For many critics, no other short story by Ernest Hemingway is as overtly autobiographical as the Snows of Kilimanjaro. Richard Hovey goes as far to say that the story "must have been (Hemingway's) effort to purge himself of long-accumulated guilts" (83).
This paper examines how the parallels between the story's protagonist Harry and Hemingway reveal a theme of the conflict between financial comfort and the artistic calling. It shows how Hemingway depicts a writer, literally rotting from within, as he reflects on his own moral corruption and the loss of his artistic integrity.
As the story begins, the reader quickly learns that the protagonist, a writer named Harry, is dying. A scratch sustained earlier has become infected and has poisoned his blood, causing a gangrenous infection. Harry knows that death was coming, but he could no longer muster any horror or fear. Instead, all he feels is "a great tiredness and anger and that was the end of it" (41).
Harry's companion on the safari is a wealthy woman named Helen, whom Harry alternately clings to and despises. Helen is a middle-aged widow who is recovering from the recent death of one of her children. She first turns to alcohol and lovers, and eventually, to Harry.
Throughout the story, Hemingway makes it clear that Helen genuinely cares for Harry. Despite being repeatedly called a "rich *****" and his accusations that she ruined him with her money, Helen responds, "I'm only a middle-aged woman who loves you and wants to do what you want to do" (46).
What Harry wants to do, of course, is write. The whole story is filled with snippets of other experiences and stories that Harry had always wanted to write about, but had set aside. These stories, set in italics, told of poor drunkards on the Place Contrescarpe, of a man longing for the same woman from Constantinople to Paris, of the fat bombing officer who had been blown apart by a stick bomb. The stories were all there, waiting to be written, and yet, Harry never did.
During his feverish hallucinations, as he sits waiting for death, Harry alternates between blaming himself and blaming Helen, "this rich *****, this kindly caretaker and destroyer of my talent" (45).
Hemingway wrote the short story a safari with his second wife Pauline Pfieffer. Like Helen, Pauline came from a wealthy family. The safari funded by money from Pauline's family (de Koster, 26-27).
Helen is part of a long tradition of Hemingway's curious portrayals of women, depictions that critic Philip Young describes as "warlike or sentimental" (cited in Fielder 93).
Leslie Fielder characterizes his depictions of women further as "*****es." In The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, Mrs. Macomber kills her husband for putting an end to her affair with their hunting guide. In The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Hemingway presents the loving Helen as a castrating *****, accusing her of using her wealth to pull him away from his writing and exposing him to an aimless life of wealth and celebrity (Fielder 93). Ultimately, this form of living causes him his life and, more importantly, his chance at immortality through his written work.
However, Harry blames himself as well. He recognizes how he has turned his back on his own talent, "by betrayals of himself...by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice" (45).
Harry recognizes that his other personal failures, such as his failed relationships with women, were his fault as well. He has one last chance with Helen, but Harry is already too spent to connect with anyone, especially because "with the women that he loved he had quarreled so much they had finally, always, with the corrosion of the quarrelling, killed what they had together" (48).
Harry struggles hard with the realization that time is running out. The fact that he lies dying, not from an accident but from gangrene, is symbolic of the writer's moral decay.
By clinging to Helen's world of privilege and using her money for the safari that ultimately kills him. In the end, he associates her face with the death mask.
Significant parts of the story are set in italic type, mostly interior monologues about past experiences that Harry now regrets never having written. However, many of the passes also illuminate the theme of Harry's material and spiritual corruption.
The third interior monologue, where Harry finally seeks the woman he loves and two-timed, illustrates Harry's penchant for betrayal. Harry recalls how he "left her for a hot Armenian slut, that swung her belly against him so it almost scalded. He took her away from a British gunner subaltern after a row" (48).
In another incident, Harry remembers how artillery had fired into its own troops, another metaphor for Harry destroying himself.
More revealing are the italicized texts referring to his happy life in Paris, when "he had written the start of all he was to do. There was never another part of Paris that he loved like that" (51). In this passage, Harry remembers a headier time, when he was young and full of ambition. He had not yet been corrupted by rich people such as Helen. However, in the end, Harry laments never getting around to writing about the Paris that he loved.
Towards the end of the story, the italicized texts become increasingly preoccupied with death. Before Wilson, Harry recalls how a half-wit boy murdered an old man. The man's corpse had been left in the corral and parts of the body had been eaten by dogs. This story was special, because, Harry thinks, "[t]hat was one story he had saved to write... Why?" (53). Now, however, all Harry could do was agonize over the other stories he had never written.
In the final italicized text, Harry recalls in gory detail how the bombing officer named Williamson lay dying in agony, after being blown apart by a stick bomb. Williamson's spilled innards and pleas to be put out of his misery mirror how Harry had destroyed his talent and himself. The depiction of Williamson's messy wounds also sets the snow as a stage of death, paving the way for the story's inevitable end as he ascends to the snow-covered square peak of Mount Kilimanjaro.
In the final, long dream-like monologue sequence, the reader accompanies Harry through the recurrent motifs of deception, betrayal and death, up towards the snowy mountain peak. In the end, though the leopard apparently made it, the reader learns that Harry did not.
Though the ending is inevitable, Harry's ultimate death still comes as a surprise. After all, Hemingway never employed the usual symbols of death. In fact, Harry specifically laughs at the idea of a skeleton carrying a scythe.
Instead, Hemingway relies on natural symbols, such as the beasts pray that grazed near Harry's mimosa tree and campsite. During the day, Harry watches the vultures get closer, squatting in the glare of the plain. At night, the hyena's voice rings through the darkness.
The first premonition of death is, in fact, nothing more than "a sudden, evil smelling emptiness" (47). Later, Harry's mind goes back to Paris, and death can now be "two bicycle policemen just as easily, or be a bird" (54). Later, Harry feels death move from the foot of his cot - the site of the infection - towards his chest, making it difficult to breathe.
Harry experiences death not as pain, but as a gradual draining of his vitality.
Harry no longer wants to move, and because of this, Helen calls him a coward. For critic John Atkins, this passage illustrates Helen's belief that the "real" Harry/Hemingway would move, fight and rage against death (Atkins 51).
Harry, however, is tired. In a sense, this exhaustion his death as a writer as well, after having frittered his talent away on laziness, drink and unfulfilling relationships with women. In his dying hallucinations, Harry continues his desperate search for meaning through the stories that he had never written.
By this time, death is near and Harry is too tired. The white peak of Mount Kilimanjaro is all that is left that, to Harry, approximates truth or meaning. Harry has mustered some of his lost idealism, but it is too late to channel this towards his writing. In the end, all he could do was take flight, up to the mountain's white peak. Only through this fantasy can he escape everything - the women, the distractions of celebrity, his own procrastination - that had, in life, pulled him down.
Despite the clear autobiographical parallels between Harry and Hemingway, it should be noted that Hemingway himself was far from the broken Harry. The story was written in the 1930s and could be read as a product of the literature of the lost generation. However, the fact that he had written a story of such power and endurance belies any notion that Hemingway had destroyed his talent by…