The Snows of Kilimanjaro

by Ernest Hemingway

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In "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," how does Harry and Helen's relationship start and what separates them?

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To some extent, the relationship between Helen and Harry reverses traditional gender roles. It's Helen's wealth that supports Harry rather than the other way round, as would have been more normal at that time. As with many of Hemingway's male protagonists Harry deeply resents the fact that he's been placed in a position of subordination to a woman. And as his illness progresses he becomes ever more dependent on Helen for care and support. In some ways this is the logical development of a relationship that's grown ever more unequal as the years have passed.

It's notable too that Helen is presented by Hemingway as displaying the characteristics which he and other men of his time would normally have reserved for the male of the species. There's little doubt that Helen wears the pants in this marriage. She's strong and stoical, urging her stricken husband to recognize that things are never quite as bad as they seem. She tells him to calm down, insisting that he shouldn't brood over his predicament and always think the worst. All in all, she takes on the traditional masculine role with considerable ease.

By the same token, Harry exhibits certain character traits which at that time were associated with women. For instance, he's intensely emotional in response to his illness and openly lets Helen know just how much pain he's in. Years of resentment at what he perceives as his emasculation by Helen come to the boil in a bitter rant in which he claims never to have loved her.

As well as conforming to the sexist stereotype of a weak, hysterical woman, Harry displays a deep-seated self-loathing, which comes to the fore in his intemperate outburst. He hates himself for having married a woman for her money, for allowing his talent as a writer to be stifled by years of enervating luxury. Once again, the traditional gender roles have been reversed, and Hemingway presents us with a kind of parody of one of the stock themes of feminist fiction: the talented female writer whose literary ambitions are thwarted by a well-meaning husband, whose suffocating love actually prevents her from reaching her full potential.

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Harry and Helen are the main characters in Hemingway's short story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." The story is highly autobiographical and, according to James R. Mellow in Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences, the author began the story after returning from an African safari with his second wife Pauline. Helen is a rich woman whose first husband has died, leaving her lonely and susceptible to alcoholism. She attempts a series of affairs with men but admits they "bored her very much." Thus, she looks for a man whom she can respect and soon meets Harry, a celebrated writer:

It had begun very simply. She liked what he wrote and she had always envied the life he led. She thought he did exactly what he wanted to.

For his part Harry admits that he very much liked Helen, not only for her money, but because she was "a damned nice woman" and he "would as soon be in bed with her as anyone." He can't, however, really claim that he loved her. Moreover, he suspects that she is the cause of his decreasing ability to write about the things "he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well." This realization drives a wedge in their relationship. Because she has provided everything he needs he has become lethargic and lazy in his work:

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.

In his bitterness about his life and impending death Harry tortures Helen. He suggests that he has never loved her and condemns her for her wealth and what it's done to him. His belligerent and hurtful attitude toward her finally prompts her to question why, at this point, as he suffers from an affliction which may kill him, he wants to belittle her and everything they've shared together:

"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?"

While it may be the best example of Hemingway's analysis of a dysfunctional marital relationship, it certainly isn't the only one, as he presents similar situations in the short stories "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and "Hills Like White Elephants," and in the novel Islands in the Stream. Hemingway was most certainly involved in conversations and arguments (he was married three times and committed suicide with a shotgun, leaving the mess for his fourth wife Mary to discover in their Ketchum, Idaho home) which mirror his fictional creations.

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