The Snows of Kilimanjaro

by Ernest Hemingway

Start Free Trial

Carlos Baker (essay date 1952)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 to his old and empty house at the corner of the American city street, finds himself beleaguered by the ghost of his other self, the ravaged man he might have been had he not followed his esthetic ambitions to Europe. Although the situation is obviously quite the opposite of the one detailed by Hemingway, the strategy is exactly the same: the face-to-face confrontation of an ego by an alter ego. The corner of the tent in which Harry finally dies might well be called, in an echo of Jamesian irony, the jolly corner.

The story is technically distinguished by the operation of several natural symbols. These are non-literary images, as always in Hemingway, and they have been very carefully selected so as to be in complete psychological conformity with the locale and the dramatic situation. How would the ideas of death and of immortality present themselves in the disordered imagination of a writer dying of gangrene as he waits for the plane which is supposed to carry him out of the wilderness to the Nairobi hospital? The deathsymbols were relatively easy. Every night beasts of prey killed grazing animals and left the pickings to those scavengers of carrion, the vultures and the hyenas.

It is entirely natural that Harry, whose flesh is rotting and noisome—is, in fact, carrion already—should associate these creatures with the idea of dying. As he lies near death in the mimosa shade at the opening of the story, he watches the birds obscenely squatting in the glare of the plain. As night falls and the voice of the hyena is heard in the land, the death-image transfers itself from the vultures to this other foul devourer of the dead. With the arrival of his first strong premonition of death, which has no other form than "a sudden, evil-smelling emptiness," Harry finds without astonishment that the image of the hyena is slipping lightly along the edge of the emptiness. "Never believe any of that," he tells his wife, "about a scythe and a skull." His mind has been far away in the days of his former life in Paris, and now it has come back to Africa. "It can be two bicycle policemen as easily, or be a bird. Or it can have a wide snout like a hyena." Death has just come as if to rest its head on the foot of the cot, the direction from which the infection will rise up towards the vital center. Presently it moves in on him, crouching on his chest so that he cannot breathe.

Harry's dying directive, "Never believe any of that about a scythe and a skull," is an important commentary on Hemingway's own habitual approach to the development of natural symbols. He is prepared to use, where they conform to the requirements of an imaginary situation, any of the more ancient symbols—whether the threes and nines of numerology, or the weight of the Cross in Christian legend. But the scythe and the skull, though ancient enough, simply do not fit the pattern of Harry's death and are therefore rejected in favor of the foul and obscene creatures which have now come to dominate Harry's imagination.

Like the death-symbol, the image for immortality arises "naturally" out of the geography and psychology of the situation. When the weight leaves his chest, Harry finds that morning has brought the rescue plane to carry him to Nairobi. Helping him aboard, Old Compton says that they will have to refuel at Arusha. Everything happens as if it were actually happening—the take-off, the long view of the plain and its moving animals, the hills and forests to the east passing in slow majesty under the belly of the plane—until it dawns on Harry that for some reason they have by-passed Arusha. At first he does not know why. But as the plane emerges from a rain-squall, he suddenly sees ahead of them the square top of Kilimanjaro, "wide as all the world," incredibly white in the sun. "Then he knew that there was where he was going."

While he was in Africa Hemingway learned that the Masai name for the western summit of Kilimanjaro is Ngàje Ngài, which means "House of God." The association between mountainous terrain and the idea of home was, however, already an old one in his mind. He had used it symbolically in the Burguete section of The Sun Also Rises and also, far more extensively, in the Abruzzi and the Montreux locale-images of A Farewell to Arms. "I will lift up mine eyes to the hills," runs the Psalm, "from whence cometh my help." But there is no psalm-quoting in the back-to-earth dénouement of Hemingway's story. There is only Harry's wife Helen, waking in the middle of the night down in the flat plains-country, far from Kilimanjaro, and calling to a husband who does not answer.

Anyone interested in the methods by which the patterns of experience are translated to the purposes of art should find abundant materials for study in the three stories—non-fiction and fiction—which grew out of Hemingway's African expedition. The foreword to The Green Hills of Africa contains an implicit question. Given a country as interesting as Africa, and given the shape of a month's hunting-action there, and given the author's determination to tell only the truth, the question then becomes this: Can such a book possibly compete on equal terms with a work of the imagination? The answer is that it certainly can compete, provided always that the narrative is managed by a very skilled writer who takes both truth (the truth of "the way it was") and beauty (the extremely careful formal construction) as his watchwords. Yet the experiment proved also that the narrator who takes no liberties with the actual events of his experience, who tells things exactly as they were, who invents nothing and suppresses nothing important, will place himself at a real disadvantage in the competition. He gives the opposition too large a handicap. Good as The Green Hills of Africa is in two respects (verisimilitude and architectonics), it lacks the intensities which Hemingway was able to pack into "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," and it cannot possibly achieve anything like the genuine pathos of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." The experience of wrestling with the African book, followed as it was with the writing of the two short stories, undoubtedly established one esthetic principle very firmly in Hemingway's mind. The highest art must take liberties, not with the truth but with the modes by which the truth is projected. This was no new discovery for Hemingway. But for any serious writer it is a useful maxim.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

"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.

Marion Montgomery (essay date 1961)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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, the leopard and hyena particularly, raise problems in the dramatic structure and the meaning of the story and to consider to what extent the problems are solved by the story.

The center of dramatic conflict in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is the protagonist's mind, which is constantly agitated by a contrast between the present ignoble situation and the memory of a more heroic past. Harry, a writer, at the point in his life where he should have realized his ideal or should at least find himself still devoted to the ideal, lies dying of gangrene because of his carelessness in not treating a scratch got on a hunt. He knows that he is dying physically, but he knows also that he has died spiritually long before, through his choice of carrion comfort over the lean joys of more dangerous pursuit. Like Eliot's old man in "Gerontion," he remembers his failures sardonically. He adds up the actions of his life, the motions and facts, that have brought him to a cot in the dry plains of Africa, and he faces despair self-condemned.

If Harry judges himself by his actions, the fact that he does so indicates a positive code against which he measures them. What is that positive code, which he has forsaken? To approach a statement of it, we must make use of two keys which Hemingway provides: one is the leopard described in the headnote to the story; the other is the hyena which functions dramatically in the story. The headnote reads:

Kilimanjaro is a snow covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called Masai "Ngaje Ngài," the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.

This is the only direct reference to the leopard, and therein, perhaps, lies a weakness of the story, a point to be considered later. What is important to note at this point is that a contrast seems to be implied between the leopard of the headnote and the hyena that slinks through the story itself. The hyena's first appearance occurs just at dark when "there was no longer enough light to shoot." Had there been enough light, one may venture to suppose from Harry's attitude that he would certainly have shot the loathsome creature. From this point on, as Harry continues to judge and condemn himself, the hyena plays an important role in his thoughts. For instance, when Harry realizes beyond all doubt that he is going to die, we are told that the realization "came with a rush .. . of a sudden evil-smelling emptiness and the odd thing was that the hyena slipped lightly along the edge of it." To extract Harry's code from the story, we must explain the relationship of the leopard frozen on the mountain to the hyena attracted by the smell of Harry's decaying flesh.

Now the quotation just cited might naturally lead one to suppose that the hyena functions in the story as a symbol of death, but its symbolic function is, I think, more complex. Harry has, as a writer, already been considering death's symbols. He has watched the vultures collect, also attracted by the smell of decay. He thinks of death at one point, after remembering his life in Paris, as something that "went on bicycles and moved absolutely silently on the pavements." And late in the story he says to his wife: "Never believe any of that about a scythe and a skull . . . It can be two bicycle policemen as easily, or be a bird. Or it can have a wide snout like a hyena." At this point Harry is already drifting into a dream-like state which will be consummated by his flight to the House of God. He has felt death come and rest its head on the foot of the cot, "and he could smell its breath," this after having just heard the hyena in the darkness. Here Harry is losing control of his thoughts as he drifts into death. His speech and reflections become less clear, less rational, and his association of the hyena with death seems once more quite simple. But death has not been a hyena up to this point; it has been "a sudden evil-smelling emptiness." And the hyena has been to Harry a symbol of a particular kind of life, the life he has followed to that morally "evil-smelling emptiness." We must remember that Harry is a writer, but more importantly we must remember that he is a hunter. What game is to the animal predator, the book is to Harry. But to Harry the captured game, the finished book, is really of secondary importance. He does regret that he has never written about those things which are clearly important, but even more does he regret having lost sight of their importance. Harry has ceased to be the kind of hunter he holds ideal. To make this point clear, we must note that, while Harry does lament his artistic failure, he judges himself in other terms. In the first part of the story he is angry "that this was the end of it [life]." He is angry, not because his failure as writer, but because of a moral failure: because he has not been the good hunter.

There are two streams of Harry's consciousness presented in the story, distinguished by typography, in which he considers himself primarily as hunter. The one is in italics, the other in Roman type. The italics embody Harry's reflections concerning the past he approves of; the material in Roman type embodies the past and present he disapproves of. The two play against each other, giving rise to the story's internal and external dramatic tension. For instance, at the end of the first scene, Harry's wife protests against the fate that has caused Harry's discomfort. "What have we done to have that happen to us?" He answers, "I suppose what I did was to forget to put iodine on it when I first scratched it." A whole train of half measures has led to the decaying leg, and Harry's sardonic tone as he relates the neglect reflects a judgment on his failure. But the sardonic tone reflects on more sins than a failure to use iodine. The half measures that have led him to a spiritual rot are gnawing at him, and he remembers himself in a more worthy state in the italicized passage which follows this scene. We do not know at first just what those spiritual half-measures were, because Harry's thought skips that portion of his history for the moment, leaving us to deduce the comparison of the halfmeasures from the sardonic tone he uses with his wife and the heroic tone of the italicized reflection. (Just so may we deduce Harry's ideal code from the hyena's, the negative code.) Harry recalls a retreat from Thrace and the snow on Bulgarian mountains which brought death to those trapped in their heroic attempt; he recalls the aid given a deserter who won admiration through his courage. He recalls the full-spirited skiing and gambling, and in contrast he recalls Barker who machine-gunned helpless enemy officers. Those were the good days of pursuit for the sake of pursuit which demanded a worthy victim, not the helpless game which scavengers like Barker come by.

Harry breaks his reflections to ask his wife "Where did we stay in Paris?" His mind has turned now, suddenly for the reader, to his own infamous life with his rich wife in a comfortable section of Paris—in-famous because it was a life content with an easy pursuit. He is vicious in his repartee with his wife, leading her to ask: "Do you have to kill your horse and your wife and burn your saddle and your armour?" She is a simple woman whose main talent is the bed, and she cannot see that he is scourging himself more than her. She has made possible his comfort and decay through her money, and his desperate, destructive words are his way of "trying to kill to keep . . . alive." When he speaks the cruel truth of his failure, she mistakes his sardonic tone for sarcasm and his words for an attack upon her, and so he slips back into "the familiar lie he made his bread and butter by": he tells her he loves her. He reflects that "If he lived by a lie, he should try to die by it," an attempt to regain some nobleness of spirit. It is not the woman's fault that he has traded on his talent, accepting the unworthy pursuit of the hollow, decayed rich, telling his conscience that his end was to write about those spiritually decayed beings. That, then, was the beginning of the half-measures ending in the spiritual rot which left him dead long before the infection of his leg. Harry, alone on his cot, recalls how lies became life. "You kept from thinking and it was all marvellous." In other words, Harry began stalking dead game, as Barker did in strafing the helpless enemy officers and as the hyena stalks Harry outside the fire's circle. He recalls next how he was in turn stalked by the woman, as if she caught the scent of his decay. They are alike, he concludes, and in resignation he accepts her again, lying on the cot by the fire while she talks, still unable to reclaim the old ideal that might purge him of the smell of moral decay. It is at this moment in his thought that "it occurred to him that he was going to die," a fact that has already occurred to him and been accepted but which becomes terrifyingly impressive because it is at this point that he senses death as "a sudden evil-smelling emptiness and the odd thing was that the hyena slipped lightly along the edge of it."

Harry remembers next, in contrast to his wife, those women he loved too much, how through the corrosion of quarrelling he and they "killed what they had together." There was unhappiness as a result, but there was no living of a lie. It was a cleaner death he pursued. But now his cruel honesty cannot kill what he and his wife have together any more than the hyena can kill the carrion it stalks. From this point in the story the hyena and the woman are associated, but the equation implied in Harry's thinking is complex—hyena: carrion:: Harry: wife:: death: Harry. In sharp contrast to that animal creature, the Armenian slut, Harry's wife is soft and yielding, the easy death he has sought. "And as he looked and saw her well-known pleasant smile, he felt death come again." He associates the smell of his physical death and the look of his wife, which remind him of his moral decay.

Harry is, by this time, approaching a moral rejuvenation through self-condemnation. He has come to Africa in the first place to work the fat off body and soul, to give up the easy comforts in an attempt to regain the old hunting form, and it is a wry irony of fate that threatens to destroy him before he can reclaim himself. But in spite of fate, he begins an affirmation. Now rejecting the code of life corresponding to the hyena's in the animal world, he reaffirms that corresponding to the leopard's. He summons memories to strengthen him. There are his grandfather's guns, burned when the family cabin burned. His grandfather, he recalls, refused to let the boy disturb them in their ashes. The image of the burned guns in ashes suggests the leopard of the headnote: there is an unexplained steadiness of devotion in the old man's attitude that is of the same order as that which led the leopard beyond its element. Harry remembers, too, his destitute neighbors in the Place Contrescarpe where he lived before he began living the lie. He recalls those drunkards who killed their poverty with drink and the "sportifs" who "took it out in exercising" by bicycle racing. Here are the hyenas and leopards of the Paris slum, and Harry, in his reflections, judges the drunkards much as he judges Barker and himself and the hyena. He remembers the half-wit chore boy in Wyoming who remained constant to duty to the point of foolishly shooting a man to protect some hay, and there is in Harry's remembering a note of approval of the boy's action. The full-hearted deed is important to him, not the consequences of appearing ridiculous by defending burnt guns or winning third prize in a bicycle race, or being jailed, perhaps hanged, for shooting a man, or ending up with an Armenian whore instead of a respectable wife.

When his present wife interrupts these reflections of past events to bring Harry more broth, to insist that he do what is good for him, he resists her, more determined than ever, because what she means by good is, to Harry, easy. Death is Harry's chance of self-recovery. He will not care for death, he reflects, and thus he will overcome it. He is determined he won't spoil this experience as he has so many others. He fears only pain, not the idea, and the pain itself does not bother him now. He drifts into death thinking that he has waited too long and too late, and that his life is therefore wasted. "The party's over and you are with your hostess now." But he is bored with his hostess death. "He looked at her [wife's-death's] face between him and the fire .. . He heard the hyena make a noise." He feels death creep up his leg again and "he could smell its breath." It had no shape. "It simply occupied space," negative being. "You've got a hell of a breath," says Harry, his last words as he feels death crouching on his chest. Then he has the sensation of the cot's being lifted as he is carried into the tent, after which everything becomes "all right." His last thoughts show no fear.

So far the story has held together, but the final two sections are crucial to its success, and it is at this point that the story falls apart. It does so, partly because the device of the fantasy flight to Kilimanjaro seems an artificial contrivance, following as it does the realism of the rest of the story, and partly because the final section, shifting back to the level of conscious reality, also shifts the point of view and seems intended primarily to prevent a possible misunderstanding of the story's outcome, as a sort of footnote to the story.

The next to the last section, Harry's flight to Kilimanjaro, takes us back to the headnote with which the story begins and to the question of the story's basic weakness. It is easy enough to accept the plane ride as a possible death dream Harry experiences, for it has been prepared for all along in the story. His wife hopefully argues that the plane will come for him in time to save him, and Harry's rational thought throughout has been patterned by association—the good life with the bad, a good woman with bad, and so on. The plane-ride dream, then, is a psychological possibility which one can accept. Further, one is prepared for a psychological use of the mountain, though Kilimanjaro itself does not figure in the story until the dream passage, for Harry's thoughts run to the cool snows of his heroic yesteryears as he lies on the cot on the hot African plain. However, one is not sufficiently prepared for the rather sudden symbolic use of the mountain, for the relationship of the mountain to Harry's moral code is inadequately prepared for in the story itself. One surmises that the leopard's relation to the mountain is in some manner paralleled by Harry's relationship to it, but it is an unclear relationship, whereas Harry's relationship to the hyena and carrion is not.

Further, the use of the mountain as symbol is confused by the last three lines of the headnote as contrasted with the events of the flight and with Harry's self-evaluation. What is the "House of God?" Some positive level of achievement on Harry's part is suggested since he apparently is taken to the summit, some achievement which transcends death on the slopes. Throughout the story the emphasis has been on the ideal of attempt, not on accomplishment; then suddenly one has Harry's final thought on seeing "the square top of Kilimanjaro," the House of God: "And then he knew that there was where he was going." Has Harry, by his act of renouncing the hyena's way for the leopard's, gained salvation? Is that salvation anything more than the soothing balm of the snows of yesterday recovered through the force of desire? The story's end, one suspects, is not metaphysical so much as it is sentimental. It gives the story a happy ending, useful to lesser attempts of Hollywood, but not justified by Harry's nature. It seems void of any real meaning. The problem is further complicated by the fact that the reader has expected the leopard to become an integral part of the story. When one sees the mountain, first described in the headnote, looming rather suddenly out of the story, he expects to see the leopard also. Then, too, the final line of the headnote keeps bothering the reader. "No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude." Harry knows the answer to the question in terms of other hunters: his grandfather, the half-wit boy in Wyoming, himself in happier days. And Harry obviously knows the mountain: why does the mountain not appear in his consciousness as would naturally be likely; why is there no thought of the leopard, the natural opposite of the hyena, in the mind of this symbol-conscious writer? As hunter he knows the worthy leopard, even as he knows about that most hated of all animals, the hyena. The answer to these questions seems to be simply that Hemingway does not make efficient use of the leopard and mountain, whereas his use of the hyena is extremely skillful. The headnote and the final two sections protrude from the story, making it an awkward iceberg.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


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 on the origins of the leopard symbol in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."

Kolb, Alfred. "Symbolic Structure in Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro'." In NMAL: Notes on Modern American Literature I, No. 1 (Winter 1976): np.

Claims that Hemingway deliberately contrasts Afro-Arabian and Judeo-Christian mythologies in his story.

Lewis, Robert W., and Max Westbrook. "The Texas Manuscript of The Snows of Kilimanjaro'." In Texas Quarterly IX, No. 4 (Winter 1966): 66-101.

Provides a full account of Hemingway's creative process in writing "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."

Stephens, Robert O. "Hemingway's Riddle of Kilimanjaro: Idea and Image." In American Literature XXXII, No. 1 (March 1960): 84-7.

Discusses the conflict between physical and spiritual desire in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."

Taylor, J. Golden. "Hemingway on the Flesh and the Spirit." In The Western Humanities Review XV (1961): 273-75.

Views "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" as a secular revision of Christian redemption.

Wilson, Edmund. "Hemingway: Gauge of Morale." In The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature, pp. 174-97. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1978.

Examines the theme of misogyny in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."

Young, Philip. "The Hero and the Code." In Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration, pp. 74-8. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1966.

Asserts that Hemingway conceived of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" as a literary exorcism.

Additional information on Hemingway's life and career can be found in the following sources published by Gale Research:Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 8, 10, 13, 19, 30, 34, 39, 41, 44, 50, 61, 80; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 4, 9, 102; DISCovering Authors; and Major Twentieth-Century Writers.

Oliver Evans (essay date 1961)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 for his purpose." Since then it has been anthologized many times, and now it is probably safe to say that, with the possible exception of "The Killers," none of Hemingway's stories has enjoyed greater popularity than this one. Hemingway's own opinion was that it was "about as good as any" of his shorter works.

In the last ten or fifteen years, however, "The Snows" has come in for considerable disparagement, mainly from the so-called New Critics and their followers. In 1945 Ray B. West, Jr., wrote in The Sewanee Review [January-March issue]: "While I consider this story one of Hemingway's best .. . it is spoiled for me by the conventionality of its leading symbol: the White-capped mountain as the 'House of God'." In 1950 Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon, referring to it in The House of Fiction as a "magnificent failure," complained that it lacked "dramatic force" and objected that the symbolism was not properly integrated with the action. And in 1956 William Van O'Connor characterized it as a "rather puzzling story" and expressed dissatisfaction with the ending [The History of Ideas Newsletter, Vol. II].

Even critics who have praised the story without reservation have differed widely in their interpretation of it, so that one might well wonder if the symbols through which it communicates its meaning are indeed as conventional as Mr. West has found them. The fact is that no other story of Hemingway's has caused quite so much critical controversy, and the main reason for this is disagreement on the meaning of the symbols.


A brief summary of the story may be helpful at this point. It will be remembered that it is preceded by an epigraph in which the reader is told that the snow-covered western summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, in Africa, is called by the natives the "House of God"; that the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard was once found there; and, thirdly, that "no one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude." We are then introduced to the main characters, a writer named Harry and his wife, Helen, who are on a safari in Africa. They are encamped on a plain, and Harry, who has received a scratch on his leg a few days earlier, is dying of gangrene: although the infection is painless, the odor of his rotting flesh has attracted several vultures, who "squat obscenely" in the glare of the plain, waiting for him to die. Helen attempts to reassure him by telling him that the plane for which they have sent will arrive at any moment, but Harry knows that it is too late. He does not fear death, but he is filled with a sense of unfulfilled ambition: "Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew them well enough to write them well."

In a series of flashbacks, Harry's past is then unfolded. We learn that Helen is the last of several women in his life; and that, though she loves him, he has never really loved her but married her for her money, whereupon he ceased to write and squandered his energies among the very rich, the people of his wife's set. Now, on his deathbed, he realizes that he has traded for security his integrity as a writer—and as a man as well, for his relationship with his wife is based upon a lie, "the familiar lie he made his bread and butter by." It is natural that he should feel resentment toward her now, and he expresses this resentment in a number of ill-tempered and consciously cruel remarks: he tells her, among other things, that he has never loved her. But the next moment he begs her forgiveness: "Don't pay any attention, darling, to what I say. I love you, really. You know I love you." But when she answers "You're sweet to me," he lashes out again: "You bitch. You rich bitch." Honesty, born of the desperation of the situation, struggles with habit and achieves a few temporary victories. In his calmer moments, however, he realizes that he is being unfair, and that he can blame no one but himself for his failure: "She shot very well, this rich bitch, this kindly caretaker and destroyer of his talent. Nonsense. He had destroyed his talent himself. Why should he blame this woman because she kept him well?"

The flashbacks alternate with the level of present action, and contrat the happiness he has once known, when he was wholly alive and writing well, with the sickness, frustration, and impotence of the moment. The impotence is physical as well as literary (at one point he tells Helen, "The only thing I ever liked to do with you I can't do now"), and is, of course, a consequence of his infection. The incidents which his memory selects from these earlier, happier days involve scenes in which snow figures prominently: the mountain tops of Bulgaria; the skiing slopes in Bludenz and Schrunz, where the snow was "as smooth to see as cake frosting and as light as powder"; and a snow-bound ranch in the United States. All of these reminiscences are by no means idyllic: there is the sordid scene in which he fights with a British gunner over a "hot Armenian slut," the ghastly incident in which his friend Williamson is disembowelled by a German stick bomb, and the shocking massacre of the inexperienced Greek troops in Anatolia. But they are all scenes of action, contrasting by their very violence with the slow rot of which he is now dying, and they are connected with the vitality which has deserted him: then, at least, he was alive and living life up to the hilt.

When evening comes, Harry sees a hyena skulking nearby; shortly after this, he feels for the first time the certitude of his approaching death: "It came with a rush; not as a rush of water nor of wind; but of a sudden evilsmelling emptiness and the odd thing was that the hyena slipped lightly along the edge of it." Later he has another vision of death, as a pair of policemen on a bicycle (this has been prepared for by a flashback in which he recalls his career as a struggling young writer in Paris). After dark he becomes delirious, and Helen has the servant, Molo, move his cot inside the tent. In his final delirium, he dreams that the plane has come for him; the pilot lifts him in; they fly through clouds and rain; and then he sees, looming ahead of them, the snowcovered peak of Kilimanjaro shining whitely in the sun: "And then he knew that there was where he was going." At this point the hyena makes a "strangely human, almost crying sound"; Helen wakes up, and, going to Harry's cot, discovers that he has died. Hemingway has so contrived the ending that the reader is unaware, until Helen makes her discovery, that the plane trip never took place except in the mind of the dying man: the details of it are rendered with the utmost realism.

The level of present action in the story is negligible; most of the action occurs in the past, at various levels, but "The Snows" is not, primarily, a story of action at all: its interest lies in the situation, and in the conflict between idealism and materialism that takes place within the protagonist. To charge that the story lacks "dramatic force" is to conceive of drama solely in terms of external action, and this does not do justice to Hemingway's intention.


As for the symbols, there is, first of all, Africa itself, the Dark Continent, which stands in the story for the mysterious nature out of which man comes and into which he returns at last. Since the natural and the good are, in Hemingway's system of values, usually identified, this symbol has a moral significance; to Harry, Africa means the hope of moral regeneration: "Africa was where he had been happiest in the good time of his life, so he had come out here to start again. .. . He had thought he could get back into training that way. 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."

It will be seen that Harry here associates Africa with the creative phase of his life, when he was leading a "natural" existence before the corruption of money set in. Since he was happy there, he thinks of it nostalgically as a kind of spiritual home, to which he returns now in the hope of recovering something of his lost integrity. The therapeutic value of nature is, of course, an obsessive theme with Hemingway: it occurs in many of the stories in his first book, In Our Time (1925), and in the novel which he published the following year (The Sun Also Rises), where Jake revives himself, after his dissipations in Paris, by going on a fishing trip with Bill to a remote spot in Spain.

Spain, indeed, had for Hemingway in the 'twenties something of the symbolic value that he later attached to Africa: W. M. Frohock, speaking of the Basque peasants in The Sun Also Rises, comments, "We get the feeling that to Hemingway, unspoiled people of this sort are always good," and notes the admiration which Hemingway expresses, in Green Hills of Africa, for certain African tribes.

The main symbol, of course, is the snow-covered mountain top. To say (as do Tate and Gordon) that it represents death is to misread the meaning of the story, for while it is true that the mountain stands for a kind of perfection that is attainable only in death, through union with nature (the peak, as has been mentioned, is called by the Masai the "House of God"), it operates in the story not as a symbol of death but of life-in-death. The snow with which it is covered is, of course, a traditional symbol of purity: this is the reason it figures so importantly in Harry's recollections of his early life, when he was still happy in the possession of his integrity. It is associated in the story with life, not with death—or with death only in the sense that it is the means of achieving eternal life.

