William Van O'Connor (essay date 1962)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Two Views of Kilimanjaro," in The Grotesque: An American Genre and Other Essays, Southern Illinois University Press, 1962, pp. 119-24.

[In the following essay, O'Connor places "The Snows of Kilimanjaro " within the context of the genteel tradition in American literature.]

In the early 1850's, Bayard Taylor made a trip to Africa, traveling in Egypt, Soudan, and Ethiopia. He wrote a book about his travels entitled A Journey to Central Africa, or, Life and Landscapes from Egypt to the Negro Kingdoms of the White Nile. He also wrote a number of poems, including one called "Kilimanjaro." In the early 1930's, Ernest Hemingway was hunting in Africa. Out of his...

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William Goldhurst (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ernest Hemingway," in F. Scott Fitzgerald and His Contemporaries, The World Publishing Company, 1963, pp. 155-216.

[In the following excerpt, Goldhurst compares the figure of the failed writer in works by Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.]

The destroyed writer is an American phenomenon and something of an American preoccupation. The fate of such literary artists as Edgar Allan Poe and Hart Crane seems more typical, to many observers at least, than the opposite image of established solidity typified by William Dean Howells. Van Wyck Brooks, for example, has commented at some length upon what he calls "the abortive career" of the American literary artist. The...

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Earl Rovit (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Real Thing," in Ernest Hemingway, Twayne Publishers, 1963, pp. 35-9.

[In the following excerpt, Rovit examines the theme of artistic failure in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."]

Although many of Hemingway's heroes might nominally qualify as artists—Jake Barnes, writer; Nick Adams, writer; Frederick Henry, architect; Richard Cantwell, expert in general; Robert Jordan, writer—only Harry of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is presented convincingly as a writer; and only he seems actively concerned with the problems created by his calling. Structurally the story is rather simple—a variation on Ambrose Bierce's classic "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Harry, the...

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Robert W. Lewis, Jr. (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Woman or Wife?" in Hemingway on Love, Haskell House Publishers, 1973, pp. 97-110.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1965, Lewis explores the relationship between Helen and Harry, concluding Harry is portrayed as a tragic romantic]

"The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is in some ways similar to "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." It was published a month before the Macomber story, and both are set in East Africa while an American couple is on safari. On the surface, "The Snows" seems to have as its theme the corruption of the American writer, but although this approach to the story is a profitable one, the fact that Harry is a writer is not of...

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Carlos Baker (essay date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Slopes of Kilimanjaro: A Biographical Perspective," in Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. I, No. 1, Fall, 1967, pp.19-23.

[In the following essay, Baker identifies the various influences on "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."]

This much is known, moreover, that at times people ascend the mountain, and descend again in safety, if they but choose the right season; of which, indeed, they are mostly ignorant, and hence many have perished in the attempt.

—John Rebmann's Diary of a Journey to Kilimanjaro, 1849.

In August, 1935, Ernest Hemingway completed the first draft of a story about...

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Gloria R. Dussinger (essay date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Snows of Kilimanjaro': Harry's Second Chance," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. V, No. 1, Fall, 1967, pp. 54-9.

[In the following essay, Dussinger emphasizes the significance of the final death scene of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro, " concluding that this scene validates the protagonist's quest for truth and identity.]

The similarity of Harry's memories in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" to those of Hemingway in A Moveable Feast reveals the autobiographical intensity of this short story. When Hemingway speaks through his protagonist, "He had seen the world change. . . . He had been in it and he had watched it and it was his duty to write of it. ....

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Chaman Nahal (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Short Stories," in The Narrative Pattern in Ernest Hemingway's Fiction, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1971, pp. 80-120.

[In the following excerpt, Nahal examines the tension between life and death in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro"]

"The Snows of Kilimanjaro" was first published in 1936. By then Hemingway was moving slowly to the realization that the larger life of the universe must include an intuitive awareness of the mystery of Death; as early as 1932, in Death in the Afternoon he had commented on it. For the cosmic order of the universe could be maintained only through as powerful a balancing force on the other side as life on this one. Here...

