"The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is the story of a few days in the life of Harry, a would-be writer on safari in Africa with his wife, Helen.
The couple's safari has been cut short because Harry has an infected cut on his leg which has turned gangrenous. Helen has sent the guides to get a plane so that Harry can be flown to a hospital. Harry doesn't think this is worthwhile, and bickers incessantly with Helen, despite her best efforts to keep him comfortable. He feels that these efforts of hers have ruined his potential as a writer; making him too comfortable to achieve anything. He resents her, "[...] this rich bitch, this kindly caretaker and destroyer of his talent."
But even as Harry thinks this thought, he acknowledges its falsity:
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.
Harry has always wanted to be a writer, but has found it easier to "make his living with something else instead of a pen or a pencil," namely by marrying wealthy women.
It was strange, too, wasn't it, that when he fell in love with another woman, that woman should always have more money than the last one?
Harry hates himself for wasting his life this way, but now that he is lying here on a cot in Africa, sickened with gangrene, he can't bring himself to care very much. When Helen is not with him, he slips in and out of reveries, considering the many events in his life. He has always wanted to write down these stories, but somehow never found the time or inclination.
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.
As the story progresses, Helen tries to stay hopeful that help will arrive soon, while Harry keeps insisting that he's going to die regardless. It gradually becomes apparent that Harry wants to die, if only to release himself from the terrible ennui that pervades his life.
No, he thought, [...] everything you do, you do too long, and do too late [...]
I'm getting as bored with dying as with everything else, he thought.
Harry starts to drift into delirium, and when a hyena approaches the campsite, he feels it as if it is the spirit of 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.
He speaks to Helen and the feeling fades, but it returns shortly afterwards, more strongly:
This time there was no rush. It was a puff, as of a wind that makes a candle flicker and the flame go tall.
He tells Helen he is going to die tonight, but she shushes him and soothes him and he slips into delirium again, dreaming of years he spent in Paris, in Constantinople, in the American West, and in the First World War, thinking of all the people he has known and the stories he has collected but will never, now, write down. He sleeps.
Throughout the story, the physical fact of Harry's creeping infection can be seen as an analogue for the spiritual gangrene that has crippled him his whole life. He has never achieved what he wanted to achieve, or been the person he hoped to become. He has been too comfortable to move, which parallels his odd experience of the infection itself:
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.
The sicker he becomes, the less pain he feels, and the infection started because he was careless. Helen asks:
"I don't see why that had to happen to your leg. What have we done to have that happen to us?"
"I suppose what I did was to forget to put iodine on it when I first scratched it. Then I didn't pay any attention to it because I never infect. Then, later, when it got bad, it was probably using that weak carbolic solution when the other antiseptics ran out that paralyzed the minute blood vessels and started the gangrene."
Likewise in Harry's life, he didn't realize the moment of the first "infection" of laziness and self-indulgence, and when he began to recognize his weaknesses, he only took minimal steps to help himself. Now it's too late, and he's sickening unto death as the result of a minor wound that he never tended.
In the morning, help arrives in the person of Compton, who will fly Harry to a hospital. Harry is loaded carefully into the plane, and as they ascend, he watches the world below get smaller and smaller, until they bank to the east and suddenly, through the clouds, Compton points out the summit of a mountain:
[...] 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.
But the reader discovers in the following sentences that this was all a dream; no plane has arrived, and Harry has died in his sleep.
So what does his final delirium mean? When Compton appears in Harry's death-dream, Harry doesn't much care that help has arrived, but when the plane lifts off from the ground, he begins to feel excitement and wonder at the beauty of the world spread out beneath him. The landscape changes from plains to forests to mountains, and they fly into a storm, and then suddenly the storm is behind them and Kilimanjaro stands gleaming in the sunlight.
The story opens with a curious paragraph:
Kilimanjaro is ... said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai "Ngaje Ngai," the House of God.
When Harry and Compton break through the clouds and he sees the mountaintop, "he knew that there was where he was going." If the top of the mountain is "the House of God," perhaps Harry is returning to his Creator, finding purpose and meaning in his life just at the moment of his death.