Style and Technique

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is told in the third person and is rich with dialogue. In the italicized portions, which represent Harry’s mental meanderings during his frequent periods of unconsciousness, the reader encounters a man who has wandered around Europe, has slept with a great variety of women, and has used other people shamelessly.

Always, however, there is a nagging conscience in Harry that is closely related to the overall sense of loneliness that his exploits cannot eradicate. This underlying guilt is much a part of the Harry-Helen interaction in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” It reveals a decency in Harry that on careful consideration eclipses his cynicism and self-serving behavior.

Hemingway is a master of visual imagery. In this story, for example, he writes, “Behind the house were fields and behind the fields was the timber. A line of lombardy poplars ran from the house to the dock. Other poplars ran along the point. A road went up to the hills along the edge of the timber and along that road he picked blackberries.” Readers gain a remarkable sense of place through such image-invoking descriptions.

Near Kilimanjaro’s western summit lie the frozen remains of a leopard. Why it was at that altitude remains a mystery, but the leopard, though seldom mentioned, becomes a symbol for readers to interpret. In “The Art of the Short Story,” he calls the leopard part of the metaphysics of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

Hemingway suggests Harry’s impending death by introducing hovering vultures and a howling hyena into the story, all attracted by the smell of Harry’s rotting flesh. He also connects Harry’s rotting flesh to poetry—“rot and poetry, rotten poetry.”

This story is remarkable in the way it packs so many of the details of Hemingway’s life—sex, relationships with women, aesthetic outlook, ethical orientation—into a text of less than thirty pages. The writing is spare and muscular. It makes its points with little fanfare but with memorable clarity.

When Helen asks Harry if he loves her, his answer is that he does not think so, that he never has. This answer evokes memories of Hemingway’s story “Soldier’s Home,” in which there is a similar bit of dialogue between the mother and her son Harold, a soldier returned from the war. In both instances, the male character feels obliged to dash a woman’s expectation of an answer that is begged by her question. Above all, Hemingway sought honesty and truth in his writing and demanded nothing less of his fictional characters.

Harry’s final reverie is not italicized as are the rest of his unconscious imaginings. In this one, a plane appears overhead, flown by a pilot identified as Compton. It is guided onto a small landing strip by the smoke from smudge pots the servants have ignited.

The plane can accommodate just one passenger, so if Harry is to get medical attention, Helen must remain behind. Harry is loaded onto the plane, which the pilot has said must make a refueling stop in Atrusha. However, once the craft is airborne, the pilot aims it in another direction, flying over the starkly white Mount Kilimanjaro.

In this reverie, Harry sheds himself of Helen, who cannot go along because of the plane’s limited capacity, but he approaches the land of the frozen leopard. This ending is reminiscent of the ironic conclusion of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which perhaps influenced it. That story ends with the protagonist awakening from a happy dream to find that he is being hanged.

Historical Context

World War I
‘‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’’ takes place in the decades between World Wars I and II. The first World War was a traumatic experience for Europe and America, for although it was fought largely in Europe it involved almost every European nation and, at the time, the European nations controlled vast areas of Africa and Asia. The war was remarkable for the sheer mass of killing it entailed. New technologies of war, including motorized vehicles, airplanes, and poison gas, were used for the first time. Probably most traumatic and senseless was the strategy of trench warfare, utilized largely in France and Belgium, in which each army dug a trench in the ground and attempted to advance to overtake the opposing army’s trench by waves of soldiers going ‘‘over the top.’’ Hundreds of thousands of soldiers died in these waves, but trench warfare only brought the war to a bloody standstill.

Hemingway saw action in the war—not in the trenches, though, for he drove an ambulance in Italy—and was wounded. Many of his characters, including Harry in ‘‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro,’’ carry around painful memories of the war. Some of his characters, such as Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, also carry around their physical wounds and disabilities. The war and its unprecedented gore psychologically maimed countless veterans, and often Hemingway’s characters submerge their pain underneath the immediate world. This submersion provided Hemingway with a real-world correlation for his ‘‘iceberg’’ technique of structure and narration, and often in his stories what is submerged is the protagonist’s memories of the war.

Africa in the 1930s
For the first half of this century, Africa consisted almost exclusively of colonies of European nations. From the 1500s to the 1800s, the main European powers—England, France,...

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Setting

The African safari encampment of Harry and his wife, Helen, is in sight of the snow covered Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in...