As the mountain symbolizes life-in-death, the plain on which the man is dying symbolizes death-in-life, and the essential contrast in the story is between the two. The plain is hot and full of glare (we are told this several times), and it is associated with the joylessness of his recent existence, an existence which is in fact a form of death-in-life. Mountain tops and hilltops are traditionally symbolic of the ideal (one strives toward them), and lowlying plains, by contrast, symbolize earthly and material values; it is by these that Harry has lived, and on his deathbed his mind dwells wistfully on thoughts of snow and high places. The situation is coherent also on the realistic level, since a feverish man might be expected, in his delirium, to think of coolness. Cold and hot; high and low—these are the two extremes that Hemingway chooses to dramatize Harry's situation, and they are admirably illustrated in the symbols of mountain and plain.

I tend to agree with Charles Walcutt [in The Explicator, April 1949] that "the conflict in the story is between a fundamental moral idealism and the corrupting influence of aimless materialism." Harry's idealism reveals itself in his sense of frustration and despair, and it contrasts oddly with the mechanistic views which he expresses from time to time. Thus, when Helen asks, speaking of his illness, "What have we done to have that happen to us?" he answers, "I suppose what I did was to forget to put iodine on it when I first scratched it." His wife replies, "I don't mean that," whereupon he says: "If we would have hired a good mechanic instead of a half baked Kikiyu driver, he would have changed the oil and never burned out that bearing in the truck." Helen says again, "I don't mean that," and Harry continues: "If you hadn't left your own people, your goddamned Old Westbury, Saratoga, Palm Beach people to take me on. . . ." Here he refuses to acknowledge a plan, an intention in the scheme of things, and clings stubbornly to the view that all is accident. Again, several pages later, he reflects that "now this life she had built again was coming to a term because 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 standing, their heads up, peering while their nostrils searched the air, their ears spread wide to hear the first noise that would send them rushing into the bush." This is the habit of thinking, in terms of mechanical cause and effect, into which he has fallen since his association with Helen, and it is only occasionally that his old idealism asserts itself. It must be remembered too that Harry is a sick man, the external illness being but a symbolic manifestation of the sickness of the soul from which he has long been suffering: these are the thoughts of a man without faith, a man who is morally ill.

The gangrene symbol has been chosen as carefully as the others: for rotting flesh, read rotting soul. The story begins with Harry's remark, "The marvelous thing is that it's painless. That's how you know when it starts." The deathin-life which Harry has been living was an easy, comfortable one, and the moral disintegration, like the physical, occurred stealthily and by degrees: "But he would never do it, because each day of not writing, 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."

Contrasted with the symbol of the man rotting away in the heat of the plain is the symbol, in the epigraph, of the leopard which, having attained the summit—and died in the effort—leaves his body preserved immaculately and eternally in its snows. The contrast may be merely ironical, in which case the epigraph appears rather gratuitous, justifying the objection of Tate and Gordon that the symbolism "seems something the writer has tacked on rather than an integral part of the story." It is probable, however, that Hemingway intended to identify the man in some way with the leopard. What has happened to the leopard is a pretty obvious example of life-in-death, and what has happened to the man is, as has been noted, a form of death-in-life. The man has two dimensions, spiritual and material, and the leopard symbolizes the former: thus, Harry too achieves life-in-death, through union with what is ideal and eternal, but only (like the leopard) at the cost of his earthly existence. It should also be noted that the leopard, being a spotted animal, is peculiarly appropriate as a symbol of Harry's moral identity: what is maculate, both in the beast and in the man, has become immaculate in eternity.

Of all Hemingway's symbols, the leopard in this story has provoked the most controversy. Ten years ago, Alfred G. Engstrom [in MLN, March 1950] asked rhetorically, "As for the other symbol in the epigraph, can there by any doubt as to its meaning?," and went on to declare: "The leopard is Dante's—the symbol of worldly pleasure and lechery—one of three beasts, in the first Canto of the Inferno, that stood between the medieval poet and his own Delectable Mountain." It did not require much ingenuity for Douglas Hall Orrok, the following year [MLN, November 1951], to refute this interpretation, but the one with which he attempted to replace it called for a great deal: he suggested that the leopard symbol was taken from Revelation xiii.1, in which there is mention of a beast "like a leopard" which is blasphemy, and that Harry, by neglecting his talent, has been guilty of literary blasphemy. "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," he wrote, "is a fable of literary integrity. The artist who blasphemes against the Gods of Parnassus is sacrificed in the ascent of the mystic peak." This theory does at least establish an identity between the man and the beast, but it breaks down when we apply it to the contrasting set of circumstances under which Harry and the leopard meet their death, nor does it fit into the total symbolic framework of the story. Charles Walcutt, in 1949, was the first critic to suggest that the leopard was a "symbol of Harry's moral nature," but he was unable to integrate the symbol into the story satisfactorily because his conception of the mountain did not include the associations of life-in-death; he thought of the peak merely as "a symbol of Truth, meaning—or an incarnation of the ideal." Agreeing with this view, E. W. Tedlock, Jr., pointed out [in The Explicator, October 1949] the "leopard and mountain represent those things which do not decay" in contrast to the man who is dying on the plain; he did not, however, explore the implications of this contrast. In 1952, Philip Young, whose book on Hemingway [Ernest Hemingway] has the kind of biographical emphasis that enables him to view "The Snows" as "a fictionalized purge, in this case of a whole set of guilty feelings . . . an exercise in personal and aesthetic hygiene," identified the leopard with the kind of literary work that Harry (i.e., Hemingway) would like to leave behind him: "He dreams of immortality for some of what he has done; he thinks, that is, of writing prose that will be so pure that it can never spoil, that will be permanent." Besides limiting the meaning of the story rather narrowly, this interpretation does not sufficiently account for what happens in it: Harry's integrity as a man as well as a writer is involved in "The Snows," and his situation has universal moral interest and application. Curiously enough, Young also accepted Engstrom's theory that the leopard symbolizes the worldly pleasure that stood between Dante and the Holy Hill, as well as the notion (also from Engstrom) that one of Flaubert's letters was the source of the mountain symbol: how these can be reconciled to the idea that the beast represents Harry's unaccomplished literary ambitions is by no means easy to see. In the most recent (1956) analysis of the story, Carlos Baker, agreeing with Walcutt and Tedlock, fitted their interpretation of the leopard into his theory that the mountain as Home, and plain as Not-home, underlies most of Hemingway's early work. Baker succeeded brilliantly in correlating the story with the Hemingway Weltanschauung, but he did it insufficient justice in its own right.

The vultures and the hyena, of course, are symbols of death, and they are associated with the death-in-life of the second phase of Harry's career, after he has made the fatal sacrifice; they are contrasted in the story with the leopard, which is associated with the earlier, purer phase of his life, the period of idealism, and also (as we have seen) with the eternal life which is achieved only in death: life-in-death. Few creatures could be more unlike, on the realistic level, than the skulking, cowardly hyena, which feeds chiefly on carrion, and the bold and graceful leopard which attacks living prey.

What has apparently escaped all the critics is that Harry's wife, Helen, is herself a symbol—and by no means the least important one in the story. Beyond noting that her influence is generally inimical (Edmund Wilson was the first to do this), no one has shown how skilfully and how consistently Hemingway employs her throughout as a symbol of death, or rather of death-in-life. Take for example the following passage: "Drinking together .. . he could feel the return of acquiescence in this life of pleasant surrender. She was very good to him. He had been cruel and unjust in the afternoon. She was a fine woman, marvelous really. And just then it occurred to him that he was going to die."

This is his first premonition of death, and note that it occurs immediately after his reflection that his wife is a "fine woman." Helen is, of course, a "fine woman" in the sense that she is "very good to him," but it is exactly this which is fatal for Harry—the comfort and security which she represents result in a "pleasant surrender" on his part, and lead to death-in-life. A few pages later we read: "She looked at him with her well-known, well-loved face from Spur and Town and Country . . . and as he looked and saw her well known pleasant smile, he felt death come again."

This is his second premonition, and again it occurs while he is with the woman, watching her "pleasant smile." Shortly before he enters his final delirium, we find the following: "He looked at her face between him and the fire. She was leaning back in the chair and the firelight shone on her pleasantly lined face and he could see that she was sleepy. He heard the hyena make a noise just outside the range of the fire."

The contiguity of this description of the woman with Harry's intuitions of his approaching death, and with the hyena, make it probable that Hemingway is using Helen quite consciously as a symbol of death-in-life. Finally there is the passage:

.. . if it was no worse than this as it went on there was nothing to worry about. Except that he would rather be in better company.

He thought a little about the company he would like to have.

No, he thought, when everything you do, you do too long, and do too late, you can't expect to find the people still there. The people are all gone. The party's over and you are with your hostess now.

His "hostess," on the realistic level, is Helen; on the symbolic, it is death. It is, after all, only right that Helen should have this function in the story, since Harry's moral infection, the gangrene of his spirit, dates from his association with her. Of the various death symbols, Helen is the most important: the vultures and the hyena are waiting in the hope that he will die; Helen is waiting in the hope that he will live—but live a death-in-life. In this context, Harry's reflection, that "She shot very well, this good, this rich bitch, this kindly caretaker and destroyer of his talent," takes on a strong ironical significance.

In describing the early relationship of Harry and his wife, Hemingway writes: "The steps by which she had acquired him and the way in which she had finally fallen in love with him were all part of a regular progression in which she had built herself a new life and he had traded away what remained of his old life." The inference is that what has been bad for Harry has been good for Helen: she has thrived at his expense. But she does not thrive on his vitality; she thrives, as would the hyena, on what is dead in him: "The people he knew now were all much more comfortable when he did not work at all." This conception of women, that they can live comfortably with their men only when the latter are dead morally, may be found also in that other, simpler story about Africa that Hemingway wrote about the same time, "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber," where Margot, when her husband belatedly asserts his identity, shoots him. According to Edmund Wilson, "the emotion which principally comes through in 'Francis Macomber' and 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro'—as it figures also in The Fifth Column—is a growing antagonism to women." Indeed, the women characters of Hemingway's early and middle period frequently have a menacing quality: they interfere with the pursuit of masculine ideals, whether aesthetic or athletic. In as early a book as The Sun Also Rises we find the innkeeper, Montoya, a dedicated aficionado of the bullring, fearful of Brett's influence over the toreador Romero; and when Pop, in the autobiographical Green Hills of Africa, asks the author, "What are the things, the actual, concrete things that harm a writer?," Hemingway replies: "Politics, women, drink, money, ambition."


If the New Critics, preoccupied with surface technique, have failed to evaluate "The Snows" properly, other critics, preoccupied with biographical considerations, have succeeded scarcely better. It is true that, as in almost all of Hemingway—especially the early Hemingway—the biographical element looms large. Philip Young, the champion of this school, states that in 1936 Hemingway, who had been "chasing about Europe and Africa with the very rich and drinking too much," felt depressed about his own work; he asserts that the model for Helen was Hemingway's second wife, Pauline Pfeifer, a wealthy fashion writer for Vogue; he points out that much of the material in the flashbacks came straight from Hemingway's own experience (the fishing and skiing episodes, the descriptions of Paris neighborhoods, and the incidents in the Turkish-Greek War and on the Austro-Italian line in World War I); and he notes that the "Julian" of the story was F. Scott Fitzgerald, that in the first printing of "The Snows" (in Esquire) he is called Scott Fitzgerald instead of Julian, and that Hemingway himself once made the reply, "Yes, they have more money," to Fitzgerald's observation, "The rich are very different from you and me," attributed in the story to Julian. And Carlos Baker tells us that in January 1934 (only two years before "The Snows" was written), Hemingway was taken seriously ill of amoebic dysentery in Tanganyika while on safari and was flown past Kilimanjaro to Nairobi for treatment: "During the flight east, and no doubt also during the period of treatment in Nairobi . . . Hemingway had 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."

Now all of this may be true—some of it certainly is—but Hemingway intended "The Snows" to be more than a slightly fictionalized diary, and the perceptive reader will find that he succeeded in that intention. In Our Time, A Farewell to Arms, and The Sun Also Rises are also to a large extent personalized fiction, but the critic is dangerously myopic who sees in them only, or chiefly, the biographical element. It also limits the story, though much less narrowly, to regard it merely as a parable of the artist. Engstrom makes this mistake, as do also Orrok, Tate and Gordon, and, to a certain extent, Baker, who states that the central theme is the same as James's in "The Lesson of the Master."

I have suggested that the theme of "The Snows" involves a contrast between life-in-death, of which the leopard and mountain are symbols, and death-in-life, with which is associated a group of symbols that includes Harry's wife, Helen, and the physical illness from which he is suffering. To appreciate fully the moral meaning of the story, it is necessary to understand the conditions under which Harry first contracted his spiritual sickness. Hemingway tells us that when Harry met Helen he had already exhausted his capacity for love: "It was not her fault," he has his protagonist reflect, "that when he went to her he was already over," and again: "He had never quarreled much with this woman, while with the women that he loved he had quarreled so much they had finally, always, with the corrosion of the quarreling, killed what they had together. He had loved too much, demanded too much, and he wore it all out." It is this inability to love which is his real sickness, and it is aggravated by the deception which he practices—and practices successfully—upon his wife: "But when he no longer was in love, when he was only lying, as to this woman, now .. . it was strange that when he did not love her at all and was lying, that he should be able to give her more for her money than when he had really loved." The definition of love that he frames now, in his sickness ("Love is a dunghill. And I'm the cock that gets on it to crow") contrasts powerfully with the wistful, almost sentimental manner in which, in the flashbacks, he recalls his early love affairs.

Life without love is death-in-life: this is the real moral of the story, as it is the moral of "The Ancient Mariner"; Hemingway's protagonist, however, is less lucky than Coleridge's, for it is only in death, or life-in-death, that he will recover his integrity and achieve identification with that which is infinite and perfect. It is significant that Harry's disintegration as a writer began at the moment he felt himself incapable of love: when he stopped loving, he stopped creating. This is the reason, too, for the boredom he now feels about almost everything, even death: "For this, that now was coming, he had very little curiosity . . . I'm getting as bored with dying as with everything else, he thought." When he lost his ability to love, he lost his curiosity about life as well as his capacity for it.

It is very important to realize that the story ends on a note of triumph. Harry does gain the mountain top, not merely in his delirium, as William Van O'Connor thought, but in death. It is because O'Connor did not, apparently, understand this that he found the story "puzzling." Had Harry's delirium been merely that, and had it not been followed by his death, "The Snows" would indeed have been puzzling, but Hemingway is careful to depict the delirium in such a way that its climax is synchronous with Harry's death: "And then he knew that there was where he was going." Death is the price that he must pay, but life-in-death, Hemingway is telling us, is preferable to death-in-life at any cost. "Only in fantasy does he escape from the nature that pulls him down," O'Connor objected, but Harry's escape from the plain to the peak is real and absolute: it is there, in the "House of God," that he is reunited to that which is ideal and permanent, to that which never rots.

"The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is Hemingway's most religious story. For man, the only alternative to love is death, as W. H. Auden has often insisted; and this is the lesson which Hemingway's parable dramatizes. It is a larger lesson than that which Henry St. George, in James's story, gives to his disciple, and it is essentially a religious one. Hemingway's religion, like that of the American Transcendentalists with whom he has more in common than has usually been supposed, is to a large extent a religion of nature, containing elements of pantheism and Platonism. From the point of view of the latter doctrine, "The Snows" is the story of a man who, having lost contact with divinity when the spark of human love (an emanation of divine love) is extinguished within him, is returned to the Original Source of all love. From the time of his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, one of Hemingway's most consistent convictions has been that to the extent man is in tune with nature he fulfills the divine plan and his own proper destiny: this is the reason for his insistence on the therapeutic value of nature, and I think it explains also, at least partially, his obsessive interest in those activities which he regards as "natural," such as hunting and fishing. This is, of course, a romantic attitude, and indeed the number of critics is increasing who would agree with Malcolm Cowley that Hemingway is only superficially a realist. There are other romantic themes in "The Snows," such as that of the femme fatale, which, as Mario Praz has shown in The Romantic Agony (where he traces it to Greek mythology), is one of the most characteristic preoccupations in the literature of Western Europe. Hemingway has less in common with Dreiser than with Hawthorne and Melville—the men, as Cowley puts it, "who dealt in images that were symbols of an inner world"—which is merely another way of saying that he writes, as nearly all important romantic authors have written, out of an obsession. To the extent that this "inner world" resembles the outer one, and its symbols are intelligible, the romantic writer succeeds. Hemingway, of course, has been unusually successful.

R. W. Stallman (essay date 1961)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 not been noticed about "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is how it is designed. Scenes of external reality alternate with juxtaposed scenes of internal monologue, reminiscences of Harry's past life that Harry failed to utilize as writer. These cutbacks—they are set into italics—are not dreams, but rather they are recollected reality; the point is that they relate thematically. They are not irresponsible reminiscences. They are relevant in that they elicit, albeit obliquely, one motif or another relating to the plight of the protagonist. The narrative progression moves now forward in present reality and now backward to recollected reality.

The story is about an artist—or potential artist—who died spiritually the day he traded his integrity for security, and here he is dying now with a gangrenous leg whose stink has symbolic import. You begin to stink when you sell yourself out. Then is when moral gangrene sets in; after that, well, life becomes painless. "The marvellous thing is that it's painless," says Harry about his gangrenous leg. "That's how you knew when it starts." His gangrenous leg is token symbol of his moral gangrene as creative writer. Obversely put, writing is a struggle, an act of labor and pain. Stephen Crane had the same theory: "The Red Badge of Courage . . . was an effort born of pain—despair, almost; and I believe that this made it a better piece of literature than it otherwise would have been. It seems a pity that art should be a child of pain, and yet I think it is." But Harry never exerted himself, never tried because he feared he might fail; instead of using his talent he traded on it. He blames the rich bitch Helen ("You rich bitch. That's poetry. I'm full of poetry now. Rot and poetry. Rotten poetry"), but he admits: "He had destroyed his talent himself. Why should he blame this woman because she kept him well? He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself . . .". Harry's dying now of gangrene counterpoints with Harry's dying of spiritual gangrene years ago. He kept from thinking, "and it was all marvellous"—marvellous because painless. His painless death implies his painless life. Ironically, while dying he can't help not to keep from thinking. That he recollects his fragmented past, experiences he failed to recreate into formed literary works, that he recollects all that he has missed out on as potential artist, evokes the ironical poignancy of Harry's situation. What's painful about his present plight is just that. "Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either."

Like Kurtz in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," Harry incriminates himself as failure. By his own self-admission Harry has sold Conscience short. So, too, does Doctor Diver in Tender is the Night: "My politeness is a trick of the heart." It is the characteristic Hemingway division and conflict between internal code or conscience and an external and meretricious code of manners or social front, a division and conflict exploited notably in Huckleberry Finn. One exemplar of integrity or conscience is Francis Macomber in Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." Whereas at the start Macomber is presented in mock triumph, at the end he attains a moral triumph; the story is thus plotted with a reversal of the initial situation. "Francis Macomber had, half an hour before, been carried to his tent from the edge of the camp in triumph on the arms and shoulders of the cook, the personal boys, the skinner and the porters. The gun-bearers [however] had taken no part in the demonstration." Reversal of situation is obtained by the Conradian device of a wrenched chronology, the opening scene relocated so as to begin the story on the note of mock triumph. Because Macomber has defaulted in the lion hunt, he has lost face; the gun-bearers shun the false demonstration. The story begins with Macomber asking: "Will you have a lime juice or lemon squash?" The guide Robert Wilson says: "I'll have a gimlet," rejecting thus Macomber's kind of drink. '"I'll have a gimlet too. I need something,' Macomber's wife said, 'I suppose it's the thing to do,' Macomber agreed, Tell him to make three gimlets.'" Mrs. Macomber, ashamed of her husband, drinks Wilson's kind of drink; and Macomber, ashamed of himself, follows likewise the leader. But when Wilson later defaults on the hunter's code by chasing in the automobile the buffalo they hunt, he loses face; this reversal is spelled out by Macomber: "Now she [Margot] has something on you." The story began with Macomber in the power of Wilson and Mrs. Macomber; it ends with Wilson and Mrs. Macomber in the power of Macomber—he triumphs morally over them. As in "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," reversal of situation defines the structure of The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, The Return of the Native, "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky," and Tender is the Night.

"The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is constructed very differently, the various parts being related not logically but psychologically:

That was one story he had saved to write. He knew at least twenty good stories from out there and he had never written one. Why?

'You tell them why,' he said.

'Why what, dear?'

'Why nothing.'

The narrative shifts from recollections, from the mind of Harry, back to reality; here the transposition is clearly managed by the linked "Why?" Harry's memoried experiences furnish a kind of scrapbook of images which Harry had intended to recast into stories; they are all fragments, disjointed episodes, not yet organized into dramatic wholes because Harry never converted them into works of art. They are the unformed life he failed to form. Harry has not organized them, but Hemingway has.

While their sequence is seemingly haphazard, these internal monologues progress toward the climactic and final image of Williamson who was hit by a German bomb as he crawled through the trench's protective wire, "with a flare lighting him up and his bowels spilled out into the wire, so when they brought him in, alive, they had to cut him loose. Shoot me, Harry. For Christ sake shoot me. " It is as though Williamson's plea were Harry's own death-wish, and almost immediately subsequent to this image of death-by-agony Harry himself dies—in contrast to Williamson, however, Harry does not die in agony. When "the weight went from his chest," Harry dies in his sleep. "It was morning and had been morning for some time and he heard the plane." Harry at the moment of his dying dreams that Compton comes to take him away by plane. "It was difficult getting him in, but once in he lay back in the leather seat, and the leg was stuck straight out to one side of the seat where Compton sat." All of this dream episode is set in Roman type so as to distinguish it from the italicized passages of Harry's recollections of the past; they are not dreams. The transition from reality to dream is as adroitly managed here as in Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," Hemingway's device deriving from Bierce's famous story. In both stories the ending returns us to that point in the narrative where the death-dream began. Harry's wife, awakened by an hyena's almost human crying sound, discovers by flashlight in the dark tent that Harry's leg hangs down alongside his cot. "The dressings had all come down and she could not look at it." Harry does not answer her cry, "and she could not hear him breathing." Dream and reality—point-presentreality as distinguished from recollected reality—are rendered as blending almost unnoticeably one with the other, the projected leg in Harry's death-dream connecting with the projected leg in Harry's cot. Harry has no last name, and his wife is named only once, only in his dream: "Helen had taken Compton aside and was speaking to him." She's not exactly Helen of Troy, but she links with Helen of Troy inasmuch as loving her—Harry's way of loving her—is destructive: "That's the good destruction." The Elizabethan meaning of to love in its double sense of to love is to die is exploited also in A Farewell to Arms.

Caroline Gordon in the textbook anthology The House of Fiction (1950) opines that Hemingway "has made no provision for the climax of his symbolic action. Our attention is not called to the snow-covered peaks of Kilimanjaro until the end of the story; as a result we do not feel that sense of recognition and inevitability which help to make a katharsis." At the end of Harry's dream, during which the perspective is from the airplane with images evoking a sense of Harry's belated nostalgic love for life, "all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that that was where he was going." But he isn't going there, not at all; because he has not earned admission to the heights, admission to "the House of God," as the western summit of Kilimanjaro is called.

Kilimanjaro is a snow covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and it is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai 'Negàje Ngài, ' the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.

The story opens with this italicized passage, which I presume is one of Harry's recollections since all his other recollections are likewise italicized passages. So, then, the symbol is not "something the writer has tacked on" (contra Caroline Gordon); but rather it is an integral part of the story. "He uses the snow-covered mountain of Kilimanjaro as the symbol of death, but the symbolism .. . is not part of the action and therefore does not operate as a controlling image. . . ." She damns the story as a magnificent failure, whereas I see it as a magnificent success.

Harry's "vision" of Kilimanjaro in his death-dream returns us at the end to the opening passage and shapes the whole in circular form. Immediately following that italicized image of the Kilimanjaro summit, which in effect is a riddle to be unriddled, Harry says: "The marvellous thing is that it is painless." But it wasn't painless for that leopard to ascend the summit, an ascent which Harry never attempted; he has attained an immortality which Harry never earned. The symbol is far more than simply a symbol of death. That leopard exceeded the nature and aspirations of his kind: "No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude." Well, he wasn't seeking immortality, being only a dumb beast; but he got just that in attaining the heights, admission to "the House of God."

In contrast to the noble leopard is the hyena which Harry imagines as death. Death "like a hyena"—but now suddenly shapeless, crouches and weighs down on his chest. "'You've got a hell of a breath,' he told it. 'You stinking bastard'." In addressing the stinking hyena Harry is addressing himself; Hyena Harry—a cowardly and carnivorous beast. Or he is addressing himself as vulture, since he imagines death also as a bird. "'Love is a dunghill,' said Harry. 'And I'm the cock that gets on it to crow.' 'If you have to go away,' she said, 'is it absolutely necessary to kill off everything you leave behind? I mean do you have to take away everything? Do you have to kill your horse, and your wife and burn your saddle and your armour?' 'Yes,' he said. 'Your damned money was my armour. My Swift and my Armour'." She is his Armour, a pun on his Amour. Not Helen of Troy, but rather Helen of Swift & Armour, the Chicago slaughter house; and as for Harry, he's Slaughter House Harry, as it were, slaughtering not only his wife but his "horse."

In the second Internal Monologue or stream of consciousness interlude Harry remembers an old man looking at the snow falling in the mountains of Bulgaria. Nansen's Secretary asks him "if it were snow and the old man looking at it and saying, No, that's not snow. It's not snow and them all saying, It's not snow we were mistaken. But it was snow all right and he sent them on into it when he evolved exchange of populations. And it was snow they trampled along in until they died that winter." It is an incident depicting flight, retreat, betrayal; hence it mirrors Harry's own plight—Harry in flight from himself, Harry betraying himself. Like Nansen's Secretary, Harry betrays his trust.

Death by snow sums up that memoried image, but it is the snow that saves the deserter in the episode immediately subsequent: "the deserter came with his feet bloody in the snow. He said the police were right behind him and they gave him woolen socks and held the gendarmes talking until the tracks had drifted over." Here again is flight, and in both actions snow is deceptive.

Next comes an image of skiers on snow "as smooth to see as cake frosting and as light as powder and he remembered the noiseless rush the speed made as you dropped down like a bird." But "the snow was so bright it hurt your eyes"; so again snow is deceptive. And again the action is of flight.

Next comes the story of Herr Lent who lost at card-playing "Everything, the skischule money and all the season's profit and then his capital." It occurs in a snow-blizzard, when they were snow-bound a week in the Madlenerhaus, and Harry "thought of all the time in his life he had spent gambling." Harry, too, has gambled on life and lost.

The fifth recollected experience evokes again the motif of betrayal. "But he had never written a line of that, nor of the cold, bright Christmas day with the mountains showing across the plain that Gardner had flown across the lines to bomb the Austrian officers' leave train, machinegunning them as they scattered and ran." He broke faith during the Christmas truce. When he returned to his own men, somebody said: "You bloody murderous bastard." Here again snow, though not mentioned, is implied; thus again the motifs of snow and death, snow and betrayal. Also, here again is an action of flight. The final two scenes are again reminiscences of skiing, of snow—"the fastslipping rush of running powder-snow on crust"—as life. Thus Harry figures in these reminiscences as all these things: the betrayer, the deserter, the skier, the gambler, the murdering betrayer of code. And snow, figuring in all these scenes, associates with the title of the story and the snow-covered Kilimanjaro with its leopard as mock commentary on Harry's plight. He's no leopard transcending reality; Harry's merely the common bestial man devoid of transcendent virtues.

