The Snows of Kilimanjaro Summary
by Ernest Hemingway

Start Your Free Trial

The Snows of Kilimanjaro Summary

"The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is a short story by Ernest Hemingway about a writer named Harry lying on his deathbed, staring out at Mount Kilimanjaro. 

  • The narrator, Harry, and his wife, Helen, have come to Africa to escape their rich, pretentious friends in Paris.
  • Harry no longer loves Helen, who adores him. He feels their comfortable life has left him unable to write.
  • Harry is dying of gangrene, and his only hope is that a plane will take him to a hospital. He hallucinates, thinking there's a plane in the distance, but dies soon after Helen has his cot moved into their tent.

Download The Snows of Kilimanjaro Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

As the story opens, the speaker, later identified as Harry, is proclaiming that something is painless. It soon reveals that Harry and his wife, Helen, are encamped somewhere near Mount Kilimanjaro, which, at nearly twenty thousand feet, is Africa’s highest mountain. An epigraph at the beginning of the story, before the action is under way, describes the snow-capped mountain, mentioning that the name for its western summit is translated from the local Masai language as the House of God.

Extensive dialogue at the beginning of the story reveals that the speakers, husband and wife, have a combative relationship. Harry has ceased to be in love with Helen, although she adores him. In Harry’s dialogue, one quickly detects a deep-seated underlying anger and a contempt for not just Helen but all women. Indeed, Harry feels and expresses guilt about the deterioration of his relationship with his wife, who has quite willingly put her considerable fortune at Harry’s disposal. The rub is that the comfortable life that Helen has provided seems to have robbed Harry of the motivation he needs to write. Harry and Helen have left their superficial rich friends behind in Paris, where they are pursuing their inconsequential lives. Harry toys with idea of writing about the idle rich, viewing himself as a sort of spy in their territory.

It is soon revealed that Harry is on his deathbed, suffering from gangrene that is moving rapidly from his lower legs to other parts of his body. He and Helen, along with their African servant, Molo, are stranded in this remote part of Tanganyika because an inept driver failed to check the oil in their truck, causing it to burn out a bearing and become inoperable. Their only hope now is that a plane will land on their compound and fly Harry to a medical facility.

Harry has gangrene because he ignored a thorn prick to his knee some days earlier. As his wound festered and became swollen, he treated it with a mild solution of carbolic acid, which proved to be too little too late. The gangrene kept one step ahead of Harry’s attempts to thwart its progress.

Throughout the story, Harry vacillates between consciousness and unconsciousness. His conscious periods become shorter and shorter. Unconsciousness reveries of his past fill his mind and reveal a great deal about his past. The passages during the unconscious state are printed in italics except for the one very near the end in which Harry hallucinates about the plane coming to rescue him.

As it turns out, Harry’s illusion of the plane is just that: an illusion. In the end, Helen has Harry’s cot carried into their tent. Before long, she tries to rouse him but cannot. She becomes aware that his breathing has stopped, just as a hyena, a carnivore that feeds on dead animals, howls outside their tent.

Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1891), “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” tells of a writer, Harry, who faces almost immediate death in Africa from gangrene. A rescue plane is to fly in and rescue him, but his prognosis is grave. In the story, the great, white, hovering plane arrives, sparkling in the bright sun.

The fact is that the plane does not arrive. What the reader is told is Harry’s final dream. His wife, Helen, comes into the bedroom and finds him dead. The story is important in the Hemingway canon because, like A Farewell to...

(The entire section is 1,565 words.)