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Books: The Snows of Kilimanjaro

Genres: Short Story

Authors: Hemingway, Ernest


It is not at all unusual for a writer to reflect the reality of his own environment in his works of fiction. Most writers write about what they know, so it makes perfect sense that we see detailed descriptions of Ernest Hemingway’s own perceptions portrayed throughout his famous narrative, The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Hemingway’s literary techniques are at their most astounding when we examine their uniquely symbolic and descriptive content. In The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Hemingway is immensely illustrative with his words yet he is often cryptic as to the meaning behind them. These ambiguities exist throughout this revered collection of works, with Hemingway's simple yet highly descriptive prose encompassing several recurring themes. One of the most prominent and powerful of these themes is animal symbolism.
This descriptive symbolism can most clearly be seen in the leopard and the hyena which appear in Snows. In this renowned short story, the main character, a dying writer named Harry, desires to become everything that the leopard is by nature. He envies the animal's grace, speed, strength, courage, and dignity. However, in reality Harry's qualities more closely mirror those of the hyena, who is far less admirable and much more pitiable than the leopard. Harry, who has been suffering from a frustrating bout with writer's block as well as a loveless marriage, equates his failures with laziness, which he sees as the defining quality of the hyena. While the leopard made the grueling climb of Mount Kilamanjaro with a goal of reaching the summit, Harry got a "free ride" to the top. It could be said that Hemingway felt guilty in his own life for having achieved what he considered to be undeserved success, and transposed those feelings of inadequacy onto Harry in an autobiographical manner. Harry feels like he is less than a man for letting his wife take care of him financially and for his inability to write with the talent and zeal he once possessed. He longs to respect himself by acquiring or re-establishing the admirable qualities that the leopard possesses, however he feels resigned to carry out the remainder of what he views as a laughable existence, acting as the hyena.
Harry is a man who feels he has wasted his life and uses his safari to Kilimanjaro as an attempt to make up for his failures. Both physically and morally shattered, he becomes infected by the slightest scratch and while he is dying he begins to reminisce about all of the events in his life that he wishes he would have had the courage to write about. While most people would probably reflect on the things they wish they could have changed, Harry seems to be primarily consumed with his recent inability to describe them on paper. His feelings of regret are not so much based on the choices he has made but rather on his incompetence in writing about them.


One of the most notable aspects of The Snows of Kilimanjaro is the way in which Harry views death. Harry’s experience with dying is neither mystical nor theological. It does not culminate with an angel or a demon spiriting him away into the afterlife. Hemingway soaks Harry’s suffering with realism, using beautifully descriptive prose to illuminate the character’s perceptions. What may initially seem to be simply a mundane catalog of a dying man's thoughts is actually a surprisingly intriguing representation of both spiritual and physical death.
As the hyena circles Harry’s campsite, waiting patiently for his prey to die, he is not only taunting his victim with his intentions but with his personification of Harry’s self-image. The camp is also a metaphorical extension of Harry’s “real world”; a world in which Harry is content to devour the leftovers left behind by the “better hunters”. Each depiction of the hyena appears in relation to Harry’s thoughts about death. And when the actual death occurs, it is the hyena that announces it with "a strange, human, almost crying sound"
Harry's attitude towards life and death inspire the reader to question many things, including whether man's intentions are as important as his actual deeds. By the end of the story, Harry feels that merely having had the intention to fulfill his goals is sufficient reason to feel pride. He feels he has done everything possible to redeem himself and to make his soul worthy of ascending into heaven upon his death. He has even sacrificed true love to be with a woman he feels very little for, which he views as a pure and unselfish act. He feels he is doing his wife a favor by staying with her, while in truth he is only depriving them both of a truly fulfilling existence. Harry appears to be quite prone to self-sacrifice in that he also saw fit to give up his own morphine to help another. This heroic and final deed, in his mind, would catapult him into eternal paradise. The question remains in the mind of the reader, however, as to whether or not Harry’s actions, though well intended, could necessarily be considered “holy”. Regardless, Harry has finally achieved some sort of peace with himself.
Hemingway's use of description and symbolism not only serve to enhance the depth of The Snows of Kilimanjaro, but they provide the reader with amazing insight into the character’s minds, hearts and souls. Like diamonds, each facet of this story is defined by its color and clarity while every metaphor is polished to the point of pure brilliance. It’s almost as if Hemingway actually experienced death before he wrote this story. Perhaps, in a spiritual sense, he did.