"The Snows of Kilimanjaro," says our biased critic, "lacks tonal and symbolic unity," but a close reading disproves that claim. "Its three planes of action, the man's intercourse with his wife, his communings with his soul, and the background of Enveloping Action, the mysterious Dark Continent, are never integrated." Well, let us examine what's what.

As the image of the leopard on Kilimanjaro's summit is integrated with the various incidents in the above recollections of Harry, so is it integrated with what Harry recollects in the subsequent italicized passage, Internal Monologue 3. It is again counterpointed against Harry as betrayer. Harry as two-timer writes the woman he loves that he cannot bear life without her, and her letter in reply is discovered by his wife: '"Who is that letter from, dear?' and that was the end of the beginning of that." Even that same night he wrote her from the Club he went out and picked up a girl and took her out to supper, but he twotimed her: "left her for a hot Armenian slut, that swung her belly against him so it almost scalded. He took her away from a British gunner subaltern after a row." Another incident he remembers has to do with artillery firing into its own troops, a metaphor of Harry destroying himself.

The fourth section of italicized reminiscences presents in contrast the happy Paris life when "he had written the start of all he was to do. There never was another part of Paris that he loved like that," etc. He hadn't yet sold himself out to the rich; but he never got around to writing about the Paris he loved, nor in fact about any of the rest of his experiences.

Internal Monologue 5 follows close upon the previous recollection, and the final one of Williamson follows almost immediately. Their frequency increases towards the end of the narrative when Harry approaches death. Now he recalls the murder of an old man by a half-wit boy, whom Harry betrays. He gets the boy to aid him in packing the old man's body ("frozen in the corral, and the dogs had eaten part of him") onto a sled, "and the two of you took it out over the road on skis, and sixty miles down to town to turn the boy over. He having no idea that he would be arrested. Thinking he had done his duty and that you were his friend and he would be rewarded. . . .

That was one story he had saved to write. Why?" Why Nothing sums up Harry. (Why Nothing sums up Dick Diver in Tender is the Night, who likewise sold himself out to the rich.) Harry remembers "poor Julian and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, "The very rich are different from you and me.' And how some one had said to Julian, Yes, they have more money. But that was not humorous to Julian. He thought they were a special glamorous race and when he found they weren't it wrecked him just as much as any other thing that wrecked him."

The fifth monologue spells out Harry as betrayer and links thus with the second and third italicized recollections. Again, it is a scene of death in snow and thus links with the second internal monologue. All six sections of italicized recollections present a death scene and link thus with the plight of the protagonist. Again, actions of betrayal are recurrent—in monologues number 2, 3, 4, and 5. To say that "Our attention is not called to the snowcovered peaks of Kilimanjaro until the end of the story" is to ignore these multiple interrelationships of recollected scenes with their recurrent motifs of death, deception, betrayal, and flight. The final death-dream is itself a scene of flight, flight from the Dark Continent to the House of God. The leopard made it there, but not Harry. To say that the leopard symbolism "is not part of the action and therefore does not operate as a controlling image" is to ignore the whole substance of Harry's recollected incidents; they furnish obliquely linked analogies with Harry himself and thematically they are counterpointed against the opening image of the leopard dead in the snows of Kilimanjaro's summit. Man betrays man; only the leopard is true. That opening image of the miraculous leopard operates, by my reading, as controlling and focal symbol. Don't underrate Hemingway!

William Van O'Connor (essay date 1962)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 experiences came The Green Hills of Africa, as well as "The Short Happy Life of Francis McComber" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." It is merely fortuitous, of course, that two American writers, almost a century apart, chose to write about the great African mountain. The coincidence, however, affords an opportunity to examine two separate traditions in the American literary mind.

It so happens that Hemingway made a statement in The Green Hills of Africa about the "genteel tradition." He said the genteel writers were "good men with the small, dried, and excellent wisdom of the Unitarians. . . . They were all very respectable. They did not use the words that people always have used in speech, the words that survive in language. Nor would you gather that they had bodies. They had minds, yes. Nice, dry, clean minds." Presumably Hemingway would call Taylor's "Kilimanjaro" a genteel poem. And of course it is.

The opening lines of the poem are designed to humanize the great mountain, to bring it into a proper relationship with man and civilization:

Hail to thee, monarch of African mountains,
Remote, inaccessible, silent, and lone,
Who, from the heart of the tropical fervors,
Liftest to heaven thine alien snows,
Feeding forever the fountains that make thee
Father of Nile and Creator of Egypt.

In the second stanza the mountain is clearly placed inside the orbit of civilized doings:

The years of the world are engraved on thy forehead;
Time 's morning blushed red on thy first fallen snows;

On the other hand, there is an acknowledgment of the mountain's foreign otherness: once she was lost in the wilderness, unknown, unnamed. Even so, Taylor implies, nature is under our spell:

Knowledge alone is the being of Nature,
Giving a soul to her manifold features,
Lighting through paths of primitive darkness
The footsteps of Truth and vision of Song
Knowledge had born thee anew to Creation,
And long-baffled Time at thy baptism rejoices.

Taylor, as poet, relates how floating in a boat on the Nile he scoops up water, "a magical mirror," and sees therein a vision of the mountain "supreme in the midst of her comates." He sees her as exhibiting, at various heights, the several seasons of the year:

There, in the wondering airs of the Tropics
Shivers the Aspen, still dreaming of cold:
There stretches the Oak, from the loftiest ledges,
His arms to the far-away lands of his brothers,
And the Pine-tree looks down on his rival, the Palm.

If the mountain is a little mysterious, it is none the less as orderly as the coming of the seasons. Comparing Mont Blanc and other great mountains with Kilimanjaro, Taylor says thay were "baptized." In other words, and unlike a later American poet, Wallace Stevens, he could not conceive that the gods of Africa would be appropriate to Africa. In Taylor's mind Kilimanjaro is seen as having been reduced to the jurisdiction of the European community.

Taylor was willing to have Kilimanjaro exotic, strange, and mysterious—but not too mysterious ("unseen but of God") and certainly not an object to contemplate with fear or terror. Taylor's own civilized order is interposed between himself and the great mountain rising from the hills and plains of central east Africa.

Near the end of December, 1933, Hemingway was in Tanganyika, where he fell ill with amoebic dysentery. He continued to hunt, but after a short period it was clear that he was too ill to remain. In mid-January a two-seater plane carried him 400 miles north for medical treatment, past Ngorongoro Crater and the Rift Escarpment to the town of Arusha and from there past the huge bulk of Kilimanjaro to Nairobi in Kenya.

In his "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," a rather puzzling story, Hemingway makes use of the mountain as symbol. The oft debated epigraph to the story is this: "Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai 'Ngaje Ngaji,' the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude."

The narrative itself recapitulates the life of Harry, a highly gifted writer. One learns that he has written a few good things, but mostly he has taken the easy way, even to marrying for money. Now, at the moment of the story's action, during a safari in Africa he is dying from gangrene. Half delirious, he picks quarrels with his wife, and he recalls many of his experiences. Suspense is maintained by the promised arrival of a plane that will pick him up and carry him to a town where his leg can be treated. There are several quite startling images of death. Finally, he dies. In the moments before he dies he has a fantasy in which the night has passed, the plane arrives, and he is put aboard and carried out (the reader, for the moment, thinks this is actually happening, but then learns that it is still night, Harry's wife has awakened and sees that he is dead). A part of the fantasy is this:

And then instead of going on to Arusha they turned left, he [the pilot] evidently figured that they had the gas, and looking down he saw a pink sifting cloud, moving over the ground, and in the air, like the first snow in a blizzard, that comes from nowhere, and he knew the locusts were going to the East it seemed, and then it darkened and they were in a storm, the rain so thick it seemed like flying through a waterfall, and then they were out and Compie [the pilot] turned his head and grinned and pointed and there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.

Man, like the leopard frozen near the western summit, pushes upward. As C. C. Walcutt has put it, all reason is against the leopard being found at that height and all reason is against Harry's ambition to rise above an "aimless materialism." Whatever it was that drove the leopard up there "is the same sort of mystery as the force that keeps idealism alive in Harry." But man is in material nature. The story tells us that Harry did capitulate. He had not written the true and beautiful stories it was in his power to write. He did not live to achieve what he might have achieved. Only in fantasy does he escape from the nature that has pulled him down. In his delirium, he believes he has escaped into the mysterious beauty that Kilimanjaro symbolizes—but he has not escaped. Among the final images in the story is one almost equally vivid with the white brilliance of the mountain: "She could see his bulk under the mosquito bar but somehow he had gotten his leg out and it hung down alongside the cot. The dressings had all come down and she could not look at it." Idealism does not always win. She has an implacable foe in physical decay which succeeds in winning major victories, perhaps the major victories.

Within Taylor's vision of civilization there is a far greater assurance of strength and abiding influence than there is in Hemingway's vision. Historically, it is that the affirmations of the "genteel tradition" gave way, as everyone knows, to affirmations of a more qualified sort. Taylor, the nineteenth-century visitor to Africa, was assured that the primitive could be civilized, whereas Hemingway, the twentieth-century visitor, feels or knows that the "primitive" is a part of civilization. To develop this point much further would entail an examination of the "genteel tradition" and certain of the reactions to it. Perhaps it is sufficient to observe, once more, that Taylor, the genteel poet, superimposed a civilized order of things on a nature that the twentieth-century man sees as alien or at least as apart from him. Taylor was in awe of the mountain, but not so profoundly in awe of it as Hemingway was.

Between Bayard Taylor and Hemingway lay the breakup of the genteel tradition. George Santayana, in his brilliant lecture, "The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy," says "the three American writers whose personal endowment was perhaps the finest—Poe, Hawthorne and Emerson—had all a certain starved, abstract quality. They could not retail the genteel tradition; they were too keen for that. But life offered them little digestible material, nor were they naturally voracious." Santayana is saying that Poe, Emerson and Hawthorne tried to turn away from the genteel tradition, and in doing so had to become highly subjective writers.

James, he says, treated the matter differently. "Mr. Henry James has [freed himself] by turning the genteel American tradition as he turns everything else, into a subjectmatter for analysis. For him it is a curious habit of mind, intimately comprehended, to be compared with other habits of mind, also well known to him. Thus he has overcome the genteel tradition in the classic way, by understanding it."

James's "The Madonna of the Future" (1873) is an excellent example of what Santayana means. James was only thirty when he wrote it—and obviously he had been thinking about his future as an American writer. His father's generation had aspired to create the Beautiful, and most of them managed to achieve little or nothing, because the Beautiful as a transcendental entity does not exist. Undoubtedly James feared this could happen to him. It was also, one would guess, a reason why he chose to live in Europe.

James invents a painter, an old man, an American exile. The scene is Florence. The old painter dreams of the great madonna he will one day produce. He sits in a shabby room before a canvas, getting ready to paint it. Meanwhile his "beautiful" young subject has aged twenty years, becoming stout, coarse and vulgar. The painter "sees" her as she was. It would never occur to him to paint her as she is. When forced to see her as she actually is, he is shocked and shortly thereafter dies.

There is a second artist, a cynical Italian, who is the woman's lover. He does obscene statuettes of monkeys and cats in amorous relationships. He says, "The idea's bold; does it strike you as happy? Cats and monkeys—monkeys and cats—all human life is there! Human life, of course I mean, viewed with the eye of the satirist! To combine sculpture and satire, signore, has been my unprecedented ambition. I flatter myself I have not egregiously failed." The young American admits they are "strikingly clever and expressive."

James is saying that beauty must come fron lived experiences, and these may include the sordid and the ugly. Human life isn't all cats and monkeys—but they are a part of it. A dream of art separated from actuality is unnatural and doomed to failure. That is why, as James implies in "The Author of Beltraffio," the genteel tradition produced no serious art.

The genteel writers, and Taylor is an example, turned their backs on actuality. They separated love from sex, tried to separate the ideal from the forces of materialism and nature, and to create an art that ignored commonplace and sometimes unpleasant or distressing human impulses or actions. Howells, Crane, Dreiser, Anderson and others struggled to free themselves from the genteel. One might almost say that for Hemingway in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" the process is reversed: sex struggles to relate itself to love, and materialism and nature struggle to relate themselves to the ideal. Human impulses, pleasant and unpleasant, are the material of the art, and contribute to its beauty.

William Goldhurst (essay date 1963)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 same theme has attracted the attention of some of our leading fictionists: Henry James remarked that the American writer seemed destined to follow a pattern of "broken careers, orphaned children, early disasters, violent deaths." James's comment is but one of many that stress the native tendency toward unfulfilled talent, alcoholism, and suicide—comments that seem to culminate in Fitzgerald's "Crack-Up" essays. "No one of us escapes it," said Sherwood Anderson, speaking of the "tragedy" of the creative man in America. "How can he?"

If Anderson's remark is exaggerated, it is nevertheless true that many American writers, among them Ring Lardner and Scott Fitzgerald, reveal a tendency toward tragic misfortune in their personal and professional histories. It is also true that the theme of the ruined writer has received considerable attention from many of our critics and fictionists. Hemingway appears to have been much interested in this theme in the mid nineteen-thirties, but his fullest and most important treatment of it occurs in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (written in 1936). The hero of the story, a man named Harry, has for a number of years entertained a profound desire to write about his experiences, vividly remembered from his wanderings in Europe and America. But he has never realized this ambition; instead, he has gradually yielded to his preference for the pleasures of love-making, the company of rich women, and the life of ease that has softened his determination to exercise his literary talent. It is Harry's failure, treated in a tone of overwhelming regret, that Hemingway dramatizes in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."

The story is set in Africa, where Harry and his wealthy American wife have set out upon a hunting expedition; Harry has the idea that the rigors of the trip will help toughen him up and restore his creative powers, or at least restore his ability to apply himself to his work. But the safari breaks down when one of the native guides burns out a bearing in the truck and Harry discovers that a cut on his leg has become infected and gangrenous. Now, as he lies dying of his wound—a symbol of the decay of his talent—Harry relives in his mind those experiences he has wanted to record on paper. He also tries to define the reasons for his failure to do so.

Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either. Maybe you could never write them, and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting. Well he would never know, now.

What was his talent anyway? It was a talent all right but instead of using it, he had traded on it. It was never what he had done, but always what he could do. And he had chosen to make his living with something else instead of a pen or a pencil.

We must all be cut out for what we do, he thought. However you make your living is where your talent lies. He had sold vitality, in one form or another, all his life and when your affections are not too involved you give much better value for the money. He had found that out but he would never write that, now, either. No, he would not write that, although it was well worth writing.

She shot very well this good, this rich bitch, this kindly caretaker and destroyer of his talent. Nonsense. He had destroyed his talent himself. Why should he blame this woman because she kept him well? He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice, by hook and by crook.

If Harry's tragedy sounds somehow familiar to readers of the fiction of the period, it is because Scott Fitzgerald had rehearsed the same story a few years earlier in Tender Is the Night. Dick Diver, too, has "sold vitality, in one form or another"—to the group of expatriates who are drawn to his control and charm, and to his wife Nicole, whom he has been "hired" to love and protect. Like Harry, Diver has undergone emotional and professional deterioration because his wife's wealth has made effort unnecessary; like Hemingway's hero, Dick Diver has become accustomed to the comfort that corrupts the will and destroys ambition. Like Harry, too, Diver is ambivalent about the reasons for his deterioration: he vacillates between placing the blame upon his own weakness and the seductive leisure purchased by the Warren fortune: "I can't do anything for you any more," says Diver to Nicole near the end of the novel. "I'm trying to save myself."

"From my contamination?" [asks Nicole.]

"Profession throws me in contact with questionable company sometimes."

She wept with anger at the abuse.

"You're a coward! You've made a failure of your life, and you want to blame it on me."

Diver and Harry also share similar attitudes, in their decline, toward the wealthy class of American idlers with whom they have been associated. "The rich were dull and they drank too much," Harry reflects near the end of Hemingway's story. "They were dull and they were repetitious." In one of the concluding chapters of Fitzgerald's novel, Mary Minghetti tells Dick Diver: "Nobody cares whether you drink or not. Even when Abe drank hardest, he never offended people like you do." Diver replies: "You're all so dull."

Finally, for all the surface description of Diver's professional involvements with psychiatry, the hero of Tender Is the Night may be accurately considered a ruined artist of the sort Hemingway writes about in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." By making his hero a doctor rather than a writer Fitzgerald no doubt hoped to gain distance and detachment. But his efforts were not completely successful. Biographical data support the notion, already mentioned by several students of Fitzgerald's fiction, that in Tender Is the Night the novelist was projecting his anxiety about his own career and emotional instability. There is, furthermore, strong internal evidence that Fitzgerald conceived of Dick Diver's career as parallel, in many respects, to his own. All through Tender Is the Night there are references to Diver's literary activity. An early episode mentions his publication of an extremely popular medical treatise ("The little book is selling everywhere," says Nicole. "They want it published in six languages.")—an obvious counterpart to Fitzgerald's best-selling novels. And during the central sections of Tender Is the Night Diver struggles, at times aimlessly, to complete another medical text. Finally, in the last chapter Fitzgerald returns to the unfinished manuscript to give particular emphasis to Diver's loss of ambition, the decline of his professional dedication: "he always had a big stack of papers on his desk that were known to be an important treatise on some medical subject, almost in process of completion."

Thus Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night traces the same pattern as "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and reveals, indirectly at least, the same interest in the blighted artistic career and the decay of a writer's talent. An important aspect of Diver's tragedy, like Harry's, is that "he would never write the things he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well." It might also be worth repeating, in conclusion, that Harry and Dick Diver have been victimized by the same forces. Temperamental weakness, to be sure, plays a part in the misfortunes of both heroes. But Hemingway and Fitzgerald have stressed as well the ruinous influence of a luxurious life provided by wealthy American women.

Earl Rovit (essay date 1963)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 writer, tries to come to terms with the fact of his approaching death; he has a badly gangrenous leg which is too far advanced to be cured, even though a rescue airplane is expected on the following day to carry him out of the African bush to the nearest hospital. He spends the afternoon and early evening quarreling with his wealthy wife, berating himself for having wasted his talents, remembering sharp vignettes of the past that he had always intended to use in his writing but never did. The last section of the story (as in Bierce's model) is a description of the arrival of the airplane and its ascent to the top of Kilimanjaro: "great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun." Then the story flashes back to the dead Harry discovered by his wife, and we realize that the airplane ride was Hemingway's trick on the reader. The story is prefaced by the following epigraph: "Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai 'Ngaje Ngai,' the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude."

Thematically the story is also relatively simple, and it is reminiscent of Henry James's "The Middle Years" in which another writer confronts the fact of death and berates himself and life for not having time enough to write the things he is now ready to do. If we approach "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" from the special view with which we have been concerned, we will see that Hemingway used a traditional structure and a conventional theme to achieve his own peculiar ends; and we will also see that Harry is a kind of extended portrait of the artist, similar in attitude to the portrait of Belmonte previously cited.

First, there are some obvious, paired contrasts within the story: the snow, clean and cold on the mountain top and in Harry's reminiscence, as against "the heat shimmer of the plain" which becomes associated with the ugly rotting leg. Similarly, "the dried and frozen carcass" of the leopard is contrasted to the wide-snouted hyena which is the harbinger and final announcer of Harry's death. Through various devices, Helen is contrasted with Harry and associated with the heat, the plain, the gangrene, and the hyena. The contrasts are all neat and in balance, with the exception of Harry; he, of course, is connected to the leg, Helen, and the hyena—even as he dreams of the snow and the ascent beyond the plain. And it is Harry's character that provides the key to the story. He is not, at all, a nice man. He is a liar, a quarreler, and a traitor to himself as well as to other people. "He had sold vitality, in one form or another, all his life and when your affections are not too involved you give much better value for the money." He had married Helen, he tells us, for security and comfort, and he had never loved her. And yet, "it was strange . . . that he should be able to give her more for her money than when he had really loved."

Several things should be obvious. Harry is egocentric, hypocritical, and morally as well as physically rotten; and yet the thrust of values in the story elevates him to the snow-capped summit and forces the reader to accept him as a superior man. Helen, on the other hand, is honest, generous, and reasonably intelligent; yet she is left at the end of the story with the unbandaged leg that she cannot bear to look at. Harry disposes of her for himself and for the reader in one sentence: "She was always thoughtful, he thought. On anything she knew about, or had read, or that she had ever heard." On normal standards of valuation, this would seem to be generous praise; but in terms of the story, it is clear that this is enough to make Helen despicable. Harry, it would seem, is thoughtful on things he doesn't know about, hasn't read, and hasn't ever heard. He is justly contemptuous of artists, like Julian (F. Scott Fitzgerald), who have been wrecked. He is justly contemptuous of Helen and her total milieu-, he is "a spy in their country" and, by implication, a mysterious stranger in all countries save that which he shares with a frozen leopard at an altitude of almost 20,000 feet. And the only source of his marvellous superiority is that "for years it [death] had obsessed him; but now it meant nothing in itself." That, and the fact that in the face of death, he performs his craft; he writes. This is what makes him superior; this is what gives him "the feeling of immortality" which is vouchsafed to him in his ascent to the mountain.

The portrait of Harry is thus very similar to the earlier picture of Belmonte [from The Sun Also Rises.] Both are sick with disgust at their unknowing audiences (Helen is Harry's audience), but both, presumably, attain a level of inner possession which can only be called beatific. Harry differs from Belmonte in that he manages in an offhand way to satisfy his audience even with the gangrene. The remarkable tour de force of the story is that Hemingway is able to present a thoroughly upside-down world to readers who must not be very different from Helen—and to make them like it. And here we must mention the hyena in order to appreciate the full resonance of the tour de force. The hyena is introduced into the story in such a way as to connect it to the obscenely squatting vultures which sit with their "naked heads sunk in their hunched feathers," presumably waiting for Harry's death. It, like them, is called "a filthy animal" and a "bastard," and it is quickly associated with the "sudden evil-smelling emptiness" that characterizes the approach of both the gangrene and death in the narrative. But after Harry dies, the hyena appears again: "Just then the hyena stopped whimpering in the night and started to make a strange, human, almost crying sound." He continues to do this until Helen wakes up and discovers the corpse. If the hyena were simply meant to stand for death, its continual symbolic use is a foolish distraction which dissipates the force of the story. And why the emphasis on "human," especially since the hyena's crying is almost the first "human" sound in the story?

It is possible to suggest an interpretation for the hyena which will be in keeping with the reading of the story and the portraiture of the artist that we have been examining, if we call to mind Hemingway's description of the "highly humorous" hyena in Green Hills of Africa. The hyena is a source of much amusement in that book because of the obscenely funny contortions that he goes through when he is shot.

. . . the pinnacle of hyenic humor, was the hyena, the classic hyena, that hit too far back while running, would circle madly, snapping and tearing at himself until he pulled his own intestines out, and then stood there, jerking them out and eating them with relish. . . . Fisi, the hyena, hermaphroditic, self-eating devourer of the dead, trailer of calving cows, ham-stringer, potential biter-off of your face at night while you slept, sad yowler, camp-follower, stinking, foul . . . Mongrel dog-smart in the face . . .

The despicable hyena joins Helen in weeping for the dead artist, because the hyena becomes a distended identification of the audience that the artist must serve. Fickle, treacherous, stupid and cunning at the same time, it is quick to lament the loss of the artist, even as it is quick to harry him down when he is alive. Without pushing the metaphor too far, it is fair to say that Hemingway succeeds in this story in insulting his audience beyond endurance, in making the audience eat its own wounds, and like it. There is surely a more than savage irony in the "human, almost crying sound" that ends the tale; and the reflection that Hemingway was reputed to have received $125,000 for the movie rights to this story merely compounds the irony.

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 great consequence. Harry's role transcends his particular profession, and his story may also be read as one of the corruption of love. As Carlos Baker has said about the Macomber and Kilimanjaro stories:

Both deal . . . with the achievement and loss of moral manhood. Both look further into the now familiar men-without-women theme. The focal point in each is the corrupting power of women and money, two of the forces aggressively mentioned in Green Hills of Africa as impediments to American writing men.

Aside from the obvious differences in the action of the two stories, "The Snows" differs from "Macomber" chiefly in the variations of the men and women's characterizations. Both Margot Macomber and Helen of "The Snows" are dominating women who are good at and enjoy love-making, but Helen's dominance is passive—it does not take the form of the active bitchery of Margot. Harry has willingly submitted to the protection and power of wealthy Helen, while it was Margot Macomber who stayed with Francis because he had money. Helen is "tolerant" of Harry's male bitchery, while it was Francis Macomber who was tolerant of Margot. Helen reads "enormously" and is overly influenced by books, while Francis was the bookworm of the Macombers. And finally, if one applies the Tristan myth to "The Snows," a different role is seen for the Hemingway woman. Helen can be read as a type of Iseult of the White Hand, while Margot, if anything, was the other, first Iseult, Iseult the Fair. (Iseult of the White Hand was Tristan's unsatisfactory substitute for Iseult the Fair; he married Iseult of the White Hand but never loved her, and in revenge she finally betrays him. The name Helen may justifiably suggest the Trojan Paris' wife.)

These variations on a theme suggest several things: Hemingway was intent upon following through with some of the ideas suggested to him by Green Hills of Africa. But he was not sure what the best embodiment of his ideas would be, or, perhaps, he did not know until he wrote both stories what he wanted to say. He had recognized a fertile situation for good fiction in his exotic African setting, and, in the manner of some of his earlier fiction, he chose to write more than one story about the material, as if approaching it in two ways would get more out of it or guarantee that he had missed nothing of importance in the imaginative situation. See the uses of the Italian wound, for instance, in The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Across the River and into the Trees, and several short stories.

"The Snows" is not, therefore, a simple preface to or a superfluous variation of "Macomber." It is a very good story that embodies ideas of its own. My point here is simply that it is a better story when read in the light of comparison with and contrast to Green Hills of Africa and "Macomber." And like those two works, "The Snows" is largely concerned with a romantic vision of life and love.

Like the Macombers, Harry and Helen would seem to be an ideal couple with "everything to live for." But Harry is a morally sick man; his physical wound is symbolic of his inner illness. The wound to his leg epitomizes his sickness, for it is a type of castration wound and had been subconsciously self-inflicted. (Harry had neglected a thorn scratch and then treated it improperly.) Like Francis Macomber he has been partially responsible for the loss of his manhood, and he has, or imagines he has, a devouring mate eager to seize any sexual advantage.

Harry himself regards his life as a failure. He has prostituted his art: "each day of not writing, 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." The months and years of idleness slip by. He never acts, he never loves, he never carries out his plans. He returns to Africa simply because he had once been happy there, and he thinks perhaps there he can "work the fat off his soul." Scorning the challenge of real life all around him, he postpones writing the stories he knows, and he postpones loving an eminently lovable woman simply because she is his and is available at the present moment.

