Ernest Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro
Ernest Hemingway wrote many stories, telling about different male and female characters who try to overcome life's difficulties and save humanity after that. Their struggle against life and themselves symbolize Hemingway's fight against his past, which resulted in a series of short novels. In this case, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (1936) is a good example of Hemingway's style and worldview, where the complex metaphor of human life is hidden behind the writer's exclusive minimalism and simplicity. The story under analysis reflects Hemingway's personal experience, namely his problems with alcohol and politics in the 1930s (Dearborn). However, the most obvious is his experience during the Second World War and the Spanish War, which is embodied in Harry Smith's moral and philosophical reflections during his stay in the tent. Therefore, the writer successfully manages to combine a real historical fact with a symbolic subtext, revealing the nature of a human in difficult natural circumstances. In particular, the story tells about Harry's despair, who is dying both physically and spiritually because of his unrealized possibilities with Mount Kilimanjaro being a symbol of the spiritual ascension and salvation from death.
Hemingway begins his story with the conversation of two unknown people, who talk about pain and a horrible odor, focusing on the male character's problem that makes him anxious. The reader cannot recognize the characters, place, and time, and thus expects a specific clarification from Hemingway. This is the example of Hemingway's style, as well as of many other modernists, namely William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, who often did not explain their stories to the reader, leaving just some hints and tips (Lamb). One way or another, the reader discovers that this man on the hill has a big hangover and cannot cope with his situation and turns for help from a woman. However, then the writer shows that there is a certain conflict between them, which becomes more intense from one episode to another. Eventually, the man dies, feeling depressed and abandoned. In this case, Hemingway also underlines this fact by the vultures who fly and walk near the camp, waiting when this man will die: "They've been there since the day the truck broke down" (Hemingway 3). Hence, these birds of prey indicate pain and death, constantly appearing in the story.
The Erosion of Values
The author uses the symbol of a vulture, which emphasizes the theme of death and agony, as well as the erosion of values. Moreover, Hemingway chose the vulture to mark life and death as two opposing forces struggling in Harry's case. These birds live on the plain to maintain the ecosystem in integrity, eliminating rotten bodies of dead animals (death) for other animals (life). Thus, these birds allow the plain to remain clean of rotten garbage, keeping this space for other generations. In fact, they appeared in Harry's life before this situation, when he had a chance to change and purify his life. However, the vultures now symbolize the opposite, bringing death closer to Harry: "Don't be silly. I'm dying now. Ask those bastards" (Hemingway 4). The writer wants to say that Harry is also a kind of a parasite in the lives of other people, and he must be destroyed. This opening episode is significant since it immediately forms the overall mood of the story, keeping the reader in tension and uncertainty about the events. Thus, it launches an irreversible mechanism of despair and hopelessness, which also refers to Harry's past with Harry embodying the crisis of human values after the Second World War.
The plot develops in two parallel narratives, combining the real fact of Harry having gangrene and the past flashbacks from his life. The writer appears here for a particular reason: he wants to change his life with the help of an African safari. Harry's life is similar to Hemingway's one, so one can suggest that the latter created this character as his alter ego (Hanneman). Just as Hemingway, Harry is a well-known writer who spent all his money on alcohol, women, and adventure, searching for himself in the world of entertainment and rich people. They were both traumatized by the war, unable to recover from emotional shock, and, as a result, to complete their careers as writers (Hanneman). Harry's wife Helen was also a part of the rich world they enjoyed in the past, so it becomes apparent that the marriage is not easy for him. Accordingly, Harry unreasonably offends her during their stay at the hill: "Where did you read that? You're such a bloody fool" (Hemingway 4). It seems that Harry blames her for all his failed life and mental pain with which he cannot cope alone, but she does not agree with him: "I left everything and I went wherever you wanted to go and I've done what you wanted to do" (Hemingway 6). As a result, his attempt to go on safari is an unconscious step towards death (Hartman), which is the last attempt to wake from a false life.