The main character, Harry, demonstrates his laziness which results into his unconscious desire to die by neglecting his own infection, by refusing to express his feelings and by going after easy money women make. The fact that “[Harry forgot] to put iodine on when [he] first abolished [his leg]” (1655) shows negligence towards his own body and especially laziness. Furthermore, since the gangrene on Harry’s right leg causes him to weaken and to die, his own carelessness and sloth lead him to his death and thus symbolize his unconscious desire to kill himself. In addition, as “he had saved to write [his thoughts] until he knew enough to write them well” (1654) Harry stops writing even though it is his career, clearly demonstrating his passivity. He thus ceases to express his feelings and his thoughts through his writings causing an emotional build-up within his unconscious that results into an outburst. In Harry’s case, he “quarrel[s]” (1653) with his wife, Helen. Moreover, his regular alcohol consumption demonstrates his constant desire to repress his feelings creating a more important outburst, calling his wife a “rich bitch” (1657). Also, by accusing his latest wife’s “bloody money” (1655) for his failure, he blames himself for it as he is the one who scavenges for women’s money. By depending on his wife, Helen’s money, Harry is clearly overpowered by his own laziness and Hemingway uses the latter’s characteristic in order to show that, with no motivation, a person can not fulfill his/her goal therefore can not attain happiness.

In Hemingway’s short story, two different kinds of animals are being used to symbolize Harry’s opposite and the person he really is. The leopard is only mentioned in the opening paragraph but its perseverance is underlined throughout the story. The reader is first familiarized with the myth of the “dried and frozen [leopard] carcass” (1653) that tried to reach the climax of Kilimanjaro, known as “the House of God” (1653). People like to think of heaven as some place joyful, elevated and cool to believe that a superior and better life awaits them where they can comfortably rest on God’s side. Therefore, the leopard’s perseverance, strength and courage enabled it to attain heaven. In addition, the leopard suggests that its qualities can not be associated to Harry’s qualities since the latter lets himself carry by helicopter to “the House of God” as opposed to the beast which made its own way up. Also, similarly to hyenas, Harry scavenges women’s money as every time “he fell in love with another woman, that woman should always have more money than the last one” (1658) therefore the hyena represents Harry’s personality. In addition, hyenas are known to be lazy animals as they search for the leftovers of other animals in order to survive. Similarly, Harry stays on his cot while “[Helen goes] to kill a piece of meat” (1657) in order to make him broth so that he can recover from his infection. Harry’s physical death occurs when he is being transported to “the House of God” (1653) by helicopter while his psychological death occurs when the hyena “started to make a strange, human, almost crying sound” (1669). In fact, when Harry realizes he did wrong by blaming his wife for his failure, his physical body joins the leopard by helicopter although his mind stays in the “heat shimmer of the plain [of Africa]” (1654), in other words in hell. Hence, Harry’s psychological resemblance to hyenas prevents him to get full forgiveness and, hence, full happiness in “the House of God” (1653).

In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, Harry can be considered as the opposite representation of the Greek hero Sisyphus therefore revealing that effort, perseverance and motivation is essential for happiness. As Sisyphus tried to defeat death, the gods condemned him to continuously push a massive rock to the top of a hill. Though the stone would always roll back down obliging him to push it back up, Sisyphus never gave up. After his condemnation, he had one goal in life, which was to push a rock. Sisyphus was aware of his fate and accepted it without complaining. In fact, he found a purpose to his life; to attain the climax and have the rock mobilized. This Greek myth suggests that life is a continuation of meaningless events and in order to live happy, a goal must be established and attained. Although Sisyphus was doomed to do fruitless work, he was happy as he did not think of killing himself and continued his unprofitable labor. On the other hand, Harry considers his wife as a “bloody fool” (1654) to believe that “[he] can’t die if [he doesn’t] give up” (1654), therefore showing a sign of renunciation and the desire to die. As opposed to Sisyphus, Harry abandons his career as he let himself “softened his will to work” (1658) and “destroyed his talent himself”(1658), showing no sign of perseverance at all. The latter has the potential to do well in his writing but instead gives up to live off his wife’s money whereas Sisyphus’s goal was quite impossible but he persevered instead of giving up. Besides, Harry is consciously aware that he is dying although he does not make the slightest effort to defeat death. Hemingway insists on Harry’s sloth in order to contrast it with Sisyphus’s determination, which led to his happiness.

Laziness, dependency, abandonment are all flaws which restrain Harry from happiness. In fact, he has no specific goals in his life therefore can not have the satisfaction of fulfilling them. Besides, money often seems to be the easy way to achieve happiness but Hemingway suggests that money does not buy happiness and Harry is a perfect example. The author also conveys through his short story that joy is not always easy to find and there exists a thin line between happiness and despair.

Other characters from this book: