"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 CharactersThe 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.
"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."
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.