His is the sickness of Tristan; his end is the obscene, filthy, diseased product of a romantic dream in which the present is bitter and only the past contains any happiness. Thus the flashbacks and the action in them and in the fantasy death-flight at the end of the story. Present time in the story is static, passive. Yet in his sickness, bitterness, and remorse, where is Harry? Irony of ironies, he, like Melville in Typee, is in the Garden of Eden. He had returned to Africa because "Africa was where he had been happiest in the good time of his life, so he had come out here to start again." But the myth of the eternal return, the recapturing of the "good times," is destroyed by the gangrenous wound that attracts vultures and hyenas. Here on the beautiful, teeming plain near Mt. Kilimanjaro and its western summit, called the House of God, Harry is to die with his dreams unfulfilled.

"This was a pleasant camp under big trees against a hill, with good water, and close by, a nearly dry water hole where sand grouse flighted in the morning." And here too are Adam and Eve back in the Garden, trying desperately to pretend they are something else, and Harry feeling very sorry that the only way to the House of God is death.

The epigraph to the story has caused some uneasiness, but as soon as one accepts the possibility of a mythic dimension in the story, it seems rather obviously a device to alert the reader to a point contained within the story, a point which follows Harry's death but which is to be kept in mind throughout the story. Kilimanjaro is a sacred mountain, a type of the sacred mountains widely used in ancient myths and familiar to our culture through Biblical mountains, Dante's Mount Purgatory, Bunyan's Delectable Mountains, and others. It is the meeting point of heaven, earth, and hell from which the universe spreads out. At its base the earthly Paradise is traditionally located, and the road to the center of the universe and this sacred mountain is always a difficult one.

That Kilimanjaro "is said to be the highest mountain in Africa," that a leopard's body lies near the western summit, the House of God, and that "no one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude," all indicate the sacred nature of the mountain and the religious or mythic nature of Harry's fantasy at the end of the story. In addition to having a Sacred Mountain, Dante's Commedia also has a leopard, a symbol of worldly pleasure and lechery, the values that Harry has traded his art for. Thus the appropriateness of Harry's flight to join the leopard in death at the top of the mountain. Clearly, what both the leopard and Harry were seeking is the House of God, the summit to which the leopard has irrationally climbed and to which Harry flies at his death, finally achieving in his longed-for death that happiness which he never permitted himself in life: "There, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going."

The day before his death Harry had resolved that "because no thing could hurt him if he did not care . . . he would not care for death." Thus he would conquer death; it would have no dominion. The death that had obsessed him all his life would die. In five flashbacks Harry returns to his past, and each time his thoughts turn to scenes of death or love. The combination is significant.

It has been noted before that death and eros are somehow related. The Greek sculptor modeling Eros and Death with similar features and the metaphysical poet punning with "die" to mean sexual intercourse are followed by the popular song and the popular novel that sentimentalize death. The first of Hemingway's flashbacks tells of death and suffering that Harry has seen. All the scenes are of winter, and snow is instrumental in the death of the fleeing Greek refugees, though it covers the tracks of the deserter. Harry remembers too the skiing he enjoyed so much. These random thoughts, reminding us of the title and the epigraph, prepare for the denouement, because snow is a death symbol and skiing is both a type of the death flight (which is explicit at the end of the story) and a type of the sexual act.

In the second flashback the combination of eros and death or violence is elaborated. Here Harry clarifies what the earlier loves of his life were, those loves that he can never find in Helen. The Tristan syndrome is at work again: Harry has had a succession of lovers, but it is only his first love, his unrequited love, that is real for him. The flashback begins with Harry alone and lonely in Constantinople, apparently covering the Greco-Turk War, as Hemingway did in the fall of 1922. Harry had left Paris after a quarrel with his wife (not his lover), "whored the whole time" in a futile attempt to "kill his loneliness, but only made it worse," and then "had written her, the first one, the one who left him, a letter telling her how he had never been able to kill it." He writes to her that he thought he once saw her in Paris, and followed the woman, and felt "faint and sick inside," and all the women he had slept with since knowing her only made him miss her more, and "he knew he could not cure himself of loving her."

After sending the letter, asking her to write, "and that night missing her so much it made him feel hollow sick inside," he takes a hot Armenian belly-scalding slut away from a British subaltern after a fist fight and sleeps with the "smooth, rose-petal, syrupy, smooth-bellied, bigbreasted" woman who "needed no pillow under her buttocks. . . ."

The next day he accompanies a Greek attack that is horribly botched—the new officers are incompetent, the artillery fires into its own troops, the Greeks run and are shot by their officers, and there follows things that are "much worse." In contrast to this elemental struggle, he returns to Paris and finds a stupid-looking, potato-faced American poet talking about Dada to the affected Roumanian Tristan Tzara, founder of the Dada movement.

Harry is in love again with his wife, their quarrel is over, the madness all over, but the "first one," the one he gets sick over, answers his letter, and his wife finds out about his "sickness," and "that was the end of the beginning of that."

Harry concludes his reverie by remembering all his numerous quarrels with women, quarrels that always took place when he was feeling best. He had seen the world change and a "subtler change" that it was his duty to write of, but now he never would.

In this flashback are revealed Harry's real problem and the concepts of eros, agape, and romantic love. Contrary to the popular image of the Hemingway hero as a free lover, we see here sexual indulgence with an important qualification or reservation. Eros, Harry finds, is no remedy for romantic love. It is hard to overemphasize the importance of Harry's thinking he could not cure himself of love.

The irony of longing for a woman in the past who rejected him is beyond Harry's grasp, but at least he recognizes it as a sickness, and he also returns un-Tristan-like to a wife whom he also loves. When the flashback ends, we can see Harry repeating himself. In Africa he quarrels with another woman whom he thinks he does not love. But what might he have thought of Helen had he lived another ten years and found himself with another woman? He would have thought of Helen as a woman he once loved; he would remember with longing those "good breasts" and "useful thighs" that he looks on rather academically now.

A further irony which Hemingway must consciously intend is his use of the real name of the affected Roumanian in Paris. Tristan Tzara is obviously too sophisticated to have an Iseult.

The flashback has another interest in its biographical parallels. Not only was Hemingway a war correspondent in the Greco-Turk War, but he was also caught in a compromising situation much as Harry was. Hemingway's "first one"—Iseult—was Agnes II. von Kurowsky, the real-life counterpart of Catherine Barkley of A Farewell to Arms. When he was married to Hadley Richardson, his first wife, he reportedly wrote a "fond letter" to Agnes, and incompatibility eventually led to his divorce from Hadley. One biographer, Milt Machlin [The Private Hell of Hemingway] even assumes that Hadley, like Helen in "The Snows," knew of a reply from Agnes, but there is no evidence for assuming the historicity of every event in the story. From Hemingway's "true" account of the African safari, Green Hills of Africa, we may read of his warm, happy relationship with P.O.M., Pauline Pfeiffer, his second wife. Hemingway later said that he, like Harry, had been happiest in Africa, but, unlike Harry, he said that Pauline was the best wife he ever had. Thus the changes in the Macomber and Kilimanjaro stories must be considered major. Is the legal relationship of man and woman also changed?

Both Carlos Baker [in Hemingway: The Writer as Artist] and Philip Young [in Ernest Hemingway] tacitly assume that Harry and Helen are man and wife; both critics refer to Helen, in passing, as "wife." And, indeed, if one reads the story casually, there is little reason to suppose that they are not married. Engstrom [in MLN, 1950] however, refers to Helen as Harry's mistress: "His wealthy mistress is with him." Although Engstrom is writing about the mountain and leopard symbolism, he goes on to quote a passage from the story which contains the hints "this rich bitch" and "she kept him well."

If Harry and Helen are not married, a further variation on the situation common to Green Hills of Africa and "Macomber" would be established and would be of importance to a consideration of Hemingway's love ethic. The evidence is this: at the outset of "Macomber" it is clearly established that the Macombers are man and wife. In "The Snows" Helen is never directly referred to as Harry's wife, and there is only one allusion to her as a wife. That allusion, significantly, comes from Helen's own lips. After the first flashback Harry asks Helen where they stayed in Paris.

"At the Crillon. . . ."

"There and at the Pavillion Henri-Quatre in St. Germain. You said you loved it there."

"Love is a dunghill," said Harry. "And I'm the cock that gets on it to crow."

"If you have to go away," she said, "is it absolutely necessary to kill off everything you leave behind? I mean do you have to take away everything? Do you have to kill your horse, and your wife and burn your saddle and your armour?"

"Yes," he said. "Your damned money was my armour. My Swift and my Armour."

The soft woman uses the euphemism "go away" for "die" and sentimentalizes his death to produce an ironic effect for the reader and for Harry, one which he seizes upon in his pun. She seriously envisions Harry as a medieval knight, but her history is not accurate if she thinks of him as a Tristan and of herself as his legal wife. It was Iseult the Fair, the adulteress, who died at Tristan's death, not his wife, Iseult of the White Hand. But if Helen thinks metaphorically of her relation with her Tristan Harry, then indeed they are man and wife, married in spirit and undying devotion if not in fact. Harry's bitterness toward her and the corrupting influence on his art of her wealth is thus capsuled in his pun. While she romanticizes, he plays to the groundlings, and the pun has a nice appropriateness as it links the names of two large meat-packing houses, in which Helen might possibly have had a financial interest, with Harry, another piece of meat, no longer much of a man, decaying and dying in the pre-eminent land of carnivores, with hyenas and vultures waiting for their Treet.

At least Helen's remark establishes the possibility that Harry and she are married. Contrary evidence would include Harry's remark, "'If you hadn't left your own people . . . to take me on—'" and the previously cited "she kept him well." In other places "he went to her," and "she had acquired him." Never is it "married me" or "married him." In indirect discourse Harry usually thinks of her as "the woman," "the rich bitch," or simply "she." The other characters, the servants and the pilot, Compton, use the indeterminate "Memsahib." In speaking or thinking of him, Helen uses "dear," "darling," and "Harry," but never "husband."

When one notices the ambiguity of the relationship, as indicated by these names and phrases, the contrast with "Macomber" is striking. In that story the marriage of the pair was painful, emphatic, and clear. The conclusion that might be drawn is that if Harry and Helen are married, as probably most critics and readers assume, phrases like "take me on," "kept him," and "acquired him" connote the cheapness and shallowness of their marriage, which is in fact more like a prolonged affair than a marriage. (Such a view is sensible and would gain some support from Hemingway's position as a defender of marriage in his own life. The state of marriage apparently had value for Hemingway, and he respected it through four marriages.) Perhaps the reader who assumes that marriage binds Harry and Helen believes so because Harry is so manifestly unhappy, and no such couple would stay together except for moral and legal sanctions. Such reasoning would have greater merit if Harry and Helen were pictured as creatures of traditional Anglo-Saxon morality, but they are not. Such reasoning also underestimates both the power of money, the armour that Helen supplies so abundantly, and the weakness of Harry. Harry is poor but dishonest, willing to let Helen believe he loves her for the sake of his security.

"It was strange that when he did not love her at all and was lying, that he should be able to give her more for her money than when he had really loved." If he were married to her, he would perhaps have no reason to sham his love to keep his material position except for the reason of common decency that would not allow him to hurt the naive woman who had bounced about from man to man and now thinks she has found her true love. On the other hand, she tells him once that the money "'was always yours as much as mine'."

In any event, the ambiguity of their relationship indicates the relative unimportance to them of the technical state of marriage and the breakdown, by extension, of the institution of marriage. For the Macombers and for Harry and Helen it is hard to see where adultery leaves off and marriage begins, where hate leaves off and love begins.

Harry's feelings for Helen are violently mixed. Although he had "sold vitality" in exchange for security and comfort, he had received a bonus along with his regular dividends.

She was still a good-looking woman, he thought, and she had a pleasant body. She had a great talent and appreciation for the bed, she was not pretty, but he liked her face, she read enormously, liked to ride and shoot and, certainly, she drank too much. . . .

She was a damned nice woman too. He would as soon be in bed with her as any one; rather with her, because she was richer, because she was very pleasant and appreciative and because she never made scenes.

She looked at him with her well-known, well-loved face from Spur and Town and Country, only a little the worse for drink, only a little the worse for bed, but Town and Country never showed those good breasts and those useful thighs and those lightly small-of-backcaressing hands, and as he looked and saw her well-known pleasant smile, he felt death come again.

Quite fittingly he feels death at the same moment that he feels eros.

Yet he hates Helen for another reason than that he fears death and associates love for her with it. He has a deepseated malaise that prevents him from enjoying this kind, somewhat groping and distressed woman who waits only on him, who seems in fact to have an obsessive regard for him, who possesses him just as she possesses her money. The night Harry dies, Helen has a dream about her daughter and her very rude father. That night Harry has been rude to Helen too, and a likely excuse for the presence of the dream in the story is that Helen has an Electra complex.

Like the Macombers, they are repeatedly quarreling, or rather Harry is, since Helen tries her best to avoid disputes. Harry insists on being brutally realistic about his gangrenous wound, but Helen would rather not recognize the odor and pain and the hyenas and the vultures, signs of Harry's death and her loneliness. His resignation bewilders her. Her hopefulness is only bitter irony for him who has already felt death and knows its closeness. He hates Helen for being rich, for putting him in an inferior role, being dominated by her money; but of course it is himself he must ultimately hate for succumbing to her temptations. And he must hate, too, the example of her selflessness which she thrusts upon him, even if he knows it stems from her fear of being left alone.

Although he cannot see it, this romancer who thinks he is being cruelly realistic is destroying Helen's love for him, just as his quarrels destroyed his previous loves.

"Why, I loved you," Helen protests. "I love you now. I'll always love you. Don't you love me?"

"No," said the man. "I don't think so. I never have."

His love is the "first one," or the last one, but always a phantom.

He thinks to himself:

He had never quarreled much with this woman, while with the women that he loved he had quarrelled so much they had finally, always, with the corrosion of the quarrelling, killed what they had together. He had loved too much, demanded too much, and he wore it all out.

What a commentary on true love! Since Harry doesn't love Helen, they don't quarrel much. She is "a fine woman, marvellous really." "He had been cruel and unjust," but he doesn't love her!

Both Helen and Harry affect the Tristan-Iseult pose, but in different ways. It has been noted that Harry has been bitterly realistic about his imminent death that started with an innocent-seeming thorn scratch. That bitterness, however, is not the opposite of romance. He says he loved Paris and Africa and all the places where he had been happy, but most of his flashbacks to the scenes he has never written about are to scenes of death, violence, and destruction; fire, suicide, poverty, murder, and an agonizing wounding. His only remedy for these calamities that marked his life and spirit was romance, which was for him a necessary illusion.

At his death, when the world of pain and suffering seems dominant to him, he thinks that romance has somehow cheated him or escaped him. "So this was the way it ended in a bickering over a drink." When Helen reminds him that he loved Paris, there is a saving recognition when Harry says, "Love is a dunghill." What has he known of the mutual need and help that Helen thinks he is scorning? Harry is referring instead to that emotion of his that he feels cheated him. It is not eros at all, for the Armenian slut and Helen herself did very nicely for that. But Harry is still lonely and empty after that lovemaking which he does almost compulsively. Harry is a Tristan reacting against his sick vision which ends in memories of death and violence and obscene vultures and hermaphroditic hyenas waiting for him to die.

It is Helen who makes the chivalric allusion to Harry as a dying knight, but she is essentially criticizing his romantic disillusionment by her tacit preservation and use of the "necessary illusion," if it is that. She clings to love, she clutches love to her in the person of Harry, giving him everything she has—her wealth, her body, her devotion. Can she help it if Harry resents the first, recognizes the second as universally available, and grudgingly, dogin-the-manger accepts the third? Being a Tristan, he wants nothing that can be his. He wants none of this Iseult of the White Hand, this "rich bitch." He has used her money for his armour, to protect his emotions, to keep himself from becoming truly involved with another person.

The repulsion that he rightly feels is due to her dominance over him. Everything that she gives him increases her power over him. Unlike Margot Macomber, Helen does not complain; she endures, forgives—even in his death fantasy Harry puts her in a kindly role—and so she dominates him as she loves him and sucks off the energy that he would have channeled into his art. Harry has been, like Francis Macomber, a coward, though not in the physical way that Macomber was. Harry wants death to come and get it over with, but he has not the moral courage to obtain his freedom by loving Helen. He had made himself nothing more than a gigolo.

His concern for himself distinguishes Harry from Helen and is also the cause of his failure to write. Helen says,

"You can't die if you don't give up."

"Where did you read that? You're such a bloody fool."

"You might think about some one else."

"For Christ's sake," he said, "That's been my trade."

Harry tries to make a Robert Cohn-like figure out of Helen by attributing her idealism to too much reading. Later Harry thinks, "She was always thoughtful. . . . On anything she knew about, or had read, or that she had ever heard." And later, "she read enormously. . . ." But the burden of their problem rests with him, and because he no longer cares for others, he is no longer a writer. In flashback three we learn that he used to be kind—when he was poor and unknown. Fame nourished his self-esteem and killed his friendships. "No, he thought, when everything you do, you do too long, and do too late, you can't expect to find the people still there. The people all are gone. The party's over and you are with your hostess now."

But Helen is kind in many little things, is thoughtful, and wants desperately to be loved and loving because, a little like Robert Jordan's Maria, she has had a bad time—not the hell of war, violence, and slow death that Harry remembers, but the equally crippling agony of a struggle with oneself, a struggle that Harry has postponed until the infected scratch makes it too late, except to regret having avoided the battle for the sake of his security and comfort.

Her struggle had started when her comfortable, tranquil world was, like Harry's, touched by death, the death of her husband when she was still "comparatively young." As in Hemingway's earlier story "The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio," her history was a search for opiates, first, devotion to her children, then horses (phallic totems), then books, then bottles, then lovers. But none of these, and least of all the lovers, who bored her, was a permanent deadener. She was still alive, a raw nerve, and "acutely frightened of being alone."

Because she admired Harry's writing and envied him his independent life, she "acquired him" and then, second step, fell in love with him, thus regaining some semblance of the human solidarity she had had with her husband. The cost for Harry was a trade of freedom for security and comfort. Ironically, the very qualities Helen values and acquires are also security and comfort, but she has seen into a void during her freedom. She wants none of it and no doubt is puzzled at Harry's esteem for independence, which he obviously regrets having lost.

Helen asks Harry not to quarrel with her anymore. She places an overpaid value on his affection and is willing to settle for simple toleration because she is neurotically afraid of being alone.

"You don't have to destroy me. Do you? I'm only a middle-aged woman who loves you and wants to do what you want to do. I've been destroyed two or three times already. You wouldn't want to destroy me again, would you?"

"I'd like to destroy you a few times in bed," he said.

"Yes. That's the good destruction. That's the way we're made to be destroyed."

She has known the agony of loneliness and the destruction that is worse than loneliness, the discovery of hate or indifference in the men she thought loved her but who were, alas, only lovers. But even here at Helen's moment of high seriousness, Harry can think of destruction only as eros.

"Macomber" had ended with Margot exhorting Wilson to stop his accusations. She succeeded when she used the word "please." "The Snows" begins with Helen exhorting Harry to "Please don't" refer so casually to the odor of his gangrenous leg, and it ends with Helen crying, "Harry! Please, oh Harry!" Please, Harry, she means, don't leave me, for I will be alone. Both women are left alone, but Helen is crying her "please" to her dead man.

Harry is flying to the House of God. It is a trip that crosses many hazards, just as every journey to a Sacred Mountain traditionally does. The "old cock" Harry is put in the Puss Moth, where there is, naturally, room for only one. The pilot says, "'I'll be back for the Mem'," as indeed he may. Getting Harry in the plane is difficult; he has not made things easy for such a momentous flight. There are wart-hog holes and a bumpy field on take-off, a heavy forest, high hills, columns of rising heat that bump the plane, a blizzard of locusts, and a heavy rainstorm, but having met and passed these hazards of life, Harry bursts through the storm to see "as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun . . the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going."

In these terms his death must be considered a victory—as senseless as the leopard's perhaps, but a victory. Death, the "stinking bastard," the hyena that lay upon his chest, is done with. The leopard's frozen carcass on top of Kilimanjaro, the Sacred Mountain, knows no decay or violation by the scavengers of the plains. The hyena makes "a strange, human, almost crying sound." Helen wakes and Harry is gone.

Carlos Baker (essay date 1967)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 a writer who died of gangrene on a hunting trip in what was then Tanganyika. The nonfiction "novel," Green Hills of Africa, was already in press and due for publication in October. But the book had not used up all the material which Hemingway had accumulated in the course of his shooting safari of January and February 1934. The new story was an attempt to present some more of what he knew, or could imagine, in fictional form. As was his custom, he put the handwritten sheets away in his desk to settle and objectify. Eight months later, on a fishing-trip to Cuba, he re-examined his first draft, modified it somewhat, got it typed, and gave the typescript one final working over. Then he mailed it to Arnold Gingrich for publication in Esquire magazine in August, 1936, exactly a year after its inception. Although he had sweated mightily over the title, as he commonly did with all his titles, his ultimate choice displayed the true romantic luminosity. It was called "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."

The new story was curiously and subtly connected with Henry David Thoreau's Waiden. Thoreau had lately been in Hemingway's consciousness. "There is one [author] at that time [of the nineteenth century] that is supposed to be really good," he had asserted in Green Hills of Africa. "I cannot tell you about it [Waiden] because I have not yet been able to read it. But that means nothing because I cannot read other naturalists unless they are being extremely accurate and not literary. . . . Maybe I'll be able to [read it] later."

If he ever read the second chapter of Waiden, "Where I Lived and What I Lived For," Hemingway would certainly have been struck by Thoreau's statement about his reasons for the sojourn at Waiden Pond. He took to the woods in order "to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life." He wanted to learn the lore of nature as early as possible so that he would not reach the point of dying only to discover that he "had not lived" in any real sense at all. It is of course a far cry from Thoreau's asceticism to Hemingway's aggressive hedonism. Yet the passage from Waiden, slightly modified, embodies the theme of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." For Hemingway's protagonist, dying of a noisome infection on the plains of Africa, is made to reflect bitterly upon his failure to set down the results of his experience of life in the forms of fiction. Although Hemingway wisely changed his mind before the story appeared, it is a curious fact that his original name for the dying writer in "The Snows" was Henry Waiden.

The revised typescript of the story was garnished with a pair of epigraphs, neither of them from Thoreau, but both from "other naturalists." One was drawn from a remarkable book called Speak to the Earth: Wanderings and Reflections among Elephants and Mountains (1935). Its author was a naturalized Englishwoman named Vivienne de Watteville, an exact contemporary of Hemingway's, a friend of Edith Wharton's, and a Fellow of The Royal Geographical Society. She was the daughter of Bernard de Watteville, a distinguished Swiss naturalist from Berne. She had been orphaned at the age of 24 when her father was mauled to death by an African lion. She had been with him when he died and subsequently wrote a book called Out in the Blue, based on her diaries from that safari. She returned to Africa again four years later, recording her adventures in a second volume, Speak to the Earth. Hemingway's first epigraph was drawn from this book. Miss de Watteville spoke of her determination to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. An adviser who had already made the ascent drew her a rough map of the trail up the mountain and told her that she "could pick up a guide and porters at Moshi." "This," she said, "fired me more than ever to make the attempt. I had, of course, no climbing outfit with me; but the difficulties, he said, were not in the actual climbing. It was a long grind, and success depended not on skill but on one's ability to withstand the high altitude. His parting words were that I must make the attempt soon, before there was any risk of the rains setting in."

Hemingway's second epigraph, composed by himself, stated simply that "Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called [by] the Masai 'Ngàje Ngài,' The House of God. Close to the western summit is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude." Hemingway had gleaned his facts from the guidebooks he had used in preparing for his trip to Kenya and Tanganyika. He had heard the story of the leopard (whose carcass was still there in 1967) from Philip Percival, his white hunter, during an evening's conversation on safari in 1934.

The two epigraphs had in common the idea of immense height. Both Miss de Watteville's anonymous adviser and the example of the dead leopard indicated that the chief problem for the mountaineer on Kibo Peak of Kilimanjaro was "the ability to withstand the high altitude." Ernest's dying protagonist, Harry, was obliged to confront the fact that never in his life had he attempted to climb that high. His bitterness arose from the realization that he was now literally rotting to death without ever having attained the heights of literary achievement to which he had once aspired. In the end, Ernest deleted the epigraph from Vivienne de Watteville, retaining the one he had himself composed.

Harry tries to assuage his bitterness by making a scapegoat of his pleasant wife Helen. He blames her wealth for his own esthetic decay. Because of it he has followed a life of ease and sloth instead of realizing his former ambition to be a great writer. More than twenty years after the story first appeared, Hemingway explained how he had arrived at his portraits of Helen and Harry and his conception of the central theme. "If you are interested in how you get the idea for a story," he wrote, "this is how it was." On returning to New York after the African trip early in April, 1934, he was met at the pier by ship news reporters who queried him about his future plans. He told them that he was going to work until he had accumulated enough money to go back to Africa. When the story appeared in the newspapers next morning, "a really nice and really fine and really rich woman" invited him to tea. After "a few drinks," she said that she "had read in the papers about the project." She was unable to see any reason for delay. "She and my wife [Pauline] and I could go to Africa any time and money was only something to be used intelligently for the best enjoyment of good people." The offer struck Ernest as "sincere and fine and good," and he liked the lady "very much." But for various reasons he felt obliged to decline her invitation.

Back in Key West he began to reflect upon what might have happened to "a character like me, whose defects I know, if I had accepted the offer." Out of these reflections gradually arose a portrait of the lady, whom he named Helen, and one of Harry, the dying writer, to whom she was married. To describe "the dying part" was no problem for Hemingway. "I had been through all that," he wrote:

Not just once. I got it early, in the middle, and later. So I invent how someone I know who cannot sue me—that is me—would turn out, and put into one short story things you would use in, say, four novels if you were a careful [sic] and not a spender. I throw everything I had been saving into the story and spend it all. . . . I make up the man and the woman as well as I can and I put all the true stuff in, and with all the load, the most load any short story ever carried, it still takes off and flies. This makes me very happy. . . . Any questions? The leopard? He is part of the meta-physics. I did not hire out to explain that nor a lot of other things. I know, but I am under no obligation to tell.

Among the "other things" that Hemingway felt no obligation to explain was the fact that Helen was a composite of at least two women. One, if we can trust the story, was the munificent lady in New York. The other was his own second wife, Pauline. He had seen her in action during the recent safari, nor could he forget that her father was among the wealthiest citizens of northeastern Arkansas or that her paternal uncle, Gustavus Adolphus Pfeiffer, was a millionaire who had generously underwritten the trip to Africa with a grant-in-aid of twenty-five thousand dollars. While Hemingway had not by any means surrendered his integrity as a writer in the presence of riches, and while he often complained at this period about his shrunken bank balance, he knew very well that among his "defects" was a liking for the pleasures wealth could buy. The dying writer in his story was an image of himself as he might have been if the temptation to lead the life of the very rich had ever overcome his determination to continue his career as a writer.

