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.