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Literary Style

Point of View and Narration
The type of narration Ernest Hemingway typically uses, the author himself said in an interview with George Plimpton, was fashioned on the ‘‘principle of the iceberg . . . for seven eighths of it is under water for every part that shows.’’ In A Moveable Feast (1964), his memoir of Paris in the 1920s, he expands on this. ‘‘You could omit anything,’’ he writes, ‘‘if the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.’’ Hemingway’s characters usually bury not only their feelings about their pasts but their pasts, as well, and his narrators—usually third-person narrators who see inside the heads of the main character—join along in this act of burial. In most of his best short stories, the protagonists are carrying some deep psychological hurt that they will not even think about to themselves. Their minds are ‘‘icebergs’’ because the reader can see just the hint of these troubles peek forth at times, and must read extremely carefully to try to piece together exactly what is bothering the protagonist.

In this sense, ‘‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’’ is a very atypical Hemingway story. In this story, the matters that trouble Harry are made clear to the reader; the narrator, who is inside Harry’s head, speaks of them explicitly. But Hemingway sets these instances of introspection apart, dividing them into sections printed in italics. In all but one of the sections that are in roman type, the narration is typical Hemingway: blunt, unadorned, almost devoid of adjectives, and quite uninformative as to what Harry is feeling. The sentences are short and declarative. But when the narration drifts into the italic sections, the tone changes. The sentences grow longer and almost stream-of-consciousness, with one clause tacked on after another recording the protagonist’s impression of a scene. The narrator describes scenes fondly and vividly, and uses metaphors and figurative language: ‘‘the snow as smooth to see as cake frosting,’’ for instance.

As the story proceeds and Harry’s condition worsens, the switching between unadorned narration and impressionistic, memory-laden narration becomes quicker and more frequent, until the penultimate section. In this section—the section in which Compton arrives and takes Harry away—the reader thinks they are in the ‘‘real world’’ until the end, when they realize that Harry is having another...

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Literary Qualities

Hemingway's masterpiece is divided by printer's regular type for the main story and italics for the flashbacks that take place in Harry's...

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Social Sensitivity

Hemingway was ahead of his time by writing about a discordant marriage. Instead of drawing a word-picture of a man facing death and making an...

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Compare and Contrast

  • 1936: Kenya, where Mount Kilimanjaro is located, is a British colony.

    1999: Kenya is one of the most prosperous and stable of the African nations. It combines the colonial heritage of the British with the native traditions of East Africa. The country’s leader, Daniel Arap Moi, is criticized for his efforts to thwart democracy.

  • 1936: Animals such as the zebra, rhinoceros, and elephant are plentiful in Africa. Although a number of American and European adventurers come to Kenya to hunt these animals on safaris, their numbers are not great enough to...

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Topics for Discussion

1. Hemingway had heard about the frozen carcass of a leopard on Mount Kilimanjaro from a former safari guide. Why did he begin his story with...

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Ideas for Reports and Papers

1. Harry mentions the names of many places he has visited during his life. With the help of an atlas, locate the The Snows of Kilimanjaro 405...

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Topics for Further Study

  • Where is Mount Kilimanjaro? What country is it in and what peoples live there? What kind of wildlife has its habitat near there? Do...

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Related Titles / Adaptations

Hemingway relies on the basic value of "grace under pressure" (his motto for his own life) when creating characters who are faced with death....

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Media Adaptations

  • Many of Hemingway’s novels and stories were adapted into films. Movies of his stories include two versions of

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What Do I Read Next?

  • The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition (1987) collects all of Hemingway’s short stories. As a body, they are truly remarkable, but the early stories—‘‘Big Two-Hearted River,’’ ‘‘Ten Indians,’’ ‘‘Cat in the Rain,’’ ‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,’’ and many others—are haunting for the way that they embody Hemingway’s ‘‘iceberg’’ principle of writing, in which a writer should leave out seven-eighths of the information in the story.
  • Hemingway’s most famous novel is The Sun Also Rises (1927). Its description of aimless Americans wandering around France and Spain is exhilarating,...

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For Further Reference

Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969. Baker corresponded with Hemingway and...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Cowley, Malcolm. Review of The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. In the New...

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Bibliography

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Benson, Jackson J., ed. New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.

Berman, Ronald. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and the Twenties. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Ernest Hemingway. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005.

Burgess, Anthony. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999.

Flora, Joseph M. Ernest Hemingway: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Hays, Peter L. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Continuum, 1990.

Hotchner, A. E. Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir. New ed. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1999.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. 1985. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1999.

Padura Fuentes, Leonardo. Adiós Hemingway. Translated by John King. New York: Canongate, 2005.

Reynolds, Michael. The Young Hemingway. New York: Blackwell, 1986.

Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Paris Years. New York: Blackwell, 1989.

Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Homecoming. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The 1930’s. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Final Years. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

Rovit, Earl, and Arthur Waldhorn, eds. Hemingway and Faulkner in Their Time. New York: Continuum, 2005.

Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. Hemingway: Seven Decades of Criticism. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1998.