A similar mixture of "true stuff and invention appears in the stream-of-consciousness monologues which periodically interrupt the surface movement of the story. These represent Harry's memories of his past life, and many of them, naturally enough, are Hemingway's own. It is only by knowing the course of his life in some detail that one can sort out truth from fiction. As in any process of free association of ideas and scenes, the episodes Harry recalls ignore strict chronology. Yet if they are arranged in historical sequence, they provide a rough running account of scenes from the life of the author. The earliest of Harry's internal landscapes reveals "a log house, chinked white with mortar, on a hill above the lake." The lake is Walloon, nine miles from Petoskey, Michigan, where Hemingway spent the seventeen summers of his boyhood, beginning in 1900. The house is that of Grandpa Bacon, an aged patriarch with a red beard who was still alive when the Hemingway children were growing up. References to the first world war are brief. There is one to the fighting around Monte Corvo on the Italian-Austrian front, a passage at arms that Hemingway had heard of but not seen, and another about trench warfare, presumably in France, in which an officer named Williamson is disembowelled by a German stick-bomb in the tangled barb-wire of No Man's Land.

Hemingway returns to his own experience with a graphic cityscape—the hilltop on the Left Bank in Paris where he lived with his bride Hadley in a walk-up flat in the rue Cardinal Lemoine from the spring of 1922 until they left for Toronto in the summer of 1923. There is also a reminiscence of their fishing vacation in the Black Forest of Germany in August, 1922. Hemingway romanticizes and fictionizes his trip to Constantinople and Adrianople to cover the Greco-Turkish war as correspondent for the Toronto Star. He also goes out of his way to insult the Left Bank literati by retailing a trivial incident connected with Harry's homecoming from the Middle East. On the way back to his apartment the day of his return, Harry passes a café and glances inside. There sits "Malcolm Cowley with a pile of saucers in front of him and a stupid look on his face talking about the Dada movement with . . . Tristan Tzara." Hemingway deleted Cowley's name before the story appeared. Harry's wife forgives him for going to Constantinople, just as Hadley forgave Ernest that October morning in 1922, though she had refused to speak to him for three days before his departure because she was afraid to be left alone in the rough neighborhood of the rue Cardinal Lemoine and the Place Contrescarpe. Hemingway seems to have invented the episode in which Harry's first wife discovers a love-letter from another girl in the morning mail, though something not unlike this may have happened while Ernest was conducting a surreptitious liaison with Pauline Pfeiffer before she became his second wife. But the allusion to the femme de ménage and her views on the disadvantages of the eight-hour working day, is a direct quotation from Madame Marie Rohrbach, who was in service to Ernest and Hadley during most of their time in Paris.

The apartment in the rue Notre Dame des Champs, where Ernest, Hadley, and their infant son John lived after their return from Toronto, does not figure in this story because Hemingway had already used it in a flashback in Green Hills of Africa. But it was from this apartment, in the early winters of 1924-1925 and 1925-1926, that the Hemingways twice left for the village of Schruns in the Austrian Vorarlberg so that Ernest could write and ski in comparative peace. Harry is made to recall the village and to use the actual name of Walther Lent, who operated a ski-school in Schruns and played poker with Ernest at the Madlenerhaus, an Alpine hut high in the Silvretta Range. Another of Hemingway's favorite locales which comes into Harry's mind is the valley of the Clark's Fork branch of the Yellowstone River in Wyoming. Harry is made to remember "the silvered gray of the sage brush, the quick, clear water in the irrigation ditches, and the heavy green of the alfalfa." The violent anecdote of the halfwit chore-boy who murdered his cantankerous employer is an invention of Hemingway's, and brings to an end the pastiche of truth and fiction which courses through Harry's memory as he lies dying, full of vain regret that he has not used enough of what he knows in what he has written.

For the climactic scene of his story, Hemingway drew upon yet another autobiographical episode. Though actually on the very brink of death, Harry is made to imagine that an airplane has arrived to carry him back to the hospital in Nairobi. Hemingway was flown out of the plains country to Nairobi on January 16, 1934, in a Puss Moth biplane for treatment of a severe case of amoebic dysentery. Harry recalls in detail the arrival of the plane, the appearance of the bush pilot, the look of the land, and the behavior of the grazing animals as the plane takes off for the long flight to the north, passing on the way the enormous snow-capped western summit of Kilimanjaro. This was where the adventurous leopard had succumbed to the altitude, only to lie preserved forever in his "metaphysical" fastness. But Harry has died without having attained a similar height.

One of Hemingway's recurrent motivations to literary creativity throughout his life was the conviction that he might soon be going to die without having completed his work or fulfilled his unwritten promise to his talents. At the time when he wrote this story he knew very well that he had climbed no farther than the lower slopes of his personal Kilimanjaro. It is at least a legitimate speculation that he read the passage in Vivienne de Watteville in a symbolic as well as a literal sense. Although he ultimately rejected it as an epigraph for his story, he must have been struck by the statement that success depended "on one's ability to withstand the high altitude" as well as the warning that the attempt must be made "soon, before there was any risk of the rains setting in" to destroy his plans. This was one of the things he knew but felt "no obligation to tell" as he stood poised upon the slopes of the mountain in the midst of his career.

Gloria R. Dussinger (essay date 1967)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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. . .," he makes clear that Harry's story is his professional manifesto. In his narration of the experiences of a dying man, Hemingway proves by example the one thing needful to the writer's pursuit of his hallowed calling. Hemingway embodies in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" his idea of the writer's vocation, the artistic form giving it a validity that public, non-fictional statements lack.

If "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" expresses Hemingway's artistic credo, why has the story been so variously interpreted and even rejected by Hemingway critics? An obvious answer lies in the symbolism; Hemingway, with uncharacteristic directness, included the symbols of the mountain and the leopard in an epigraph, where they cannot be ignored. Most of the criticism of this story founders on the two symbols: commentators have made numerous attempts to locate literary and natural sources for them, to discover their meaning, and to evaluate their success.

When passing an aesthetic judgment on the symbols in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," students of Hemingway follow one of three courses. The first is to grant the leopard and the mountain their full idealistic value, but to deny Harry a place among them. Only by reading the story ironically, by regarding the symbols of permanence and purity as a mockery of Harry's unwholesomeness, can one maintain this critical position. It ignores the formal characteristics of irony, the implied meaning of snow and mountains in Harry's honest past, and the self-evident validity of Harry's final vision. Although Hemingway has made Harry's ascension to the House of God true by seeing Kilimanjaro through the eyes of his protagonist, these critics refuse to believe.

A second critical group, accepting the metaphysical meaning of the symbols and also accepting the apotheosis of Harry, cannot reconcile the two. Feeling that Hemingway has insufficiently proven Harry's worthiness, these critics call "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" a magnificent failure. Gordon and Tate accuse Hemingway of tacking on the symbol of the mountain for which they fail to find a counterpart in the action. Montgomery insists that Hemingway has not related Harry's moral code to the mountain, nor integrated the leopard into Harry's death-dream. Consequently the end of the story appears to Montgomery sentimental and inorganic.

The third approach to "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" subscribes unreservedly to both the transcendental import of the symbols and the transfiguration of the protagonist. Critics who follow this approach see the significance of the snowy mountains of Harry's reminiscences and the truth of his recognition of Kilimanjaro as his goal. To justify Harry's spiritual elevation, they point out that, in spite of self-betrayal, Harry retains enough honesty to judge himself rightly in his last hours. He strives to write then all that he had evaded earlier, assured that quality more than makes up for quantity. Moreover, Harry matches the leopard in surmounting the naturalism of his contemporaries. The riddle of the epigraph is analogous to the surprising fact that Harry, despite the destruction of his talent, despite the changing of the world, has never lost his curiosity. The willingness to go on experiencing, even when experience must serve as its own end—this is Harry's affirmation.

If the obvious meaning of the symbols in the epigraph and the equally obvious linking of them with Harry's past and Harry's death were all that Hemingway offered in support of his writer-hero, critics would be justified in questioning the organic soundness of the symbols. Were such the case, it would be plain that Harry has not earned the redemption Hemingway awards him. But Hemingway, with superb artistry, has developed Harry's value through the narrative structure and then firmly established that value by subjecting it to a test. Harry's death-dream is a brilliantly contrived technique for measuring the intrinsic worth of the protagonist. In his flight toward death, Harry's behavior achieves Hemingway's personal standard; therefore, that section of the story simultaneously vindicates the hero and voices the author's creed: to be true to the senses is the writer's ultimate duty.

An analysis of the narrative will make clear Hemingway's design. From the beginning of the story, Harry knows that he is dying but knows it with an intellectual detachment. His relationship with the woman is that of the friendly enemy—a quarrelsome, superficial connection. Within the first series of reminiscences, Harry's thoughts turn to snow scenes, mountains, betrayal, good skiing, and the birth of God (four Christmases are mentioned). This juncture of disparate topics mirrors the chaotic world of the war generation. The topics are somewhat general; Hemingway indicates that they do not touch the inner Harry by causing Harry to break them off, returning the story to the present. The memory of the German inn triggers Harry to ask Helen about a Paris hotel. His willingness to exchange the past for idle chatter with the woman proves his lack of commitment to it. Moreover, the past has not yet cauterized Harry's festered spirit: he slips easily into the familiar lie that symbolizes his lost integrity.

Between the first and second sets of flashbacks, Harry makes plain to the reader the determinism that permits him so easily to deceive himself: "We must all be cut out for what we do, he thought. However you make your living is where your talent lies." On two previous occasions Harry had revealed a deterministic philosophy: by reasoning, "Maybe you could never write them, and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting" and by his strictly naturalistic answers to Helen's metaphysical question: "What have we done to have that happen to us?" Soothed by determinism, which makes no demands upon the moral responsibility of the individual, Harry slips again into the lie.

The second set of recollections uncovers the real Harry; it deals with his loves and with his wartime trauma, "the things that he could never think of." In the section following these memories, one can note several changes in the protagonist: he passionately desires to write, he no longer falls back on deterministic reasoning, he associates the woman with death and therefore cannot maintain the lie, and he feels death with his senses. The narrative reflects the nearer approach of death by dwelling increasingly on the past and shortening the present passages to interludes.

A third group of reminiscences contains a brief reference to the castration theme but centers on Harry's vocation and its beginning in Paris. Hemingway shows the renewed sensitivity of Harry to physical phenomena in the Place Contrescarpe section: Harry cannot dictate these memories because they are not actions but raw, unclassified sensations—sights, sounds, smells. The accuracy of the sense impressions signifies the rebirth of Harry's artistic integrity, for the Hemingway hero holds to the truth of the sensations, honesty perceived and recorded. Additional proof of Harry's forsaking the lie can be found in the fourth flashback. Here Harry names himself the betrayer, an admission he had skirted in the first series, pointing at Nansen and Barker instead.

Harry in his restored honesty straightens out his false relation to the woman. He acknowledges that he will never write about her, and thus cuts himself off forever from his conscience-salving rationalization. By portraying the gradual retreat of Harry into the truth of his past, away from the woman and the falsehood of the present, Hemingway reveals his understanding of the psychology of a dying man. Harry is left with his naked self, the irreducible I am that defies chaos: "He could beat anything, he thought, because no thing could hurt him if he did not care." Realizing now that the power to mold reality lies within the self, Harry has transcended the scientific materialism to which he was prey at the beginning of the story. His final memory takes the form of a death-wish, for Harry guesses that his state of self-illumination is threatened by time: "It's a bore. . . . Anything you do too bloody long."

Had "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" ended here, the reader would remain unimpressed by Harry's conversion. True, he had established honest relations with his fellow man (represented by Helen) and with himself, both of which were founded on the clarity of his senses. But what dying man, if he had the time, would not do as much? The test of Harry's integrity, the ordeal which proves his sincerity, is a second chance. Up to the paragraph beginning "It was morning," this has been the story of a man convinced that he must die. From that paragraph forward to "the square top of Kilimanjaro," it is the story of a man confident of living. By structuring the story in this way, Hemingway gives his writer-protagonist what Dencombe pleaded for in James's short story "The Middle Years," and, in so doing, makes manifest the value of Harry.

Scrutiny of Harry's response to his second chance will settle the question of his merit. Toward others the redeemed Harry shows a sympathetic understanding that contrasts with his previous egocentricity: he twice offers breakfast to Compton rather than trying to hurry him; he calls the woman by her name, acknowledging her separate identity. What Harry does not do is lie. He does not tell himself that the rich are worth writing about after all; he does not try to avoid writing by reasoning naturalistically that he lacks talent; he does not tell Helen he loves her in order to insure his job after the hospital stay; he doesn't sell his spiritual vitality for physical comfort. What Harry does do is record faithfully and in precise detail the sensory impressions of his journey. The passage narrating the flight contains colors, textures, motions, temperatures conveyed in the incisive Hemingway prose style. It is the restoration of the seeing eye, which perceives the final flight with as much sensory accuracy as the flashbacks, that announces Harry's victory.

Chaman Nahal (essay date 1971)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Hemingway goes very close to the Christian mysticism of Boehme, where duality is seen at the center of everything. In the latter half of his creative career, Hemingway concerned himself with death in an increasingly intense fashion. Across the River and Into the Trees and The Old Man and the Sea are fine studies of death and are powerful, creative reconstructions of the force of death. But in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" we have a good foretaste of this.

The systolic-diastolic rhythm is most consummately presented in "The Snows," so much so that, by giving some of the passages in the story in a different type face, in italics, Hemingway himself seems to be subscribing to the theory. There is hardly any physical action in the story, as our hero is confined to bed with gangrene and cannot move. His mind is wandering and there are series of flashbacks, through which we see his earlier life and his relationships. But slowly in the story even the minimal systolic action is further reduced and then totally abandoned. By the time the story is over, diastolic action has taken over completely. And so has death taken over from life. And in a way the story becomes, in the series of clashes between the systolic and the diastolic actions, a struggle between life and death.

But the italicized passages are not to be seen as flashbacks, strictly speaking. For flashbacks imply a psychological departure into the past, which is not the aesthetic design followed by Hemingway in his fiction. For Harry, the hero of the story, these are very real moments, indicative of the present tense rather than the past. The passages are italicized by the author to give the reader the feel of an altered rhythm. The subject of these passages is not a vicarious longing for the past, but something very much alive to Harry. The subject is death.

On the surface it looks as though Harry in these passages is thinking of his early life. Memories of the war, his earlier love affairs, his fishing and hunting trips of the past, his days in Paris, do come and crowd his mind at the moment. But these images he recalls not to find refuge or support for his present fate.

These passages are representative of Harry's departure into another type of consciousness, and the memories are rather a symbolic projection of his current awareness. Right from the beginning of the story, we see Harry's intuitive feeling that he is going to die. While traveling through the African bush in Tanganyika, a writer has hurt himself. A thorn scratched his flesh and the wound became septic and now gangrene has set in too. The man knows that this is the end. "I'm dying now," he tells his wife and the vultures gathered round him seem to support his fears.

But these fears of his are thus far at the systolic level. Thus far he is thinking of death merely as an event in time. Like every other human, he is afraid of it; like everyone else he wants to avoid it and save his life. And since he knows he cannot, since he knows that gangrene is usually fatal, he is bitter with himself and his wife—more than usually bitter.

A very remarkable thing now happens in the story. But before we take note of it, it is worthwhile to consider the epigraph with which the story begins and which has been interpreted variously by Hemingway scholars. The epigraph gives a composite image of a snow-covered mountain peak, a peak called "the House of God," and "the dried and frozen carcass" of a leopard. It is essential not to split up the image into two units, as some critics have done ("fundamental moral idealism" versus "aimless materialism," or "integrity" versus "carelessness"). The snowcovered mountain and the carcass of the leopard represent a single image having a plural significance. The single composite image that the epigraph presents is that of Lifeand-Death, not taken separately but together. Life is beautiful and great. But death walks hand in hand with it.

The remarkable development that takes place in the story is that Harry, instead of considering death as an event in time as he had to begin with and perhaps has done all his life, comes to look upon it as a living presence. The story thereafter unfolds the slow arrival of death at his side—its physical arrival. With the onset of gangrene the physical pain has stopped, and he no longer has that pressure on his nervous system to keep him in fear of the event. "Since the gangrene started in his right leg he had no pain and with the pain the horror had gone and all he felt now was a great tiredness and anger that this was the end of it." We read: "For years it had obsessed him; but now it meant nothing in itself."

So the fear of the event has actually stopped, at least for the time being. But at the other level, the diastolic level, another kind of awareness is coming into existence. It is slow in appearing, but once the process has started it gathers momentum. His death is now not an event for him in time, but a weird companion of life, and just as at one time life had possessed the soul of Harry completely, now death was going to take possession of him as completely.

This realization is made final for him through a clever factual insertion by Hemingway in the plot of the story, and by his tying up this factual bit with the awareness of death in Harry's consciousness. Harry is a professional writer, and it is not the loves of his life, or his quarrels, for that matter (the last of them, with his present wife Helen, still with him), or his days in Paris, or his fishing and hunting expeditions, or his adventures in the war—it is none of these things that at heart he cares about. What he really cares about is his writing, his ability to transmit or communicate experience through words. He sees clearly that with death around he would never be able to communicate life any longer. He is thus in a state of ultimate knowledge, when he knows that he is entering a new region that has its own terms of reference. Death is not an event that will just cut him off from life; death is a territory imposing its own aesthetic requirements.

Those are requirements of an unfamiliar order and Harry realizes that "now he would never write the things that he had saved to write." At the systolic level, this realization emerges in the form of self-accusations: "He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice, by hook and by crook." But at the diastolic level he has no doubt about his ability; he is conscious of things that he still might have done had he been spared. His talent has not altogether vanished or been destroyed. Only a bigger thing has now come along, this death, and it wants to take him along with it.

None of the five italicized passages in the story represents "memories," but subjects on which Harry could still write. These passages by implication show his realization of death. They—those subjects—are remembered by him in the context of the impending end, which is going to remove him from them. The diastolic reality subjects him to a wider vision, in which he sees the vaster potentialities which remained unfulfilled. "But he had never written a line of that," is his response—not a line. While at the systolic level he blames himself for the delay; at the diastolic level he accepts the delay as perhaps inevitable, as a period of preparation—for all the time he knew that he "would write it finally."

There was so much to write. He had seen the world change; not just the events; although he had seen many of them and had watched the people, but he had seen the subtler change and he could remember how the people were at different times. He had been in it and he had watched it and it was his duty to write of it; but now he never would.

"But now he never would." The phrase strikes one as not a statement of regret so much as of a weird realization of the approach of that other master force, the master companion of life—death.

As the story proceeds, Harry's awareness of death becomes sharper. His wife has just returned with some game for him which she has shot, and in the evening they are having a drink together. Harry is feeling remorseful for having been so bitter to her in the morning. He thinks she is a good woman, considerate all the time—"marvellous really." And then, for the first time in the story, his diastolic realization of death comes on him. He is in fact at the moment talking of other things, his mind not preoccupied with dying. But all at once he senses death:

It came with a rush; not as a rush of water nor of wind; but of a sudden evil-smelling emptiness and the odd thing was that the hyena slipped lightly along the edge of it.

The parallel images of the "rush of water" or the "rush of wind," and their rejection as suitable similes is purposeful. For with this rejection Hemingway is trying to establish the "otherness" of death. Even "evil-smelling emptiness" is not enough, so that another image, that of the hyena slipping "lightly along the edge of it," has to be brought in to establish the reality which cannot be communicated through words or language. But that Harry does sense a presence near him and is startled by it, we are left in no doubt. His wife notices this, and asks: "What is it, Harry?" And he answers: "Nothing . . . You had better move over to the other side. To windward."

But from now on, he cannot seem to get rid of the sense of death. His wife goes away to have her bath and when she returns and they are about to eat, he senses it once again. "This time there was no rush. It was a puff, as of a wind that makes a candle flicker and the flame go tall." The whole thing is done very inventively, bordering on the occult. Harry realizes that there is going to be a meeting, a strange meeting. "So this was how you died," he tells himself, "in whispers that you did not hear." But lying as he is in the diastolic peace, there is no fear of the unexpected. There is even a joy, an expectancy. After all, death is copartner of life, and this copartner was now going to manifest itself to him.

In none of his reactions in the diastolic period do we notice any misgivings in Harry: "The one experience that he had never had he was not going to spoil now." This establishes the utter strangeness of what is happening—a welcome strangeness. So he promises himself that he will do nothing to spoil the new feelings that were coming. He also tells himself: "He probably would. You spoiled everything. But perhaps he wouldn't."

But an even more monumental transformation comes to pass at this stage. For years, as he has been reprimanding himself, Harry had written nothing. For years he had frittered away his creativity. But with the near arrival of death, with the arrival of something so new and so powerful, what happens is that his creativity also returns to him. He suddenly wants to write—this minute—now.

"You can't take dictation, can you?"

"I never learned," she told him.

"That's all right."

There wasn't time, of course, although it seemed as though it telescoped so that you might put it all into one paragraph if you could get it right.

The systolic mood returns, and he again wants to hang on to life; he is by turns afraid of death and also attracted to it. "He lay still and death was not there. It must have gone around another street. It went in pairs, on bicycles, and moved absolutely silently on the pavements." His wife nags him about his drinking but, unconcerned, he lapses into the diastolic mode and his mind roams over some of the stories that he could have written but never did. Once again he returns to the systolic mood and once again he does not wish to die. "He would rather be in better company."

We are now very near the end of the story, and diastolic action almost completely takes over from the systolic. Death finally is back with him and the hour of the meeting has come. "Do you feel anything strange?" he asks his wife.

"No. Just a little sleepy."

"I do," he said.

He had just felt death come by again.

The movement now resembles a nocturnal dance. Death keeps advancing at him and the scene of his surrender to that great power is vivid and powerful. He keeps talking to his wife, but his intuition is sharp. "What is that?" he asks himself,

Because, just then, death had come and rested its head on the foot of the cot and he could smell its breath.

The moods come and go in flashes, and he tries to explain death to Helen. He is consciously aware by now that death has not one image but many, and none of the metaphors that he might employ would quite communicate what he is experiencing. It is like Wallace Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Death is not merely "a scythe and a skull"; it could as easily be "two bicycle policemen," or "a bird," or the "wide snout" of a hyena. But he knows that it has many shapes, or rather no formal shape at all, which is another way of saying the same thing. "It had moved up on him now, but it had no shape any more. It simply occupied space."

In the ultimate meeting with death, the systolic and the diastolic moods mingle intimately. At the systolic level, Harry wants to fight death. At the diastolic level he knows, it will offer him peace as nothing else ever had or ever could.

First comes the systolic fight. He tells his wife aloud to ask this thing to go away. But it "moved a little closer." And he can smell it now and he shouts: "You stinking bastard."

It moved up closer to him still and now he could not speak to it, and when it saw he could not speak it came a little closer, and now he tried to send it away without speaking, but it moved in on him so its weight was all upon his chest, and while it crouched there and he could not move, or speak, he heard the woman say, "Bwana is asleep now. Take the cot up very gently and carry it into the tent."

The fight, however, is soon over. But this story, or this kind of Hemingway story, must be distinguished from the story in which there is a clear division between the two movements. In the stories considered in the previous section, once we enter the diastolic mood, we stay there. Here the two movements alternate.

Harry is still not quite dead, but he has given himself over now to death in acceptance—in diastolic acceptance. In the long passage where the arrival of Compton and the subsequent departure of Harry by plane are narrated, Harry is still alive. It is Harry's consciousness which is conjuring up these pleasant images. And it is Hemingway's method of making us aware of the newness of the experience. No didactic passage in praise of death or its glory is ever introduced by Hemingway. The purity of the moment is never presented rhetorically. It comes to us in the form of narrative, and has to be known at the aesthetic level alone. But we see that Harry finds death a uniquely new experience from the fact that he is at least at peace with himself. While flying high in his imaginative vision, he looks down and sees "a new water that he had never known of." The plane then passes through a black waterfall, which is only rain falling very thickly. Once out of the rain, Compton turns his head toward Harry and points out to him their destination in the distance. And what does Harry see there? The square top of Kilimanjaro, "as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun." Compie here is death who is taking Harry to the mountain of life. Harry dies with this knowledge, and the epigraph of the story becomes his epitaph.

Scott MacDonald (essay date 1974)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 the significance of Harry's imagined flight to Kilimanjaro near the end of the story, of the specific reasons for Hemingway's extensive use of italics, or of the exact implications of the brief epigraph of the story.

The flight to Kilimanjaro which Harry dreams he takes near the end of Hemingway's story has been interpreted in a number of different ways. The majority of critics, however, have seen Harry's journey as a kind of spiritual elevation, as Hemingway's method of indicating that at least at the moment of his death, Harry has become a superior man. The only widespread disagreement on this point, in fact, has resulted from varying opinions as to whether Hemingway's elevation of his protagonist is justified by Harry's actions during the story. [In the University of Kansas City Review, Summer 1961] Marion Montgomery feels that Harry's "salvation" is not justified by his nature and that his journey to Kilimanjaro is, thus, a sentimental attempt to give the story a happy ending. [In Ernest Hemingway, 1963] Earl Rovit goes further. He believes that Harry is a despicable character, but that Hemingway awards salvation to him in order to insult the reader. Other critics see Hemingway's elevation of Harry as perfectly justifiable. [In the Texas Quarterly, Winter 1966] Max Westbrook, for example, feels that Harry's flight metaphorically indicates that Harry has received redemption from moral and physical decay by honestly recognizing his failures and thereby coming to a "knowledge of the real." According to Oliver Evans [in PMIA, December 1961], Harry's loss of the ability to love during his recent life has brought him to what Evans calls a state of "death-in-life." The flight to Kilimanjaro at Harry's death, however, indicates that divine forgiveness has enabled Harry to return "to the Orginal Source of all love" and be reunited "to that which is ideal and permanent." [In Studies in Short Fiction, Fall 1967] Gloria Dussinger agrees that Harry achieves salvation, but she is more specific as to the reason why. The plane flight is, she feels, Hemingway's method of giving Harry a "second chance." During the flight, according to Ms. Dussinger, Harry accurately records "the sensory impressions of his journey" and, as a result, regains his artistic integrity and comes to deserve the salvation he is subsequently awarded. Although some of these critics argue with considerable ingenuity, there is a fundamental weakness in all of their interpretations and, really, in all other interpretations of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" that view Harry's trip to the mountain as an indication of his achievement of salvation. The problem is that such interpretations ignore the implications of the way in which Hemingway carefully limits his presentation of the events of the story.