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Scott MacDonald (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hemingway's 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro': Three Critical Problems," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. II, No. 1, Winter, 1974, pp. 67-74.

[In the following essay, MacDonald offers a stylistic and thematic analysis of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro, " contending that contrary to other critical interpretations, the protagonist does not transcend artistic failure.]

In spite of the unusually large amount of criticism that has been devoted to "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" during the last thirty-five years, several of the most fundamental critical problems posed by the story remain unsolved. Recent criticism indicates that there is still no adequate general understanding of...

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Kenneth G. Johnston (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Snows of Kilimanjaro': An African Purge," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XXI, No. 3, Summer, 1984, pp. 223-27.

[In the following essay, Johnston perceives Hemingway's story as an attempt to confront fears of literary failure.]

The ethics of writing are fairly simple but very confusing to the public. The fact that a man lies, is cruel, betrays his wife, gets drunk, betrays his friends, has this or that odd or ugly sexual habit does not mean that he is not as honest in his writing as any Sir Galahad. No matter what lies he tells in his life he is an honest writer as long as he does not lie to or deceive the innermost self which writes....

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Alice Hall Petry (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Voice Out of Africa: A Possible Oral Source for Hemingway's 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro'," in The Hemingway Review, Vol. IV, No. 2, Spring, 1985, pp. 7-11.

[In the following essay, Petry uncovers a link between Hemingway 's story and the reminscences of an early female aviator.]

Ever since it was first published in Esquire in August of 1936, Ernest Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" has consistently enjoyed popular acclaim and scholarly attention. A generous portion of the interest which the story continues to generate focuses on its possible sources—more precisely, the sources of the epigraph and the various elements within it (such as the frozen...

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Jeffrey Meyers (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tolstoy and Hemingway: The Death of Ivan Ilych' and 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro'," in Disease and the Novel, 1880-1960, Macmillan, 1985, pp. 19-29.

[In the following essay, Meyers compares "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" to Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilych," maintaining that it is a modern, non-religious version of Tolstoy's tale.]

The unexamined life is not worth living.

Plato, Apology


Tolstoy was Hemingway's literary hero, for both men had fought in battles and written a great novel about war and love. Despite his apparent deference, Hemingway matched...

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Jerry A. Herndon (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Snows of Kilimanjaro': Another Look at Theme and Point of View," in The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. LXXXV, No. 4, Autumn, 1986, pp. 351-59.

[In the following essay, Herndon reevaluates thematic and structural aspects of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro, " asserting that Harry does achieve moral redemption at the conclusion of the story.]

In the long-running critical debate about the resolution of Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," a number of critics have maintained that Harry's dream of flight at the end of the story—at the end of his story, at any rate—is the self-indulgent delusion of a failure. Others, like Max Westbrook, for instance,...

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Kenneth G. Johnston (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Silly Wasters: Tzara and the Poet in 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro'," in The Hemingway Review, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Fall, 1988, pp. 50-6.

[In the following essay, Johnston discusses Hemingway's treatment of Dadaism—particularly its most important figure Tristan Tzarain "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."]

When Ernest Hemingway arrived in Paris at the end of 1921 to launch his writing career, another expatriate, Tristan Tzara, was already there making a circus of the literary scene. It would be hard to imagine two more disparate artists: the quiet, unknown American, shy and serious, totally dedicated to his craft, slowly and meticulously shaping his "true...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Bache, William B. "Nostromo and 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro' ." In Modern Language Notes LXXII, No. 1 (January 1957): 32-4.

Finds parallel systems of realistic symbolism in Conrad's novel and Hemingway's story.

Elia, Richard L. "Three Symbols in Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro'." In Revues des Langues Vivantes XXXXI, No. 3 (1975): 282-85.

Discusses the symbols of the leopard, the hyena, and the mountain in Hemingway's story.

Howell, John M. "Hemingway's Riddle and Kilimanjaro's Reusch." In Studies in Short Fiction VIII, No. 3 (Summer 1971): 469-70.

Briefly comments...

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