Moreover, Harry's corporal decay is similar to his emotional erosion; thus, the whole confession of the writer is a reflection of his own history of errors and losses. It means that he is able not only to escape from the world of entertainment and hypocrisy, but he also has a chance to rethink his life in such away. On the one hand, Harry is in despair since he understands that the plane will not rescue him in time, but he still dreams of salvation on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. In this regard, the plane is another important symbol in Hemingway's story, which means hope in these horrible circumstances. Harry and Helen are waiting for the plane as a miracle that has to appear from heaven, although both know that this will not happen because they both deserve such a fortune. Therefore, Harry understands that his time has already run out, and he spent his life achieving completely wrong goals. However, the main aspect of this despair is that Harry has not realized his talent properly, which, probably, was also given by heaven. It is not an accident that this awareness leads to Harry's frustration at himself, as well as his wife, who, has always been near him: "Why, I loved you. That's not fair. I love you now. I'll always love you. Don't you love me?" (Hemingway 6). Hence, the plane is also a symbol of spiritual salvation and purification that will not come to Harry shortly.
On the other hand, having gangrene and finding himself in an extremely difficult situation is a logical consequence of his life and, as a result, an opportunity to reappraise his moral values. Hemingway tries to convince a reader that the decay of Harry's flesh is the result of his immoral life (Hartman); thus, his past life was a mixture of hedonism and selfishness, as well as the erosion of values, including love and patience. In this regard, it is not a coincidence that Harry is dying in the plain, which is a symbol of all the earthly and fluid things, as well as the human body. Accordingly, the mountain is a symbol of spirituality and eternity, which contrasts with its purity. These two opposite objects are also the contrast forces in the life of Harry, who never managed to realize the importance of maintaining dignity throughout his life. Hemingway leads to the idea that a happy life is the one that a person can realize his/her true purpose in life (Dearborn). Nevertheless, Harry cannot accept his death because he has not realized his mission as a writer in life; thus, he is fighting with himself in his flashbacks.
All five flashbacks or interior monologues show what kind of a man Harry was in the past, revealing his unrealized opportunities that led to a sense of loss. First of all, these memoirs indicate that Harry never wrote about them in his texts, so it is one more unrealized opportunity. These flashbacks are his inner confessions, which at least give him a chance to speak before death. He also mentions the mountains in Bulgaria, which were covered with snow, and then the exchange of populations: "But it was the snow all right and he sent them on into it when he evolved exchange of populations. And it was snow they tramped along in until they died that winter" (Hemingway 7). The whole first section can be associated with the loss of life starting from war to depression and financial problems. It becomes clear that Harry decided to marry Helen only because he wanted to escape from this feeling. However, the greatest loss of all memories is the loss of Harry's opportunity to tell about his adventures and mistakes since these images are left only in his consciousness. Hemingway, therefore, combines all the flashbacks with the main theme of the snow, which embodies the central idea of spiritual ascension.
The theme of snow is constantly mentioned in the story. Snow symbolizes the path to spiritual salvation and purification after Harry's unjust life, but it remains unattainable for the main character. The snow on Mount Kilimanjaro represents a metaphysical pendulum, which shows the climax of Harry's spiritual despair: "The snow as smooth to see as cake frosting" (Hemingway 7). Hence, love is one of the ways of escaping this suffering, which is embodied in Helen for the writer. However, Hemingway tries to be honest with the reader, so when Helen asks Harry if he loves her, he answers that he never loved her: "Love is a dunghill" (Hemingway 8). Moreover, he never loved anybody, so Harry was completely unhappy and lost during his life. Hemingway hints that the cause of his emotional frustration is the inability of Harry to find true love, which he also tried to do through his writing. Therefore, Hemingway still has no hope that Harry can be saved at this moment, so he only has to remember the former episodes, which also do not bring joy. In this case, the frozen leopard in the snow is a symbol of Harry's lost hope as Harry fails to reach spiritual enlightenment and keeps enduring physical suffering.