Until the flight to the mountain, every detail of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is presented from the protagonist's perspective. What Harry does not think about, perceive, or remember, in other words, is not presented. That the reader sees only what Harry sees becomes especially obvious during Harry's last waking moments. When "death" is described as resting its head on the foot of Harry's cot and as moving up on Harry until it crouches on his chest, the reader understands that the animal Harry sees exists only in his imagination, that it is the psychological projection of a mind that is growing delirious. The animal seems real enough, but this is because it is described as Harry sees it. The "hell of a breath" that Harry thinks death has is actually the odor from his putrefied leg. The beast's sitting heavily on Harry's chest is Harry's projection of internal pain. In other words, while death does come to Harry, the form in which the reader sees it results from the fact that Hemingway is limiting his presentation of events to Harry's perspective. This same narrative strategy is used for the presentation of the imagined flight to Kilimanjaro. As most critics have understood, Harry does not really see Kilimanjaro. The flight seems real enough, but this is because the reader sees only what the protagonist sees. That Harry in reality doesn't take a plane flight is made perfectly clear in the final section of the story, when Helen wakes us and sees Harry on the cot. When Harry dreams he sticks his leg straight out to the side of Compton's seat, he is actually moving his leg out of the cot. It is even likely that when Harry dreams he is being carried to the plane, he is actually being carried into the tent.

While most critics have realized that the flight to Kilimanjaro does not really occur, however, the important implications of this fact have often been ignored or evaded. Because the flight is something Harry dreams, there is no justification for interpreting the story as though Hemingway were awarding immortality to Harry by taking him to the mountain. As every critic has suggested, Harry's journey to Kilimanjaro has metaphoric value. However, whether the flight to the mountain is thought of as a metaphor for the achievement of one of the kinds of salvation defined by Montgomery, Rovit, Westbrook, Evans, or Ms. Dussinger, or whether it is thought to have some other type of metaphoric significance, the fact remains that the flight occurs only in Harry's imagination and that whatever moral or artistic integrity is suggested by his reaching the mountain is something Harry wishes he were attaining, not something he actually attains. In other words, the flight to Kilimanjaro may suggest an ennobling of Hemingway's protagonist, but Hemingway is not ennobling Harry, Harry is deliriously ennobling himself.

Those critics who see the flight to Kilimanjaro as Hemingway's method of rewarding Harry seldom mention the final section of the story. That this is the case is understandable, for whatever ennoblement Harry dreams he undergoes during his last moments is harshly undercut when Helen is awakened by the hyena. Evans, Ms. Dussinger, E. W. Tedlock [in The Explicator, October 1949], and others contend that "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" ends on a note of triumph. The real ending, however, is a good deal less than triumphant. As William Van O'Connor mentions [in The Grotesque: An American Genre and Other Essays, 1962] among the final images in the story, one is nearly as memorable as the white brilliance of the mountain. When Helen wakes up, she can see Harry's "bulk under the mosquito bar but somehow he had gotten his leg out and it hung down alongside the cot. The dressings had all come down and she could not look at it." Clearly, the final emphasis of the story is not on Harry's achievement of some sort of salvation, but on the finality of his decay and death, on those very limitations on human life that give significance to the difficult struggle for immortality in art.

The meaning of Harry's death is further clarified by an examination of another frequently discussed aspect of the narrative strategy of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro": Hemingway's extensive use of italics. At first glance, the italics seem merely a means for isolating Harry's memories of his past life from other kinds of thinking and from the action that is occurring on the hot African plain. That more is involved in the use of italics, however, is made clear by the fact that some of Harry's memories—those of his life with Helen and of "poor Julian"—are presented during unitalicized sections of the story. Montgomery suggests that the italicized sections embody "Harry's reflections concerning a past he approves of; the material in Roman type embodies the past and present he disapproves of." While it is true that in a general sense Harry approves of his early life and disapproves of the recent past and present, however, Montgomery's distinction does not account for the kinds of memories that are included in the italicized sections. Harry certainly doesn't approve of those portions of the past represented by incidents such as the one in which Williamson is "caught in the wire, with a flare lighting him up and his bowels spilled out into the wire . . .", or the one in which Barker bombs the Austrian officers' leave train on Christmas day. It is also unlikely that Harry approves of his own conduct in all instances. Surely, the episode in which Harry writes a passionate letter to his first wife, only to forget about it later, is not included because Harry sees himself playing a particularly admirable role during the incident. More is involved in Hemingway's use of italics, in other words, than the question of Harry's approval or disapproval of the things he remembers.

The specific nature of the distinction between italicized and unitalicized sections becomes more understandable when the reader realizes that, as R. W. Stallman suggests [in The House that James Built and other Literary Studies, 1961] all of the incidents included in italics are memories of experiences that Harry remembers he "had saved to write" experiences he "had always thought that he would write" but now never would. The last italicized section in the story, in fact, is the only section during which some direct statement to this effect is not included. That even this section presents memories Harry wishes he had written, however, is indicated by the fact that during the conversation that immediately follows the section, Harry tells Helen that he has been "writing." Harry has not really been writing, of course. He is beginning to grow delirious, and he confuses his dreams of creation with the act of creation. However, the fact that he wishes he were writing the events he has just remembered indicates that, like all previous italicized sections, the brief final section presents experiences Harry had saved to write. Harry's procrastination, however, is not per se the criterion for Hemingway's use of italics. In at least one instance an experience Harry had thought he would write is presented in Roman type. Harry remembers that after his marriage to Helen, he considered himself a "spy" in the "country" of the rich and presumed that once he knew the country well enough, he would "leave it and write of it and for once it would be written by some one who knew what he was writing of." However, unlike every other incident Harry had thought he would write about, unlike all the incidents in italicized sections, Harry's plan to tell the truth about the rich proved ultimately not worth carrying out. When Harry came to know the rich, he found that his experiences in their "country" were not worth writing. As he thinks to himself, "The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious." The specific criterion for the distinction between incidents in italics and incidents in Roman type, then, becomes clear. The episodes in italics are experiences Harry had put off writing and which, indeed, were worth writing about. The italicized sections, in other words, portray those experiences which should have been used in the creation of fiction.

Critics have generally agreed that the division of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" into italics and Roman type results in a meaningful contrast between Harry's "present ignoble situation and the memory of a more heroic past." The specific basis for the use of italics, however, causes the division of the story to have more specific implications. For one thing, the alternation of italics and Roman type keeps the reader constantly aware of the degree to which Harry has failed to fulfill his obligations as a writer. The episodes that make up the italicized sections illustrate the beauty and power of the things Harry has seen and, as a result, emphasize the loss of the fiction that Harry might have produced. The fact that some of the episodes represent numerous incidents, all of which should have become fictional material, emphasizes the extent of Harry's failure.

Another implication of the use of italics in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" involves the fact that in the final analysis the italicizing of memories is more than merely a reflection of Harry's judgement. Were the italicized episodes presented in Roman type, it would still be clear which memories Harry had saved to write and which are best forgotten. The change would in no way detract from the presentation of Harry's thinking. The fact is that in general the changes from Roman type to italics (and the breaks between the different sections) create very noticeable interruptions in the otherwise smooth process of Harry's thought, interruptions which draw the reader's attention away from Harry and toward the emphasis by the narrator which is implicit in the changes. What would really be lost if the italics were omitted is Hemingway's own emphasis that Harry should have used the episodes of the italicized sections as the raw material for fictional creation. In other words, though Hemingway does not enter "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" as an omniscient narrator in order to comment on the meaning of Harry's life, he uses italics in a way which emphasizes the fact that his protagonist has failed to fulfill his potential and that strongly confirms Harry's judgement as to which experiences he would have written about had he maintained his integrity.

One further implication of Hemingway's use of italics seems to follow. Hemingway's emphasis on the value of Harry's experiences as potential fictional material and on the protagonist's failure to capitalize on this potential makes particularly obvious the fact that at least in one sense some of the protagonist's memories have become fictional material. Harry's failure adequately to fulfill the duty of a writer is made clear, after all, not only by the story's catalogue of many of those specific incidents to which Harry neglected to apply his talent, but also by Hemingway's use of some of those incidents as fictional material. By drawing attention to his own act of creation through his use of italics, in other words, Hemingway subtly implies a contrast between the fate of a fictional character who has lost his moral and artistic integrity and the achievement represented by his own story, by a work of art which itself gives evidence of the fact that Hemingway's integrity as a writer remains intact. To put it another way, the achievement represented by the writing of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is itself the ultimate standard against which the reader can measure Harry's failure.

Once the implications of Harry's "flight" to Kilimanjaro and of Hemingway's use of italics are understood, it becomes possible to clarify the meaning of the epigraph that precedes the body of the story. Most critics have seen the leopard of the headnote as a metaphor for Harry, and they have interpreted the leopard's climb up the mountain as Hemingway's metaphoric way of indicating Harry's achievement of moral or artistic integrity during the final hours of his life. Not only does this interpretation ignore the emphasis of the story on Harry's failure, however, it is also based on a distortion of the implications of the epigraph itself. In order to interpret the leopard's climb as an indication of Harry's success, it is necessary to see the animal's attainment of the mountaintop as a worthwhile achievement. The fact is, however, that the leopard is only successful in a most limited sense. The animal's attainment of the mountaintop is clearly a prodigious feat. At the same time, however, by making the journey the leopard leaves its natural habitat and places itself in an environment in which it is not able to survive. The leopard's successful journey, in other words, is ultimately nothing more than a means to failure and death. It is, in fact, the leopard's inability to survive in its new environment which enables the reader to understand the relationship between the epigraph and Harry's story. Harry is like the leopard in failing to withstand the "high altitude" he achieved as a result of his struggles as a young writer. During his early years as an artist, Harry endured many hardships in order to maintain his integrity and create worthwhile literature. The artistic success Harry achieved, however, brought with it financial rewards and their accompanying temptations, temptations which finally resulted in the death of Harry's integrity and in his abandonment of the difficult creative life. It is true that Harry has returned to Africa in order to try to "work the fat off his soul," but his attempt clearly comes too late. As Hemingway says in Green Hills of Africa, "The hardest thing" for a writer "because time is so short, is for him to survive and get his work done." Unfortunately, Harry has failed to work during his life, and the result is that when the end comes, he must die with only the dreams of writing and of being flown to Kilimanjaro and immortalized, rather than with the real immortality he might have achieved had he maintained or re-won his integrity. Thus, like the physical journey of the leopard of the epigraph, Harry's early successful journey as a creative artist is ultimately nothing more than a means of creative failure and death.

Though both Harry's struggle and the leopard's ultimately end in failure and death, however, both the animal and the man do receive one kind of immortality. The leopard's struggle and failure are immortalized by the preservative powers of the mountain snow. The animal's dried and frozen carcass is made permanent, in fact, by that very element which the animal was unable to conquer. In a similar manner, Harry's failure to fulfill the duties of a true artist by enduring the temptations which resulted from his early success is immortalized through the creation of fiction, by that very "element," so to speak, which Harry was unable to conquer. Just as the leopard's failure is preserved by the snows of Kilimanjaro, in other words, Harry's failure as an artist is preserved through Hemingway's creation of a story about Harry. That Hemingway's story is entitled "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," in fact, emphasizes its preservative function.

"The Snows of Kilimanjaro" does not communicate Hemingway's vision of the artist's responsibilities, as most critics have supposed, by portraying a man who fulfills these responsibilities durng the story. Instead, by presenting a man who has procrastinated the writer's job until he must be satisfied with only the dream of attaining immortality as an artist, Hemingway illustrates the kind of selfindulgence and self-deception the real artist must avoid. Hemingway's story, however, does more than portray one artist's failure. By using italics to emphasize his feeling that many of the events Harry remembers should have become the basis for artistic creation, Hemingway reminds the reader that in fact these events have been the basis for a work of art, the one the reader is reading. In other words, Hemingway contrasts Harry's failure to make the creative effort necessary for real immortality with the positive creative effort represented by "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." Finally, Hemingway uses the epigraph of the story to emphasize his ideas. He develops a parallel between the preservation in the snows of Kilimanjaro of the carcass of a leopard which failed to stay alive on a high peak and the preservation in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" of the story of a writer who failed to stay artistically alive at the high level represented by his early writing. In the final analysis, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" not only describes Harry's failure to win immortality, it also enables Hemingway himself to achieve the only immortality a true artist need consider, that which is given him by his work.

Kenneth G. Johnston (essay date 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

—Ernest Hemingway

When Hemingway returned from his African safari in April 1934, he told reporters in New York that he planned to return to Africa as soon as he had earned enough money. A wealthy woman read the remark in the papers, invited him to tea, and offered to finance the trip. Hemingway politely refused. When he got back to Key West, he started "to think what would happen to a character like me whose defects I know, if I had accepted that offer. . . . So I invent how someone I know who cannot sue me—that is me—would turn out, and put into one short story things you would use in, say, four novels if you were a careful and not a spender. I throw everything I had been saving into the story and spend it all." At least that is how Hemingway remembered it some twenty-five years later.

Hemingway, one strongly suspects, wrote "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" to exorcise his guilt feelings for having neglected his serious writing, and to re-dedicate himself to his craft. He had not published a novel since A Farewell to Arms in 1929. His production of short fiction had been slight since the publication of Winner Take Nothing in 1933; during the next three years, before the appearance of "The Snows," he would publish only three new pieces of short fiction: "One Trip Across," "The Tradesman's Return," and "The Horns of the Bull" (later retitled "The Capital of the World"). But during that same three-year period, he would publish the following nonfiction: Green Hills of Africa', a letter on mutilated fish; a recipe for a "Death in the Afternoon Cocktail"; an article on the purchase of Joan Miró's painting "The Farm"; an angry article for New Masses on the veterans who died in the 1935 Florida hurricane; and twenty-seven articles for Esquire on fishing, hunting, prize-fighting, Paris, international politics, and other assorted topics. "At the time when he wrote the story of the dying writer on the plains of Africa," writes Carlos Baker [in Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, 1969], "he knew very well that he had climbed no farther than the lower slopes of his personal Kilimanjaro." His neglect of his serious craft, and the fact that his African safari had been paid for by his wife's very rich uncle (it cost about $25,000), probably preyed upon Hemingway's conscience. In short, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" has a firm autobiographical base, and it may be read as a report on the artistic and spiritual health of its author.

"The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is concerned primarily with a dying writer's attempt to explain, to rationalize, to evade full responsibility for his failure to fulfill his early promise as a writer. He admits in a moment of candor that he has "destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery." Yet it is quite clear that deep down he blames the corrupting power of money and the seductive life of hedonism, which the wealth makes possible, for sapping his artistic vitality. Thus in his final hours, his considerate, loving wife Helen, whom he characterizes as "this rich bitch, this kindly caretaker and destroyer of his talent," becomes the target for his bitterness and frustrations, and the scapegoat for his artistic demise.

Harry's death, which will occur before the night is out, is caused by gangrene: the local death of soft tissues due to the loss of blood supply; the death of one part of the body while the rest is still alive. The word "gangrene" derives from the Greek gangraina, meaning "eating sore," from gran, "to gnaw." With moist gangrene, the kind that Harry is afflicted with, there is not much pain, but the decaying tissues give off a very offensive smell. It seldom occurs, according to Black's Medical Dictionary, "save in people of very low vitality." Figuratively speaking, Harry has been suffering from a gangrenous condition for many years. His literary self has been "dying" for a long time. No longer is writing a vital part of his life. But his artistic conscience, although feeble, is still alive, gnawing at his soul. His failure to care for a thorn scratch on his knee two weeks ago fits into the pattern of his small neglects, over the years, of his artistic talent. In both cases, physical and artistic, the fault is clearly his.

The safari is self-prescribed treatment to recover his artistic health. "Africa was where he had been happiest in the good time of his life, so he had come out here to start again. They had made this safari with the minimum of comfort. There was no hardship; but there was no luxury and he had thought that he could get back into training that way. That in some way he could work the fat off his soul . . .". And for a short while, "he had felt the illusion of returning strength of will to work." But the disease has spread too far and too deep for such superficial treatment. The only "writing" he does is in his mind, as he recalls the people, places, and events of earlier years, the stories he might have written but now knows he never will. His memories center on scenes of snow, of poverty and innocence, of violence and quarrels, of mistakes and betrayals. These narrative memories are fragments and sketches; they have not been developed or structured. It would take a great deal of hard work still to shape and expand them into short stories, or chapters in a novel, or sections in a book of memoirs. (Hemingway eventually will include many of these memories in A Moveable Feast.) Harry's belief that they are ready for dictation is yet another illusion.

The snow-capped Mt. Kilimanjaro of the epigraph looms over the story, and at the end it is apparently Harry's spiritual destination. In reality, the rescue plane does not arrive in time, and Harry's corpse is discovered by his wife in the tent. The rescue and the flight to Kilimanjaro are only what-might-have-been. When he was young and dedicated, the journey was a real possibility. But in recent years, Harry has abandoned all preparations for the difficult ascent to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro; he does not even attempt to write the many stories, locked in his memory, which might have gained for him a permanent place in literature, an immortality such as the leopard has achieved. Unlike the leopard, whose frozen and dried carcass is near the western summit, the middle-aged writer does not adventure forth from his "safe" and comfortable habitat to risk the unknown; to test his strength, endurance, and discipline. The unchanging, cold purity of the higher elevations is in sharp contrast to the decay, the stench, in Harry's tent, pitched in the sweltering heat of the plains. The tent, the abode of the transient, is fitting shelter for the artistic failure.

"Ah, Madame," confided Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon, "it is years since I added the wow to the end of a story." But four years later he attached a "wow" ending to "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." It is an ending that cannot be supported by the narrative. Harry's few bitter regrets and remarks in his dying moments concerning his betrayal of craft and self do not atone for a wasted artistic life. Clearly he has not earned the flight to Mt. Kilimanjaro. Perhaps the imagined flight was intended to reveal Harry's final illusion, but since the writer is already dead, the reader is left to struggle with the logic.

Hemingway's original choice for the name of his protagonist in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" was Henry Waiden; thus one is not surprised to detect echoes of Thoreau's philosophy and writings throughout the story. Harry's minimum-comfort safari and his recall of the happy days of relative poverty, when he and his first wife had "slept on mattresses filled with beech leaves" in the woodcutter's house in the mountains of Austria, are reminiscent of Thoreau's call for Spartan simplicity. Several other Thoreauvian themes may also be detected in "The Snows": the folly of flight, the quest for self-knowledge and the limitations of wealth. Why go to Africa, asked Thoreau, when one's own interior is "white on the chart"? Harry has journeyed to Africa for reasons rather similar to those that drew Thoreau to Waiden Pond: "I went to the woods," declared Thoreau, "because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Thoreau knew from the start what Harry is just beginning to comprehend: that "money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul"; that the rich, that "most terribly impoverished class of all," have "forged their own golden or silver fetters." Harry, as he lies dying on the low-lying plain, ponders the Thoreauvian balance sheet of his life. But too late he understands that "a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone." Too late he calculates the cost of his "acquiescence in this life of pleasant surrender." The smell from his gangrenous leg drifts across the campsite. "There is no odor so bad," wrote Thoreau, "as that which arises from goodness tainted. It is human, it is divine, carrion."

The approach of Harry's death is signaled by the emboldened vultures, which have been attracted to the vicinity of the camp by the scent and/or sight of the dying man. The description of their movements subtly links them to the death plane and its frightening shadow at story's end: the vultures "sailed" in the sky, "making quick-moving shadows as they passed"; they "planed down" to a landing. But the hyena, which also feeds on carrion, soon becomes the main symbol of death. At dusk, when "there was no longer enough light to shoot," a hyena crosses in the open near the camp. "That bastard crosses there every night,' the man said. 'Every night for two weeks'." Harry's first realization that he is going to die "came with a rush; not as a rush of water nor of wind; but of a sudden evil smelling emptiness and the odd thing was that the hyena slipped lightly along the edge of it." Soon, death, which has "a wide snout like a hyena," comes and rests "its head on the foot of the cot and he could smell its breath." It moves in and crouches like a smothering weight on his chest. It is the hyena's "strange, human, almost crying sound" that awakens Helen in the night to discover that Harry is dead. This eerie sound, which closes out the story, serves as a kind of death wail, a hyenic lamentation for the dead.

"The pinnacle of hyenic humor," Hemingway wrote in Green Hills of Africa, "was the hyena, the classic hyena, that hit too far back while running, would circle madly, snapping and tearing at himself until he pulled his own intestines out, and then stood there, jerking them out and eating them with relish." Harry, too, may be seen as playing this "comic" role in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." Instead of a "comic slap of a bullet," there is the comic scratch of a thorn. But both show "agitated surprise" to find death inside them. Both "start that frantic circle," racing death; and both devour themselves with relish. If viewed in this light, the hyena in "The Snows" symbolizes not only death but also the particular manner in which Harry dies—his frantic circling back to feed upon his dead past and his dying self. Thus, the sound of hyenic "laughter" is a most fitting note on which to end the story.

"The Snows of Kilimanjaro," which Michael F. Moloney has called [in Hemingway and his Critics: An International Anthology, edited by Carlos Baker] "the tragedy of a man who lacked the courage to reject the world," was not simply the tragic tale of an American writer. It spoke across national boundaries to men and women everywhere who were struggling to defend the idealism and the promise of their youth against the forces of materialism—as well as to those who had already lost the battle and, thus, found some sad consolation and justification in witnessing another man's doomed struggle to purge himself of the blunders and the betrayals of his past. The snows became "las nieves," "les neiges," "der schnee," "ta chionia," "de sneeuw," "snön," "snegovi," "silge," "snega," "sneen," and so on as the story, like dozens of others by Hemingway, was translated to reach an international audience. [In his The Literary Life and the tell with It, 1938] William Saroyan, who early on ranked "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" as "one of the few truly great stories of our time," wrote that he could "give odds of one hundred to one . . . to every publisher in America that in one hundred years it will have been read by more people than any top-selling novel now on the market." Not quite a half a century later, it is clear that Saroyan was betting on a sure thing.

Alice Hall Petry (essay date 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 leopard). But the long-running epigraph controversy has tended to overshadow an equally fundamental critical problem in "The Snows": the source of the dramatic situation Hemingway depicts of a woman attempting to comfort a dying, delirious man. Is this purely Hemingway's imaginative rendering of his fate with the anonymous woman who offered to finance another safari for him in April of 1934? Or does it owe something to sources—written or oral—outside of his imagination? It is possible that an important unrecognized source of "The Snows" is the orally-transmitted stories of Beryl Clutterbuck Markham (b. 1902), a Kenya-based flying ace who had met Hemingway during his African safari of 1933-34.

Until now, one of the few commentators to focus on the source of more than just the epigraph of the story is Robert W. Lewis, Jr., in his "The Texas Manuscript of 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro': Part II: Vivienne de Watteville, Hemingway's Companion on Kilimanjaro." [in the Texas Quarterly, Winter 1966]. Lewis points out that Hemingway had read Watteville's African memoirs, Speak to the Earth, shortly after its publication in 1935; that the Texas manuscript of "The Snows" proves that originally the story featured an epigraph from her book; that Watteville recounts how, suffering from malaria, she found that her mind "'floated away independently' to scenes of her past life"; and that in her book Out in the Blue she describes sitting by the bed of her father, who was dying after being mauled by a lion. Lewis's provocative essay suggests convincingly that Watteville's African memoirs were a likely written source for "The Snows," but there does exist another possible source: the stories of Beryl Markham, whose autobiographical West With the Night was a best-seller in 1942.

West With the Night is a dramatic, anecdotal, non-chronological account of Markham's childhood in East Africa on her father's thoroughbred ranch, and of her adventures as a private pilot in Kenya. Chapter II, "Men with Blackwater Die," recounts her meeting with a dying man, and it contains many elements which are strikingly reminiscent of "The Snows." In this chapter, Markham describes flying with a tank of oxygen on a medical emergency to the outpost of Nungwe. She is detained there by a Mr. Ebert, who begs her to speak to Mr. Bergner, an immigrant who is dying of blackwater fever. Even before depicting her bedside encounter with Bergner, Markham sets the tone of the meeting by describing the environment in which he is dying:

In the path of the rising sun, scattered bush, and tufts of grass lay a network of shadows over the earth, and, where these were thickest, I saw a single jackal forage expectantly in a mound of filth. . . .

The sight of the jackal had brought to mind the scarcely comforting speculation that in Africa there is never any waste. Death particularly is never wasted. What the lion leaves, the hyena feasts upon and what scraps remain are morsels for the jackal, the vulture, or even the consuming sun.

The atmosphere which Markham depicts is strikingly similar to that of "The Snows," wherein so many elements—the gangrene, the vultures, the hyenas—are associated with filth and death. Indeed, even Markham's grim personification of death—"Death, or at least the shadow that precedes him, seemed to have stalked far and wide that morning"—calls to mind Harry's observation that "death had come and rested its head on the foot of the cot and he could smell its breath."

Further, Markham speculates on the psychology of death as she attempts to prepare herself emotionally for her encounter with the dying stranger:

Wherever you are, it seems, you must have news of some other place, some bigger place, so that a man on his deathbed in the swamplands of Victoria Nyanza is more interested in what has lately happened in this life than in what may happen in the next. It is really this that makes death so hard—curiosity unsatisfied.

This sense of missing out on life and the refusal to speculate on "what may happen in the next" nicely encapsulates the mental situation of Harry, who recognizes that his past experiences and feelings will die with him, and that his marriage to Helen—apparently intended to give him the financial security necessary for writing—had effectively insulated him from more recent experiences which he might have transmuted into art.

The bedside scene in West With the Night is itself highly reminiscent of "The Snows":

I pulled up a chair and sat in it near the head of Bergner's bed and tried to think of something to say, but he spoke first.

His voice was soft and controlled, and very tired.

"You don't mind being here, I hope," he said. "It's been four years since I left Nairobi, and there haven't been many letters." He ran the tip of his tongue over his lips and attempted a smile. "People forget," he added. "It's easy for a whole group of people to forget just one, but if you're very long in a place like this you remember everybody you ever met. You even worry about people you never liked; you get nostalgic about your enemies. It's all something to think about and it all helps."

I nodded, watching little beads of sweat swell on his forehead. He was feverish, and I couldn't help wondering how long it would be before the inevitable delirium overtook him another time.

As a dying man far from home, Bergner finds himself thinking about individuals from his past, including enemies, because "it all helps" him to block out "the simple fact that now he is dying"—a fact which comes to him (as to Harry) "with ceaseless repetition." He particularly thinks about an old friend, a white hunter named Carl Hastings:

". . . I wonder if he ever married? He used to say he never would, but nobody believed him."

"He did, though," I said. It was a name I had never heard, but it seemed a small enough gesture to lie about a nebulous Carl Hastings—even, if necessary, to give him a wife.

The conversation between Bergner and Markham rapidly becomes a tissue of well-intended lies—strikingly like the conversation between Harry and Helen ("The plane will be here tomorrow. . . . Then, in town, they will fix up your leg and then we will have some good destruction.") Further, as Gloria R. Dussinger suggests in her analysis of "The Snows" [in Studies in Short Fiction, Fall 1967], "By portraying the gradual retreat of Harry into the truth of his past, away from the woman and the falsehood of the present, Hemingway reveals his understanding of the psychology of a dying man," and in fact Bergner—like Harry—lapses into delirium-induced, jumbled recollections of a more "truthful" past:

A fleck of spittle formed on his lips and he began to talk in meaningless garbled words.

I couldn't understand all of what he said, but even in delirium he was neither sobbing nor complaining very much. He mumbled only about small things, people he had known, places in Africa, and once he mentioned Carl Hastings and Nairobi together in an almost intelligible sentence. I had come closer to the bed and leaned down over it, feeling a wave of sickness in my own body. Trying to quiet him, I talked, but it was a wasted effort . . .

I wanted to call out for Ebert, for anyone. But I couldn't say anything and no one would have heard, so I stood there with my hands on Bergner's shoulders feeling the tremor of his muscles pass through my fingertips and hearing the rest of his life run out in a stream of little words carrying no meaning, bearing no secrets—or perhaps he had none.

Markham leaves Bergner as he dies, and the question naturally arises as to why she did not attempt to fly him to Nairobi for medical attention. But as Markham points out, she had in fact attempted such a rescue on an earlier occasion:

All I could think of was the time I had moved a blackwater patient from Masongaleni in the elephant country to the hospital at Nairobi.

I never knew afterward for how many hours of that journey I had flown with a corpse for company because, when I landed, the man was quite dead.

The idea of having a dead passenger aboard one's airplane is very reminiscent of the twist ending of "The Snows," an ending which heretofore has been attributed solely to the influence of Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

West With the Night was not published until 1942; and despite its strikingly anecdotal nature, I have found no evidence that any of it was published piecemeal before 1942. Clearly, then, it could not have served as a written source for "The Snows"; but Markham herself may well have been the oral source. Hemingway had met Markham during his safari in East Africa (November, 1933 to February, 1934), and it is quite possible that she had acquainted him with the materials which she included in her book nearly a decade later. As Hemingway wrote to Maxwell Perkins in August of 1942:

Did you read Beryl Markham's book, West With The Night? I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer's log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and some times making an okay pig pen. But this girl who is, to my knowledge, very unpleasant,. . . can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people's stories, are absolutely true. So, you have to take as truth the early stuff about when she was a child which is absolutely superb. She omits some very fantastic stuff which I know about which would destroy much of the character of the heroine; but what is that anyhow in writing? I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody, wonderful book.

Sadly, the only person in a position to shed further light on the parallels between "The Snows" and West With the Night, Mrs. Markham herself, is unable to respond to my inquiries. In a letter dated May 15, 1984, her attorney in Nairobi states that her memory is "now very bad" and that she is "extremely vague" about Hemingway. One can only lament that Mrs. Markham's encounters with Hemingway in Africa were not recorded when she was in the prime of life.

The possibility of oral sources for "The Snows" was raised in 1970 by Jurgen K. A. Thomaneck [in Studies in Short Fiction, Spring 1970], who argues convincingly that A. E. Johann's Gross ist Afrika, although not published until 1939, contains information about leopards on Kilimanjaro which Hemingway probably heard about during the 1933-34 safari and incorporated into "The Snows" in the Spring of 1936. That Beryl Markham was possibly another oral source does not negate the importance of written sources such as Vivienne de Watte ville's Speak to the Earth or Out in the Blue. Rather, it suggests that Hemingway was able to use both personal and vicarious experience, both the written and the spoken word, in the creation of one of his most powerful stories.

Jeffrey Meyers (essay date 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 his own short story masterpiece against Tolstoy's finest work in that genre when he consciously imitated and transformed "The Death of Ivan Ilych" (1886) in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (1936). In both stories the heroes are dying in early middle age of a smelly disease, which has trivial origins (a knock on the side, a scratch from a thorn) and symbolizes the corruption of their personal and professional lives. Both stories employ a suffocating symbol (the black sack and the hyena) to represent encroaching death. Both Ivan and Harry betrayed themselves for security, comfort and material success. Both never loved and now hate their wives, who encouraged their corruption and remain attached to the values their husbands have renounced. Both vacillate between self-loathing and self-pity. Both temporarily escape from their present torments by recalling happy memories (of childhood and early manhood) when they still possessed innocence and a sense of morality. As disease sharpens their insight both heroes reject the familiar lies and comforting deceptions about their recovery, suddenly accept the awful fact that they are going to die and by doing so lose their fear of death. The dreadful confrontation with mortality forces them to repudiate their past—which has been nothing more than a living death—and allows them to gain, in their final moments, spiritual conversion and self-redemption.

In Tolstoy's tale Hemingway recognized a sympathetic temperament and a literary form that enabled him to recreate in the modern tradition his own story of disease and dying, revelation and redemption. "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is a triumphant example of what Eliot calls "Tradition and the Individual Talent": "The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order."

Hemingway's references to Tolstoy in four of his books and a major interview show that he used Tolstoy as an artistic standard, but retained sufficient critical judgment to avoid his dogmatism. Hemingway took Tolstoy's early accounts of combat in the Crimea and Caucasus on his first African safari, and in Green Hills of Africa admires his ability to evoke the Russian landscape: "I still had the Sevastopol book of Tolstoi and in the same volume I was reading a story called The Cossacks' that was very good. In it were the summer heat, the mosquitoes, the feel of the forest in the different seasons, and that river that the Tartars crossed, raiding, and I was living in that Russia again." In A Moveable Feast he tests Tolstoy's fiction against his own experience and praises the realistic portrayal of war: "the movement of troops, the terrain and the officers and the men and the fighting in Tolstoi. Tolstoi made the writing of Stephen Crane on the Civil War seem like the brilliant imagining of a sick boy who had never seen war. . . . Until I read the Chartreuse de Parme by Stendhal I had never read of war as it was except in Tolstoi."

In a reminiscent Esquire article, "Old Newsman Writes," Hemingway makes an important distinction between the didactic and imaginative passages in Tolstoy's greatest novel: "Read another book called War and Peace by Tolstoy and see how you will have to skip the big Political Thought passages, that he undoubtedly thought were the best things in the book when he wrote it, because they are no longer either true or important, if they ever were more than topical, and see how true and lasting and important the people and the action are." And in his Introduction to the anthology Men at War, his most substantial discussion of the master, he analyzes Tolstoy's account of Bagration's fighting and the battle of Borodino, his contempt for generals, his prolixity and the limitations of his thought. Hemingway learns an important lesson from the crucial weakness (accentuated in the late phase) of Tolstoy's art, and states his own artistic credo: "He could invent with more insight and truth than anyone who ever lived. But his ponderous and Messianic thinking was no better than many another evangelical professor of history and I learned from him to distrust my own Thinking with a capital T and to try to write as truly, as straightly, as objectively and as humbly as possible."

In Lillian Ross' New Yorker profile—which portrayed Hemingway as a pugnacious philistine, drinking heavily and grunting in pidgin English—he used art as a weapon for competition and combat. His vainglorious boast began with a handsome (self-reflective) compliment to the Slavic slugger, but provoked disastrous retaliation from the critics and seriously damaged his own reputation:

Tolstoy [was] an artillery officer who fought at Sevastopol, who knew his stuff, who was a hell of a man anywhere you put him—bed, bar, in an empty room where he had to think. I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgenev. Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant. I've fought two draws with Mr. Stendhal, and I think I had an edge in the last one. But nobody's going to get me in any ring with Mr. Tolstoy unless I'm crazy or I keep getting better.


In virtually all novels disease is evil and has negative effects; in "The Death of Ivan Ilych" it is positive and causes good. The spread of Ivan's abdominal cancer leads to a parallel growth in self-awareness. In the course of the novella he moves from worldly corruption to spiritual consciousness, from a decomposing body to an awakening soul. Disease, pain and the fear of death force him to struggle from a commonplace existence to an extraordinary conversion, insight, self-judgment and understanding of the nature of God.

There is a close correspondence between Ivan's character and career, the nature of his incurable disease, the treatment of the incompetent doctors, and the stages of his gradually increasing insight. The life of Ivan Ilych—dominated by propriety, comfort, ambition and vanity—"had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible." For his success and complacency never allowed him to examine the meaning and value of his life. Tolstoy emphasizes at the outset of the story that Ivan is "an intelligent, polished, lively and agreeable man . . . capable, cheerful, good-natured, and sociable." But his excruciating, purgatorial pain, which at first seems inappropriate to his venial sins, is necessary to jolt him into revelation and repentance.

Ivan, who is swallowed up by the material possessions that occupy a good deal of his leisure time, becomes incapable of perceiving reality (his cancer). He ironically attributes the etiology of his disease to a knock on his left side that he received while hanging drapes in the drawing room: "It is really so! I lost my life over that curtain as I might have done when storming a fort." The pressure and discomfort in his side gradually increase, and are accompanied by irritability and ill humor. His mouth tastes bad and his breath smells disgusting. He is unable to sleep at night as the poison penetrates more and more deeply into his whole being. His brother-in-law notices an immense physical change and pronounces him "a dead man." The gnawing disease—the ultimate truth—soon becomes a tangible enemy that drains his strength and will while it reveals his impotence and fear: "It would come and stand before him and look at him, and he would be petrified and the light would die out of his eyes, and he would again begin asking himself whether It alone was true. . . . He would to go his study, lie down, and again be alone with It: face to face with It. And nothing could be done with It except to look at it and shudder."

In the third month of his disease he is given opium and injections of morphine, but they bring little relief and soon grow worse than the pain itself. He is tormented by the smell, uncleanliness and humiliation of his own excrement. The persistent pain never ceases for an instant and, as his life inexorably wanes, he clearly sees the approach of death. His mental sufferings become his chief torture, his sparks of hope are drowned in a sea of despair and he is acutely frightened of being alone. Finally overcome by unendurable agony, his screaming "continued for three days, and was so terrible that one could not hear it through two closed doors without horror."

Ivan's doctors cannot agree about the nature, treatment and prognosis of his disease. At first it does not seem a question of life or death, but a diagnosis of a floating kidney or appendicitis. (Ivan's internal organs have failed to do their "duty." But appendicitis is unlikely if he has injured his left side.) When a celebrated physician is consuited, Ivan experiences an annoying reversal of roles, for the doctor "put on just the same air towards him as he himself put on towards an accused person" in court. And when Ivan tries to ask if his case is serious, the doctor considers the question inappropriate and ignores it. The deluded Ivan attempts to follow the doctor's directions, but discovers there is no relation between the hopeless treatment and the dreadful disease. As his condition deteriorates, a specialist is called in. But he is also self-important, confused about the nature of the illness, unwilling to give a precise diagnosis, unable to state if it is possible for Ivan to recover.

The egoistic and hypocritical response of Ivan's friends and family exacerbates his condition. He first inspires fear and horror in his friends, but they are pleased that he is the one who is sick and soon begin to anticipate promotions to the position he has involuntarily vacated. Their condolences are manifestly insincere and—when Peter Ivanovich bounces on the springs of the pouffe—absurd. Ivan's wife and daughter—still very much attached to the world he has been severed from—are also fundamentally indifferent to his illness. They are more concerned with the annoying effect on their own lives than with the mortal danger to his. Ivan's wife "began to feel sorry for herself, and the more she pitied herself the more she hated her husband. She began to wish he would die; yet she did not want him to die because then his salary would cease." Ivan, who cannot stand her health and hypocrisy, warmly returns her hatred as she kisses him goodnight.

When Ivan, who childishly desires their pity, begins to relate the doctor's grim prognostications, his wife and daughter feel he is poisoning their lives and cannot bear to hear the end of his tedious tale. Neither physician nor family dare acknowledge the reality of his cancer. Both collaborate in lies, encourage his self-deception, blame Ivan for his illness and reduce the significance of his death to a casual, unpleasant, almost indecent incident: "Those lies—lies enacted over him on the eve of his death and destined to degrade this awful, solemn act to the level of their visitings, their curtains, their sturgeon for dinner—were a terrible agony for Ivan."

The family prospers as Ivan declines, and his daughter becomes engaged as he searches for the meaning of his misery. Just after the specialist has failed to help him, she appears in full evening dress, ready to leave for the theater. Her young exposed breasts mock Ivan's wasted flesh just as her self-absorption ignores his agony. She is "impatient with illness, suffering, and death, because they interfered with her happiness," and selfishly exclaims: "I am sorry for papa, but why should we be tortured?"

Ivan's stages of awareness develop as the estrangement from his family becomes complete. He begins his illness, as he has lived his life, in a state of self-deception; and assures himself that everything is or soon will be well. But when the doctors fail and his brother-in-law forces him to accept his immense physical change, he rejects the facile explanation of appendix or kidney disorders, and admits that he will be dead in a matter of weeks or even days. At this point he begins to question the meaning of life. But he still protests his innocence, craves pity, blames others, hates his family and despises their lies.

The metaphor of Ivan pushed deeper and deeper into a suffocating black sack, without ever reaching the bottom, effectively symbolizes his meaningless past life and present search for truth through severe self-examination. As Georg Lukacs observes [in Studies in European Realism, 1964]:

[Tolstoy] turns the inevitable isolation of the dying Ivan Ilyich into . . . an island of horror, of a horrible death after a meaningless life—and inspires with a terrible dark poetry all the figures and all the objects through which the human relationships are conveyed. The fading world of court sittings, cardparties, visits to the theatre, ugly furniture, down to the nauseating filth of the dying man's bodily functions, is here integrated to a most vivid and animated world in which each object eloquently and poetically expresses the soul-destroying emptiness and futility of [middle-class life in materialist society].

Ivan cannot yet find the truth. He accuses God of cruelty while doubting His very existence, and challenges his Creator to strike him dead. Stimulated by intense pain, he finally perceives that his personal relations, his callous official life and his obsession with material things has led him to kind of death in life: that he has not lived as he ought to have done. He now realizes that he has suppressed all his generous and humane impulses and accepted a corrupt system of values: "It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false."

As the story focuses on the internal drama of death, Ivan perceives that the true meaning of life has been hidden by falsehood, that God is a hound of heaven who mortified his sinful body in order to shut out the world and turn him inward. He works out his salvation by affirming his belief in God's goodness despite the terrible sufferings he has been forced to endure. He achieves a life-deepening and life-extending insight, and finds some relief by confessing to a priest.

Ivan is led back to the ultimate truth through the humble ideal of his servant and his son, who appear briefly as symbols of innocence in the opening chapter. His servant Gerasim—a sharp contrast to the corrupt city folk—is an efficient, cheerful and healthy peasant. He accepts death as the natural conclusion of life (just as he accepts excrement as the natural product of ingestion), and says of Ivan's death: "It's God's will. We shall all come to it some day." Gerasim is the only person who brings relief during Ivan's suffering. He feels better when Gerasim holds his legs; and his strength and vitality (which Ivan resents in other men) comfort him.

Ivan learns to recapture that childhood purity through his own son—the only one in the family who understands and pities his frightened and pathetic father. Two hours before his death, when Ivan is still desperately screaming, his son creeps softly into the room and receives his father's benediction. At this very moment Ivan sees the light—which was extinguished from his eyes and could not be found at the end of the black sack—and realizes that his life can still be rectified. For the first time, he abandons his lifelong self-absorption and feels sorry (not for himself) but for his weeping son. He asks forgiveness, knowing God will understand, accepts his punitive pain, and loses his fear of death in the hope of eternal salvation.

As his emaciated body twitches and dry throat rattles, someone at his bedside echoes Christ's last words about His suffering in human life: "It is finished" (John 19:30). Ivan's last words, an imitatio Christi, refute the terrible It that had pursued him earlier in the story: "Death is finished . . . It is no more!" Then, actively rather than passively: "He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died."

The story begins, as it ends, with the death of Ivan Ilych. But it is not until his sudden but efficacious deathbed conversion that we understand why the dead Ivan, who smells (like the story) of incense and carbolic, seems "much changed": "his face was handsomer and above all more dignified than when he was alive. The expression on the face said that what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly. Besides this there was in that expression a reproach and warning to the living"—which the living (like Ivan himself) choose to ignore until faced with the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven and hell.

The extreme repetition, moralistic tone, dogmatic message and deathbed conversion all characteristically convey the religious doctrine preached by Tolstoy during the last phase of his career, when he tried to repudiate both his art and his sensual self. He believed that life was a gift of God and a preparation for death, which released the soul for judgment. And he reveals how Ivan's response to disease teaches him how to die and—paradoxically—how to live. Tolstoy uses illness to devalue the physical side of life and suggest that vanity and ambition lead straight to a smelly death. But he also distances the effects of disease by drawing a distinction between the material reality, in which Ivan had placed so much emphasis, and the wisdom of the soul. The paradigmatic illumination in "The Death of Ivan Ilych" is Tolstoy's noble contribution to the ars moriendi and the literature of salvation—a tradition which begins with the death of Socrates in Phaedo and Cicero's De Senectute, reaches a peak in Taylor's Holy Dying, progresses with Young's Night Thoughts and Beddoes' Death's Jest-Book, and continues after Tolstoy in Lawrence's "The Ship of Death" and Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."


In "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" Hemingway secularizes "The Death of Ivan Ilych," replaces faith in God as the highest good with fidelity to Art, removes the "Messianic thinking" from his fiction and creates a work that is technically superior to—though less ambitious and profound than—Tolstoy's story. Harry is a much more substantial, insightful and interesting character than the archetypal Ivan; the illusory dream of the plane rescue is far more effective than the sudden deathbed conversion. By eliminating the didactic element and objectifying his own emotions, Hemingway also purged the radical defect—the arrogant posturings and tedious pontifications—that marred his major works of the mid-1930s: Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa. Edmund Wilson (with a notable mixed metaphor) identified this crucial weakness: "As soon as Hemingway drops the burning-glass of the disciplined and objective art with which he has learned to concentrate in a story the light of the emotions that flood in on him, he straightaway becomes befuddled, slops over. . . . As soon as Hemingway begins speaking in the first person, he seems to lose his bearings, not merely as a critic of life, but even as a craftsman."

Hemingway achieves his inspiration by imitating Tolstoy and his originality by diverging from him. His subject and theme are the same, but his style and emphasis are different. Ivan is led to God by the innocence of his son and the primitive Christianity of his servant; Harry is led to the pure snows of Mount Kilimanjaro, which the Masai call "the House of God," by the frozen leopard who sought the heights that Harry abandoned and whose clean carcass is contrasted with Harry's rotting leg. The light that Ivan sees at the end of the sack becomes the vision of the plane that transports Harry to the top of Kilimanjaro: "great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun."

Tolstoy's hero is an ordinary man; Hemingway's—through the brilliant flashbacks of his experiences in love, sport, travel, violence and war—is extraordinary. Ivan justifies himself; Harry condemns himself. Ivan's disease is agonizing; Harry's painless. Ivan goes through a shattering trauma before achieving a calm detachment from life; Harry begins with detachment, and calmly but regretfully waits for death. Tolstoy's setting is interior and Ivan looks inward to save his soul; Hemingway's setting is exterior and Harry gazes outward to find the truth. (The description of the African animals and landscape is one of the great strengths of the story.) Harry, isolated in the wilderness, rejects his wife; Ivan, surrounded by family and friends, is rejected by them. Ivan could say, in the words of the Psalmist: "My heart is sore pained within me: and the terrors of death are fallen upon me" (55:4); Harry could say: "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help" (121:1).

Tolstoy's expansive story is an apologue for the edification of others; Hemingway's taut tale is an autobiographical laceration for the benefit of himself. Ivan, who led a tranquil existence, ignored death until stricken by disease and then became obsessed by it; Harry, who led a violent life, was obsessed by death and then got "as bored with dying as with everything else." Though both deaths are purgatorial punishments, Ivan's is divinely designed while Harry's is absurdly accidental. The most meaningful aspect of Ivan's life is the anticipation of his future salvation; the most significant aspect of Harry's life is the recollection of the past—when he tested his courage and achieved fulfillment, before abandoning his creative gift and surrendering to a life of luxury.

Harry's wife Helen is the richest and least-loved of the women in his life. Harry thinks she is the instrument of corruption and self-betrayal, and connects her to the story of "poor Julian" ("Scott Fitzgerald" in the original Esquire version of the tale) that expressed his romantic awe of the wealthy. In "The Rich Boy" Fitzgerald confidentially remarks: "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful," But it is actually the gangrenous Harry—not the hardboiled Helen—who becomes soft and cynical. His excessive comfort "softened his will to work" and he became defensively cynical when confronted with the ultimate truth about his life.

The ironic theme of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is that the dying Harry "would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well." Harry's mental flashbacks contrast his potential with his tragic failure, connect the image of snow with the theme of death, portray a truthful natural life and the enjoyment of pleasures not bought by money but earned by war. The flashbacks also reveal that the threat of death has concentrated Harry's mind, that he had a great and genuine talent, and that he could have fulfilled his promise and ensured his salvation (for Hemingway equates artistic with moral effort) if he had only been able to record the vivid memories that show him at the very height of his powers.

Both Tolstoy and Hemingway use disease and dying realistically and symbolically. Both heroes feel responsible for and guilty about their sickness and try to blame their wives, who resent the hostility of the dying. Both heroes connect their decay and destruction to their spiritual states. But disease and morality are not scientifically related: bacteria and virus are impartial, good and evil men equally subject to death.

Hemingway adapts the subject of Tolstoy's moral fable—the death of the central character, his reflections on the past, his insights while dying—to the poignant situation of his typical hero, who betrayed his own stoical code and is condemned by his own moral weakness. The tragedy expressed in Tolstoy's morbid imagery and claustrophobic interiors is relieved by Ivan's joyful encounter with God. Hemingway's natural imagery and vital description of the Masai country—"There was a pleasant camp under big trees against a hill, with good water, and close by, a nearly dry water hole where sand grouse flighted in the mornings"—intensify Harry's tragic sense of waste and final loss of life. Hemingway removes Tolstoy's story from the Christian context, stresses self-fulfillment rather than faith in God, emphasizes the individual rather than the social background, and gives it a bitter modern tone, but he retains the same redemptive pattern and the same exemplary mode.

Jerry A. Herndon (essay date 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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, insist that the dream flight to Kilimanjaro, the Masai "House of God," signifies a moral triumph [in the Texas Quarterly, Winter 1966]. Westbrook sees Kilimanjaro as "an appropriate image of Harry's moral achievement," which consists in his coming to an honest awareness of his moral corruption and of his "apartness from the permanence symbolized by Kilimanjaro." His self-awareness, in Westbrook's view, purges Harry of "the sickness of temporal rot," and, in conjunction with his "redemptive knowledge of the real," prepares him for death.

I am in agreement with Max Westbrook and the other critics—Oliver Evans, for example, who see the dream-flight as a vision of redemption. I propose to reexamine some elements in the story which lend credibility to this interpretation, looking at these elements more closely than has previously been done.


It is clear from the outset that Harry, the protagonist, sees life as essentially pain and loss. He has been obsessed with death for years, but its coming as the result of infection from an accidental scratch underlines his bitter assessment of life's unfairness as he thinks over his losses. It is this intense preoccupation with the failures of his past life that wrings from him his last bitter retort to Helen, when she naively remarks, "'You've never lost anything. You're the most complete man I've ever known.'" "'Christ,'" Harry remarks, "'How little a woman knows.'" Helen, of course, has not been aware of his thoughts about his past.

Harry's thoughts are not merely of personal loss, but are also about the pain and the losses he has witnessed in the lives of others, even in the lives of nations. Thus, his vision of life is a universal one, and hence is a significant comment on human life, not just a personal petulance. The first item in his meditations on "the things he had saved to write" is a memory of the retreat of the Greeks from Eastern Thrace to Macedonia in 1922, before the invading Turks. Hemingway had witnessed this retreat, observing the sufferings of the civilian refugees which affected him so strongly he could never forget them. He does not let his alter ego think of the civilians' misery and suffering, but he no doubt felt, on his principle of selective omission, that these events were still "there," and still felt by both protagonist and reader as a part of the context of the memory.

The next memory Harry recalls is an instance of the horrors wrought by complacent men in charge, even when motivated by idealism. He thinks of the destitute civilians who died in the winter snows when Fridtjof Nansen, the implacable Norwegian humanitarian, in his role as League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, ordered "exchange of populations" in the countries of the Balkan Peninsula after the First World War. By agreement with the Greek and Turkish governments, Nansen moved half a million turks out of Macedonia to make room for the Greeks fleeing from Turkish territory. He also resettled some of the Greeks in Western Thrace. Harry remembers the arrogance of the "old man" when he denied that the snow clearly visible on the mountains in Bulgaria was really snow. He said, "It's too early for snow."

Nansen did not want the elements to interfere with implementation of his humanitarian plan. Perhaps Hemingway means to suggest that the old man had received too much praise for his previous humanitarian efforts, those involving repatriation of prisoners of war from the Far East and famine relief in Russia, and had been corrupted by the adulation. Over-confidence in his own wisdom and humanity had made the plan he conceived more important than the people it was designed to help. It is interesting to note that the sympathy of Hemingway's protagonist extends to the Turkish refugees as well as to the Greek noncombatants whose flight Hemingway had witnessed. This is a point worth noting, since it indicates that Hemingway is broadening Harry's awareness of the pain and suffering at the heart of human life to include both sides in the Greco-Turkish war. Other critics note only Hemingway's sympathy with the Greeks, though one of his dispatches filed with The Toronto Daily Star had mentioned the Turks being driven out of Thrace by the Greeks, and the random, senseless brutality practiced against some of them. Hemingway's sympathy lay with the suffering noncombatants on both sides.

Harry goes on to think sardonically of how eager people are to be lied to by those they worship because of their power. Nansen's secretary immediately repeats the old man's pronouncement to the other girls, "No, you see. It's not snow . . . ," and they chorus in unison, "It's not snow we were mistaken." But, Harry recalls, "it was . . . snow all right and he sent them on into it. . . . And it was snow they tramped along in until they died that winter." The old man got the Nobel Peace Prize for his earlier humanitarian efforts, and further adulation for the genius of "exchange of populations."

One notes several interesting things about Harry's meditations in this first italicized passage. For one thing, he thinks of snow-covered mountains, not only in Bulgaria but also in Austria. One set of reminiscences, those of Austria, recalls times of great happiness and exhilaration. But these memories are mingled with awareness of the pain of others—of the deserter whom Harry and his wife helped escape, and of Herr Lent's losing at cards his profit and capital for his skiing school. Thus, both aspects of life, the sweet and the bitter, are reflected in these memories.

It seems fitting to point out here that the view that Kilimanjaro does not appear in the story until the end, in Harry's dream, a view that is a critical commonplace, may not be correct. Harry's first meditation practically begins with snow-covered mountains associated with pain and death, associations appropriate to his situation. Perhaps, like Hemingway himself, Harry has seen snow-covered Kilimanjaro on the way to his hunting camp, and perhaps it is the memory of Kilimanjaro that brings snowtopped mountains and the ecstasies and agonies of human life he associates with them to his mind. Hemingway may expect the reader to realize this, and to connect the mountain with the idea of eternity. Given this assumption, one realizes that Hemingway's principle of selective omission, his "iceberg principle," is operative here, and, though the great mountain is not mentioned within the story until the end, it is there as an unspoken mental reality, provoking Harry's brooding reflections on his past and the tragic changes he has seen in the world.