Next, Hemingway contrasts the symbols of the leopard and the hyena as two hypostases of Harry, in particular his ideal and real features, where the latter are associated with a lack of will to struggle and a passive expectation of death. Accordingly, the frozen leopard symbolizes Harry's desire to be noble and honest regardless of life circumstances (Wyatt 55). Harry also wanted to be bold and quick in achieving his goals, but could not achieve any of them. The reader understands from the flashbacks that Harry has never been associated with the noble features of this animal. Instead, the real Harry resembles more hyena that comes "with a rush ' of a sudden evil-smelling emptiness" (Hemingway 25). The camp is a continuation of the previous world of Harry, where he also tries to collect the remnants of his life just as the hyena collects the remains of dead animals. However, Hemingway combines Harry's life not only with the hyena's gentleness, but with his acceptance of death and, as a result, spiritual weakness. The character refuses to climb the mountain of life, which the leopard did before his death but rather waits for the plane as the easiest way of surviving. As a result, Harry just passively expects death along with the hyena, refusing to save his soul and dignity.
Hemingway gradually transforms physical death into the spiritual one, showing that Harry has nothing to hope for in his life. Death is slowly approaching Harry, who becomes increasingly angry and unhappy on the plain. It is important that darkness gradually hides the mountain, as well as spiritual hope, purity, and truth for Harry, who cannot escape the feeling of his end. Some little animals walk around Harry, which symbolizes the unchanging pace of life regardless of his suffering (Wyatt 56). However, what is more, symbolic here is that the vultures are constantly watching Harry, waiting until his wound finally kills him. The birds as a symbol of death await their time, no matter how long Harry will live. Their calmness and confidence contrast with the anxiety and embarrassment of Harry, who sees the hyena in the morning. Accordingly, this is the second important metaphor, which Hemingway uses to emphasize the spiritual despair of Harry, who is getting worse. According to African folklore, a hyena is the dirtiest animal that feeds wounded and half-dead animals (Wyatt 58). It symbolizes the filth and moral sloth of Harry, as well as his false material life. Moreover, the hyena is also a symbol of spiritual death, which contrasts with the vultures as the symbols of Harry's physical decay.
Finally, Harry is trying to write a few lines to create something special and important at the end of his life. Harry believes that if he can write at least one perfect paragraph, then he will do something right. He hopes that his wife will help him realize his plan since he cannot do it. In this case, the third flashback is especially significant. This is the one where Harry remembers his grandfather, who lost all his weapons in a burned house, which also has much in common with Hemingway's biography (Dearborn). After that, he no longer tried to restore the weapon and never hunted again. This episode symbolizes the rejection of violence and death, which refers to the situation of Harry, who seemed to live a life opposite to his grandfather. At the same time, Harry recalls his life in Paris, where he had many opportunities even in the poorest quarter of the city (Wheeler). He watched people and enjoyed life, feeling happy and productive. There is also a mention of Paul Verlaine, who died in a cheap Parisian hotel, losing his talent too. All these flashbacks emphasize the inevitable loss despite the physical and spiritual rebuilding that embodies the personal tragic fate of Harry, who lost his talent forever.
In conclusion, Hemingway demonstrates that Harry's tragic situation is a symbol of spiritual decay, which happened because he had the wrong life goals and values. Harry is aware that he could not realize himself as a writer, and, therefore, lost the opportunity to be himself and resist temptations. In this case, a series of flashbacks makes it possible to understand who Harry was and draw a conclusion about his life. Therefore, it becomes clear that he had plenty of opportunities to become better but always chose the other way. In this situation, he refuses to fight against his physical and spiritual illness, waiting for death with the vultures and the hyena. Therefore, Kilimanjaro is a symbol of inaccessible spiritual enlightenment, while the frozen leopard represents Harry's unrealized goals as Harry chose the easy path in his life instead of fighting and improving. Hemingway shows that Harry had died a long time ago when he began to lie, abuse alcohol, and use Helen for entertainment. Therefore, this situation is a logical consequence of his moral degradation, with Harry turning into a lost and lonely man on the plain.