It is worth noting that Harry's initial meditation on experiences worth writing about focuses on Christmas Day. In this context, he recalls both the ecstasy of a perfect skiing run in postwar Austria and the murderous attack by Baker on the Austrian officers' leave train during the war. Barker performed his assassination run on a "cold, bright Christmas day" when "the mountains [were] showing across the plain . . .". Thus, there is a connection between this initial meditation and the last one, in which Harry thinks of the officer disemboweled by a stick bomb in the barbed wire, and remembers a debate about whether "our Lord" ever sent a man more pain than he could bear. Harry is asking himself, by implication, these questions: "What is the meaning of all this? And what is the relevance of the supposed truths of Christianity to the savagery of man's life?" It is natural for Harry to reflect on these questions in his last hours, especially if he, like Hemingway in 1933, has passed Christmas in his hunting camp.

Harry's second meditation sequence drifts to personal losses, to the quarreling with a first wife which caused her to leave him, and the loneliness he had felt for her thereafter. He thinks of how he tried to pick up the thread with her after quarreling with his second wife and how the first one's letter ruined his reconciliation with the second. Mixed in with the memories of the multiple loss of love are memories of the universal pain of the World War. He remembers Greek artillery units firing into their own troops, and a British observer crying like a child at their tragic, bloody incompetence. And he remembers Greek officers shooting into their own men as they broke and ran before a Turkish advance, then breaking and running themselves.

The third meditation is a series of images of pain and loss, beginning with the memory of Grandfather's log house in Michigan, and its burning. After the fire, the burned, twisted barrels of the old man's guns lay on the ash heap, but he refused to let the children play with them. Too many irreplaceable memories were connected with the guns, so he never let anyone touch them to profane those memories. And he never bought any more guns and never hunted again. The memories of the past were burned to ashes with the house, in a sense.

Harry's memory switches to the Black Forest and the delights of trout fishing after the war, but the black depths of life are indicated in his memory of the Triberg hotel proprietor who hanged himself after being ruined by postwar Germany's runaway inflation. Then he remembers wistfully the Paris of his first writing and first love, and the happiness he enjoyed there in the midst of poverty. He recalls that life lived close to the bone as infinitely preferable to the soft, rich life that trading on his talents has bought him.

In the fourth meditation, Harry recalls the beauty of a ranch in Wyoming, with "the silvered gray of the sage brush, the quick, clear water in the irrigation ditches, and the heavy green of the alfalfa." Significantly, in connection with the symbolism of the great African mountain in this story, he also recalls "behind the mountains, the clear sharpness of the peak in the evening light and, riding down along the trail in the moonlight, bright across the valley." Then, as if it is recalled by this image of beauty, he remembers the tragedy of "the half-wit chore boy" who thought he was doing his duty to protect the ranch's hay by killing a man who stopped to get some feed. The man had beaten the boy when he had worked for him, and he threatened to beat him again when the boy told him he could not have any hay. Harry remembers the boy's bewildered horror when he was arrested for doing what he thought was his duty. This stark image of pain and loss, Harry reflects, is only one of "at least twenty good stories" he might have written "from out there" and never had. One assumes that all the stories would have the same meaning, emphasizing the loss and pain inseparable from life.

Harry, one recalls, felt that if one could do it, if one had time enough, his perception of the essence of life "telescoped so that you might put it all into one paragraph if you could get it right." Thus, it is not surprising that his last meditation puts it all—all the pain and the questioning—into one paragraph. So far as I know, no other critic has commented on this aspect of the story. Harry remembers Williamson, the disemboweled officer caught in the barbed wire so that they had to cut him loose, and Williamson's begging him to shoot him "For Christ sake. . . ." As he remembers bitterly how long it took the morphine to work, he recalls their argument about whether "our Lord [ever sent] you anything you could not bear," and someone's theory "that at a certain time the pain passed you out automatically." Williamson had received no such mercy.

Ironically, Harry's own pain, the physical pain, has stopped, just as "he had felt it breaking him." But the psychic pain remains, and the bitterness at his approaching death which cuts short his effort at artistic and moral redemption. But he has gotten his view of life's essence—its pain and loss—and all his questioning about its meaning, into one paragraph. So it is appropriate that he tells Helen shortly afterward, "'I've been writing.'" He won't see it in print, but mental creation precedes the physical act of writing, and he has condensed the questioning implicit in the multiple-paragraph meditations into just one. Thus, if, as Max Westbrook suggests, salvation is "a state of being," Harry has redeemed himself as an artist, given the short time left to him. He has no time to write, only time to think out verbally what he would write, if given time. I agree with Westbrook that "Harry's expiation in consciousness is as genuine as the redemption through courage in hunting that is achieved by Francis Macomber. . . ."


Harry achieves redemption not merely as an artist, but as a man as well. This can be seen in his moving from the bitter verbal brutality directed against the woman who is his current companion to compassion for her. His sarcastic reply to her statement that "There must be something I can do'" is the suggestion that she cut his leg off herself or shoot him. When she tells him he can't die if he doesn't give up, he calls her "'a bloody fool.'" He twists the knife when she asks if he loves her: '"No,"' he replies, "'I never have.'"

Following his first meditation about the losses he has seen others suffer, and those he has experienced himself, he tells her that "'Love is a dunghill'" and that she used her "'damned money'" to buy him. He relents briefly when she begins to cry, and tells her he is having no fun in what he is doing, that he is '"trying to kill to keep [himself] alive. . . . '" Then he tells her he loves her. But her soft, appreciative reply evokes his bitterness again and he calls her a '"rich bitch.'" When she asks him why he has '"to turn into a devil,'" he says, "'I don't like to leave anything. . . . I don't like to leave things behind.'"

After this, Harry falls asleep, and when he awakes, he learns that '"Memsahib's gone to shoot.'" Harry reflects on her thoughtfulness, knowing that she "had gone well away" from the camp to hunt so that she would not disturb the game in his view, knowing how well he liked to watch it.

Harry next reflects that "it was not her fault" that "he was already over" when he had accepted a liaison with her. He reflects on the sapping of his will to work by his subsidized way of life, and tells himself honestly that "It wasn't this woman's fault." She is only the last in a series of wealthy paramours who have made possible the rich living which has dulled his will to write.

Then Harry slips and thinks of Helen as "this rich bitch, this kindly caretaker and destroyer of his talent." But he tells himself immediately, "Nonsense. He had destroyed his talent himself." He had done so, he reflects, "by not using it, by betrayals of himself . . . by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery . . . ." Then with complete honesty, he thinks, "We must all be cut out for what we do. . . . However you make your living is where your talent lies." That is to say, people do not define themselves by their supposed "potential"—but by what they actually do. People are what they do, not what they promise to do.

Harry's achieving complete honesty with himself is an aspect of his moral redemption. So is the compassion, the pity, he develops for Helen. Earlier, when she had said that even if he didn't care whether the truck came, she did, he had told her, "'You give a damn about so many things that I don't.'" Her reply was, '"Not so many, Harry.'" In effect, Harry acknowledges this, and admits that Helen is, after all, not so very different from himself, as he thinks of the pain and the losses she has suffered in her own life. She "had had a husband and children . . . had taken lovers and been dissatisfied with them, and . . . loved him dearly as a writer, as a man, as a companion and as a proud possession . . . ."

Harry remembers that Helen's "husband had died when she was still . . . comparatively young" and that she had tried to fill the void in her life with devotion to "her two just-grown children, who did not need her. . . ." So she turned for solace to absorption in "her stable of horses, [and her] . . . books," and to alcohol. She drank in order to be able to sleep, so that she could forget her pain and emptiness. He continues to reflect,

That was before the lovers. After she had the lovers she did not drink so much because she did not have to be drunk to sleep. But the lovers bored her. She had been married to a man who had never bored her and these people bored her very much.

Then one of her two children was killed in a place crash and after that was over she did not want the lovers, and drink being no anaesthetic she had to make another life. Suddenly, she had been acutely frightened of being alone.

She needed "some one . . . she respected with her," and she had chosen Harry, ironically under the impression that "he did exactly what he wanted to." With him, "she had built herself a new life. . . ." Harry realizes, with genuine feeling for her, that his accidental infection and approaching death has the result of bringing the new life she has built to an end. He thinks of the irony of the deadly scratch, seemingly so insignificant at first, which he got while trying to slip up on a herd of waterbuck for a picture. "They had bolted, too, before he got the picture." The author suggests with this little vignette, by the way, the theme of the story: that in life, the ideal can never be captured.

When the woman returns from her hunt, performed for the purpose of getting an antelope so that a broth can be made for Harry, he greets her pleasantly, compliments her on her shooting, and, when she asks him to promise not to talk brutally to her again, he pretends not to remember what he has said. He cautions her to put on her mosquito boots, then, while she is bathing, he thinks of his losses in love. When she returns, she asks him how he feels. He says he feels '"all right'" and she asks him to '"take some broth.'" He doesn't want it, and tells her bitterly that he is going to die. When she says '"please,"' however, he drinks it, even though it almost gags him to get it down, in order to please her. Then he tells her, '"You're a fine woman. . . . Don't pay any attention to me.'"

Their conversation continues, spaced by intervals of Harry's silent meditation, but Harry is kind, and does not say anything brutal or sarcastic to her again. Thus, having achieved complete honesty with himself, and compassion for this woman who loves him, Harry is morally ready for death. Since perfect fulfillment is impossible for man, Hemingway implies, acceptance of one's limitations and compassion for others is the best one can do. As Hamlet puts it, '"readiness is all.'" Harry's flight toward the ineffable—toward whatever lies beyond life's foredoomed strivings toward the ideal—is presented symbolically, the only way in which the ineffable can be presented. Kilimanjaro represents death, and whatever lies beyond.

At the end of the story, the point of view shifts, necessarily, from the dream-vision of Harry's last few moments of consciousness, to the earth-bound viewpoint of Helen, who has also been dreaming. This return to the reality of time, decay, and death, does not, as Scott MacDonald insists [in Studies in Short Fiction, Winter 1974], "undercut" the nobility implied in Harry's death-dream. It is made necessary by the fact that Harry is now dead, and Helen is still alive with all her disappointments and fears. She is not yet at the point of death, not yet ready for her flight into the unknowable.

Helen has been dreaming that she is at her house on Long Island "the night before her daughter's début." Her father is there, and he has been "very rude." When the hyena outside the tent wakes her, the influence of the dream lingers, and she is "very afraid." One realizes which daughter she was dreaming of: the one who died in the plane crash and whose death had left her "acutely frightened of being alone." She awakes, with the dream's fear in her heart, only to discover that the new life she had built after her daughter's death has been destroyed. Harry is dead, and this woman, presented very compassionately by Hemingway through the protagonist's consciousness, awakes from her dream to life's bitter reality. The hyena cries outside the tent again, but she cannot hear him. All she can hear is the pounding of her own heart, as she stares in terror at Harry's motionless body awkwardly sprawled on his cot.

Kenneth G. Johnston (essay date 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 sentences" in the solitude of a rented room; the brash, notorious Romanian, bold and mischievous, totally dedicated to the demolition of traditional art and literature, chanting his Dada sense and nonsense in the streets and at public soirees.

The antics and manifestoes of the Dadaists were bound to arouse the suspicions of any aspiring, serious young writer. "We are circus directors," Tzara announced in his first manifesto, "whistling amid the winds of carnivals convents bawdy houses theatres realities sentiments restaurants HoHiHoHo Bang." And what a circus it was! The Dadaists created "poems" by picking words at random out of a hat: they shouted others—often nonsense verbal collages—to the deafening accompaniment of saxophones and bass drums and bells; they published the alphabet in the form of a poem and entitled it "Suicide"; they printed a random extract from the telephone book under the title "Psst"; Tzara and two others once presented a "simultaneous poem"—a recitation of three separate texts, in three different languages, read simultaneously; they presented "plays" that consisted of only two lines of unrelated dialogue; they held art exhibitions in public urinals; they so shocked, outraged, and taunted their bourgeois audiences that often their public festivals ended in near riots, and once the Dada performers were pelted with eggs, tomatoes, and, if Tzara is to be believed, beefsteaks. "I am an idiot, I am a clown, I am a faker," Tzara proclaimed in his "Manifesto of mr. aa the antiphilosopher." "You are all idiots . . . Give yourself a poke in the nose and drop dead, dada."

Little wonder, then, that the dapper little Romanian with the monocle made a deep impression on the young Hemingway, who scorned the poseurs and fake artists that crowded the streets and cafes of Paris.

Hemingway was probably dismayed when Ford Madox Ford placed four Dada fragments by Tzara immediately ahead of his untitled short story ("Indian Camp") in the April 1924 issue of the transatlantic review. Tzara's contribution, entitled "Monsieur Aa L'Antiphilosophe," opens with a dire warning to a "Captain" that fire and flood threaten, that "the knot of serpents, the lash of chains, advance triumphantly through the land contaminated by perpetual rage." The anti-philosopher cautions the Captain to beware: "all the accusations of the mistreated animals, in bites above the bed, yawn like rosettes of blood, the rain of stone teeth and the stains of excrement in the cages bury us in cloaks endless like the snow." Apparently Hemingway wanted to distance himself from this extravagantly provocative prophecy of revolution and/or doomsday, for in the next issue of the review he expressed his disdain for the man and his work:

Dada is dead although Tzara still cuddles its emaciated little corpse to his breast and croons a Roumanian folk-song, written by Princess Bibesco, while he tries to get the dead little lips to take sustenance from his monocle.

And in the August issue, which Hemingway edited in Ford's absence and which printed an absurd, Dada-like play by Ring Lardner, he continued his attack: "How very much better dadas the American dadas, who do not know they are dadas . . . are than the French and Roumanians who know it so well."

Tzara's name surfaced again—as a synonym for the frivolous—in a letter Hemingway wrote to John Dos Passos in 1932 in which he expressed his concern over the forthcoming critical reception of Death in the Afternoon:

God damn but I'm glad you liked it. If Malcolm Cowley or one of those recent converts pans it in New Republic or Nation or New Masses in the name of their newly risen Lord . . . you might write that letter. . . . It's damned funny when I used to get the horrors about the way things were going those guys never took the slightest interest nor even followed it. They were all in Europe and got worked up over Tristan Tzara when the god damndest things were happening—then when you've gotten . . . completely disillusioned on the working of anything but intelligent political assassination then they start out and say, "Don't you see the injustice, the Big Things that are happening. Why don't you write about them etc."

As Hemingway anticipated, Cowley did raise the question of social injustice in his lukewarm review of Death in the Afternoon:

Bull-fighting really does imply a certain attitude toward life, a willingness to accept things as they are, bad as they are, and to recompense oneself by regarding them as a picturesque tragedy. Bull-fighting does, I think, imply an aristocracy, an established Church, a proletariat resigned to suffering pain in return for the privilege of seeing pain inflicted on others, and a rabble of gladiators, bootlickers and whores; but I am just as glad that Hemingway does not consciously draw these implications.

This social-conscience commentary on the bullfight was the sort of nonsense guaranteed to enrage Hemingway. To make matters even worse, Cowley chided Hemingway for having "fallen into the habit of writing with his eyes turned backwards. This habit, revealed engagingly in all his books, is now becoming a vice."

Three years later Hemingway would give us a fictional glimpse of Tzara, and once again his contempt spilled over to include an American friend of the Romanian poet/essayist/playwright. In a flashback section in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" the dying writer, Harry, remembers seeing in a Paris cafe "that American poet with a pile of saucers in front of him and a stupid look on his potato face talking about the Dada movement with a Roumanian who said his name was Tristan Tzara, who always wore a monocle and had a headache." What is remarkable is not that Hemingway took his final jab at Tzara, but rather that the allusion—if one accepts Hemingway's judgement of Tzara and the Dada movement—enriches the story's central theme of the wasted life. Harry has betrayed his talent and, implies Hemingway, so has Tzara. It is no accident that the reference to Tzara appears in a section filled with memories of various mistakes and betrayals.

The glimpse of Tzara in "The Snows" is both well informed and cleverly satirical. Hemingway's wording casts doubts on the authenticity of Tzara's name and, thus, on the credibility of the man himself. Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) was born Sami Rosenstock in Moinesti, Roumania; sixteen years later in Bucharest, he was calling himself S. Samyro; by 1916 in Zurich he was known to the Dada group as Tristan Tzara. Hemingway's reference to Tzara's constant headache may also be more subtly informed than openly contemptuous. Tzara did suffer from severe and frequent headaches, but the inclusion of that fact may also have been intended as an allusion to the Dadaists's assault on reason. In his important "Dada Manifesto 1918." Tzara urged the "abolition of logic, which is the dance of those impotent to create. Moreover, Tzara's first major Dada work was a short play entitled "La Premiere Aventure Celeste de M. Antipyrine" (1916). "Although it has been translated as the First Celestial Adventure of Mr. Fire-Extinguisher," writes Elmer Peterson, "it seems it would be proper to substitute Aspirin for Fire-Extinguisher, as Antipyrine was a popular headache remedy at the time in France and Switzerland.

The identity of the American poet in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," another work in which Hemingway had "his eyes turned backwards," is now known. In the Texas manuscript of the story, Harry remembers seeing "Malcom [sic] Cowley with a pile of saucers in front of him a stupid look on his face." Hemingway later lined out "Malcom Cowley" and penciled in "that American poet" and inserted the word "potato" before the word "face".

I wrote to Malcolm Cowley to ask if he knew why Hemingway had attacked him in "The Snows" Did you two quarrel about this time (1992 or 1935-36), I asked? (The time reference in the story is November 1922, but the story was written in 1936-36.) Cowley replied as follows:

I don't know why Hemingway took that crack at me. We had no quarrel in 1922-23 and none in 1935-36. In fact I didn't know he had made the crack until Philip Young unearthed it in a Hemingway manuscript. . . . I had thought the poet with a potato face was Matthew Josephson. Thinking back on the episode, I felt that Hemingway probably resented me in 1922-23 for being a good friend of the French Dadaists, particularly Tzara and [Louis] Aragon. In 1935-36 he had something of a hate on the New Republic.

The Americans who were in Paris in the 1920's give us a varied picture of Tzara and the Dada movement. Janet Flanner, writing in 1925, believed Tzara to be "probably the most sensitive and original French poet today, aside from being not French at all, but Rumanian. No one has written more foolishly at times, but many have written almost as foolishly and never once so well. . . . Tzara is a great man of small stature and wears a monocle. Gertrude Stein, mistress of the putdown, wrote that she found it difficult to understand the stories of Tzara's violence and wickedness for when he came to her house he sat beside her at the tea table and talked to her "like a pleasant and not very exciting cousin. Harold Loeb described "the papa of Dada" as "pompous, dignified, monocled" (The Way It Was). John Dos Passos got caught up in a Manifestation Dada involving "a prime collection of zanies" led by Tristan Tzara. "It turned into a game of follow the leader," Dos Passos wrote in his memoirs. They paraded through the streets of Paris executing "idiotic maneuvers," chanted Dada, Dada, and ended by marching pokerfaced through a Turkish bath. "It certainly wasn't very funny," recalled Dos Passos. Robert McAlmon thought that many of the Dadaists enjoyed being Dadaists "because Dada is nothing, so they could do nothing and feel fine about it. It was impossible to know them, and to glance at their work, and to come away impressed". Certainly, Hemingway was not favorable impressed; in a letter to Ezra Pound in May 1924, he characterized Tzara's work as "shit in French". Even Cowley, whom Tzara once introduced as "a poete Dada americain," was puzzled by the poverty of the movement:

Nobody can read about the Dada movement without being impressed by the absurd and half-tragic disproportion between its rich, complicated background and its poor achievements. Here was a group of young men, probably the most talented in Europe: there was not one of them who lacked the ability to become a good writer or, if he so decided, a very popular writer. They had behind them the long traditions of French literature (and knew them perfectly); they had the examples of living masters (and had pondered them); they had a burning love of their art and a fury to excel. And what, after all, did they accomplish? . . . They wrote a few interesting books, influenced a few others, launched and inspired half a dozen good artists, created scandals and gossip, had a good time. Nobody can help wondering why, in spite of their ability and moral fervor and battles over principle, they did nothing more.

Dada was an avant-garde artistic and literary movement that flourished in Western Europe, and to some extent in New York City, between 1916-1923. Its aim was to discredit all previous art and literature, and to discover reality by a technique of comic derision in which irrationality, chance, and intuition were the guiding principles. Its sweeping aesthetic and philosophic nihilism probably contributed to the eventual demise of the Dada movement itself. "The true dadas are against DADA," Tzara proclaimed. Tzara, who played a leading role in the movement both in Zurich and Paris, has been described by a fellow Dadaist as a "self-styled barbarian, who wanted to put to fire and sword the things that we had designated as the goals and objects of necessary annihilation . . . The various demonstrations that Tzara led in Paris testify to this philosophy. And it wasn't a joke, it wasn't a sentimental and ironic assault on the status quo it was a revolution, a total physical and mental revolution. Writing in 1948, Tzara confessed to Dada's "impertinence." "We were bound to scandalize society," he admitted, "to scandalize it so drastically that it could only regard us as criminals or imbeciles." In his nostalgic review of the past, Tzara modestly characterized Dada as "a brief explosion in the history of literature".

Hemingway and Tzara were light-years apart concerning the literary tradition, the role of the artist, and the creative process. Hemingway did not reject the tradition; instead, he saw himself in competition with the great writers of the past. "The only people for a serious writer to compete with," he wrote, "are the dead that he knows are good. It is like a miler running against the clock rather than simply trying to beat whoever is in the race with him. Unless he runs against time he will never know what he is capable of attaining." Tzara, the "literary terrorist," would demolish the past: "DADA: abolition de la memoire: DADA; abolition de l'archeologie." He made the tabula rasa into a guiding principle of his activity, and took Descartes' phrase—"I do not even wish to know if there have been other men before me"—as a motto and emblazoned it on the cover of Dada 3. Hemingway believed that the whole object of the writer was to "convey everything, every sensation, sight, feeling, place and emotion to the reader." But Tzara declared: "Art is a private affair, the artist produces it for himself; an intelligible work is the product of a journalist." Hemingway, moreover, was a meticulous craftsman who revised and revised his work. "Most writers," he said, "slough off the toughest but most important part of their trade—editing their stuff, honing it and honing it until it gets an edge like the bull fighter's estoque, the killing sword." But Tzara elevated spontaneity to a guiding principle. "The thought," he declared, "is made in the mouth." A champion of the fortuitous, he offered this formula for writing a Dada poem:

Take a newspaper. Take some scissors. Pick out an article which is as long as you wish your poem to be. Cut out the article. Then cut out carefully each of the words in the article and put them in a bag. Shake gently. Then take out each piece one after the other. Copy them down conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag. The poem will resemble you and you will find yourself to be an infinitely original writer with a charming sensitivity even though you will not be understood by the vulgar.

Cowley himself may have been responsible for freshening Hemingway's memory about his association with Tzara and the Dada movement—and even linking it with the idea of betrayal—by the publication in 1934 of Exile's Return, The Dada group, he wrote, were "the most amusing people in Paris" in 1922.

They believed that life should be rash and adventurous, that literature should be freed from all impure motives, and especially from the commercial motive. . . . But in practice they could not do what they preached. They did not live in a free society. . . . For the most part they were poor young men of middleclass families with their own way to make. They sooner or later had to betray their high principles; not many of them chose to starve.

This statement comes very close to describing the life and career of Hemingway's writer in "The Snows," a writer who sold out for a life of comfort and "bloody money."

The disgust of the Dadaists was so deep, recalled Cowley, "that they no longer trusted in words to express it: manifestoes must give place to manifestations and poems to deeds, to 'significant gestures." He then gave an account of his own "significant gesture," his punching the jaw of the proprietor of the Cafe Rotonde on Bastille Day, July 14, 1923. Cowley was more or less convinced that the proprietor was a paid police informer. Later in the day, while walking with Tristan Tzara, Cowley was arrested for the assault and spent the night in jail. Most probably it was this "gesture," along with his association with the Dada crowd, which prompted Hemingway to describe the look on the poet's face as "stupid." Harold Loeb, who witnessed Cowley's gesture, admitted that there had been "much drinking among us." The stack of saucers in front of the poet at the cafe in "The Snows" serves to remind us that the poet, as well as the dying writer, had "blunted the edge of his perceptions" by drinking too much.

It is not clear why Hemingway described the American poet in "The Snows" as having a "potato face." "Poor potato" and "small potato," of course, are slang terms of disparagement, listed in The American Thesaurus of Slang along with many others, including "twirp," "damn fool," and "dada." Hemingway, it is interesting to note, characterized Cowley as a "twirp," and a "fool" in letters written to Dos Passos in 1932. But "potato" and "potatoes" are also slang for "dollar" and "money." Perhaps Hemingway meant to suggest that Cowley, like the writer in "The Snows," had sold out. Cowley had returned to New York from Paris in 1923 to become "another advertising copywriter who hated his job." Then in 1926 he bought some garden tools, moved to a farm in the Connecticut Valley, and began supporting himself by "doing translations from the French and writing for magazines." "We all admired Thoreau in a distant fashion," Cowley wrote in Exile's Return:

The trouble was that we didn't carry his doctrine to the same extreme of self-dependence. Some of us accepted too much from publishers and Wall Street plungers—too many invitations to parties and weekends, too many commissions for work we didn't really want to do but it paid well; we took out little portion of the easy money that seemed to be everywhere, and we thereby engaged or committed ourselves without meaning to do so. We became part of the system we were trying to evade, and it defeated us from within, not from without. . . .

Hemingway, whose original choice for the name of the dying writer in "The Snows" had been Henry Waiden, may have inserted the word "potato" into the poet's sketch to mock Cowley for his half hearted embrace of the Waiden lifestyle. Thoreau, one recalls, in order to meet the "unusual expenses" of his move to Waiden, had planted potatoes and other crops.

Although in "The Snows" Hemingway did not identify by name the Paris cafe where Tzara and the American poet talked, one can now be quite certain he had the Cafe Rotonde in mind. From the very beginning of his sojourn in Paris, Hemingway had disparaged the crowd of "American bohemians" who patronized that establishment: "you can find anything you are looking for at the Rotonde—except serious artists," he wrote in a newspaper article published in 1922.

They are nearly all loafers expending the energy that an artist puts into his creative work in talking about what they are going to do and condemning the work of all artists who have gained any degree of recognition. By talking about art they obtain the same satisfaction that the real artist does in his work. That is very pleasant, of course, but they insist upon posing as artists. [The real artists of Paris] resent and loathe the Rotonde crowd.

The author of "The Snows" would forever associate Malcolm Cowley in the 1920's with a crowd that he would later call the "silly wasters." In a letter written in 1951 Hemingway remembered Cowley as running with the "idiot fringe," unaware of the solid working Paris of committed artists and writers. In another letter written the same year, he scornfully mentioned Cowley's significant gesture of striking the proprietor of La Rotonde, in order to contrast the poet's frivolous behavior with his own dedication to hard work. Hemingway, who once boasted to Maxwell Perkins that he had "a rat trap memory," never forgot—nor ever forgave—the poet's "stupid" Dada gesture or his friendship for a "waster" named Tristan Tzara.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Essays and Criticism