What could be more fulfilling than a dying man getting his last wish of finding solace on the snow clad peaks of ‘House of Gods’ – albeit only in his dreams. This Penlighten article analyzes the vivid characters and death symbolism presented in the short story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
The ending of the story is quite inspired by Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge which was published in 1890. In this story, the main protagonist Peyton Farquhar dreams about escaping his death sentence and illusions himself to find his way back home just before his imminent death.
How often does a writer parallel his own life through a significant story? ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro,’ a short story by famed American author and journalist Earnest Hemingway was first published in the August issue of Esquire magazine in 1936. In the literary world it is known to be one of his magnificent masterpieces reflected on the theme of death and loneliness. Like most of his stories this short piece also contains visual imagery of death, a sense of abandonment, conflict of love, mental suffering, and the spiritual symbolism of attaining fulfillment.
The narrative mirrors Hemingway’s unsuccessful marriages and affairs. The character of Helen in the story who executes herself as the protagonist’s wife is said to have been loosely based on Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. His experiences from World War I where he sustained leg injuries is depicted through his character Harry. This character reminisces about his days as a writer in Paris, which coincides with Hemingway’s days in Paris when he worked as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star Weekly. His frequent trips to Africa for safari and his final days set in depression get mirrored through this narration. He was influenced by many modernist writers of his time which reflects in the story, using the ‘tip of the iceberg’ narration technique. He generates enough curiosity and symbolism in this short tale. Moreover he always had an illusion towards death which is described in his own words:
“When you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed; not you … Then when you are badly wounded the first time you lose that illusion and you know it can happen to you.”
The prologue begins like an epitaph describing Mount Kilimanjaro as the ‘Abode of Gods’ and on those white snow peaks lies the carcass of a leopard who seems to have wandered to those heights to meet his ultimate death. It remains a mystery as to why the leopard must have scaled the great mountain.
The story commences with Harry, an unaccomplished writer facing imminent death due to an infected gangrene in his leg. He and his wealthy wife, Helen are stranded in the hot sweltering heat of the African plains at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. Harry is crazed about the fact that the medical rescue team from Nairobi won’t reach on time and hence he takes to drinking and insulting his caring wife. Meanwhile between his insane semi-conscious behavior he goes into pockets of flashbacks about his life.
In his first flashback, he finds himself transported to the days of great adventures in the snow – the time when he skied in Vorarlberg and Arlberg, the snow activities thrilled his soul. He reminisces about the times he fought in a war between the Greeks and Turks, it occurred during the harsh winter months bringing great loss of life. He remembered Bulgaria, the mountains covered with snow, the memories at the Madlener-haus for a week, where the owner of the guest house lost everything while gambling. The bombings of Austrian officers’ train during another significant winter and how he escaped it. Everything was so vivid yet he had not written about his escapades which gave him a sense of loss.
Then he thought about his affluent wife – how good she was to him and how she cared for him yet he did not love her. There was a tinge of guilt in his heart about sticking around her only for her money. Harry considers his laziness about not giving priority to his career in writing, about wasting his artistic talents for money and comfort. He admits that it was not his wife’s mistake. If it had not been Helen, he would have married another rich woman. He curses his drinking habit that has blurred his perceptions. He soon realizes that vultures and a hyena have been attracted towards the camp due to the putrefied smell of his rotting flesh, he knows his death is near.
Harry’s health starts deteriorating yet he feels he should sleep outside beneath the stars. He toys with the idea of dictating one last perfect paragraph to his wife so that his wish to die as a honed writer would come true. His wife insists he take some healthy broth but he refuses, he asks for whiskey instead. Then he flashbacks again to his impoverished childhood and the struggles he faced in Paris as a writer. He remembers rescuing a dying soldier named Williamson to whom he administered a strong dose of morphine pills to survive.
Finally he feels the hyena resting its head at the foot of his bed, then suddenly he feels airborne in a plane piloted by Compton. The plane takes him to the grand snow-clad peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro where he meets the legendary leopard. A sense of accomplishment washes over him, he feels home. At the same time, Helen awakens and walks toward Harry’s cot. She shines the flashlight on his leg and sees the dressing is pulled down and the leg is dangling off the cot. She calls out to him repeatedly, but finds no answer. Strangely Harry had passed away in his dreams. Outside the tent the hyena symbolically howls in a strange human vociferation.
Theme and Symbolism
The story runs on an autobiographical element, it talks about the lavish, wasted life of a brilliant writer who loves to devote his time on money, women, and the desires of an opulent life. In this process, he has failed to document the beautiful memories of his life and abandoned his talent of writing. This, of course in the end causes him regret. The story is also themed around death and after-life. It features through various symbolic terms used throughout the story. The most evident reference to death is the accidental injury of the protagonist Harry and the way he agonizes that he has little time left to survive. There are several other visual imagery of death, such as the vultures, the hunting down of an animal and the breaking down of the truck. There is the emblematic demise of Harry’s writing vocation that the protagonist begins to recognize during his last hours.
In most of the ancient civilizations, it was believed that God’s promise of peaceful afterlife reposes on the highest mountain tops. For the Greeks it was Mount Olympus, for the Hebrews it was Mount Sinai, and for the Japanese it was Mount Fuji. When Harry looks at Kilimanjaro, he sees it as a symbol of truth, noble-mindedness, paradise, and purity.
In contrast Harry is stuck on the plains, the author uses the plains to depict murky evil dwelling full of confusion. Throughout the story, Harry tries to uplift his soul from the low-lying, hot plains and the difficult painful experiences of his life. He dreams about the snowy mountain to gain happiness and redemption from his rotting soul that is reflected through his gangrened leg.
Leopard is a noble animal associated with great speed and agility. It’s landing on the mountain peaks symbolizes that it has reached its goal of attaining immortality on the Abode of Gods. It is also symbolic to the person Harry desired to be in his life.
The dead, frozen leopard can be seen as a symbol of immortality who attains the reward for taking the road less traveled. Harry himself can be compared to the leopard at particular points in his life, like for instance when he survives the poor conditions of Paris as novice writer, during war, when he shared his last morphine pills with horribly injured soldier named Williamson, on his deathbed, he remains mentally composed with flashbacks, and by staying loyal to a wife he doesn’t love. Its pure mysticism that drives Harry and the leopard to search God, or the god within themselves, or immortality. The only difference is that the leopard dies on a higher plane of existence (symbolic to heaven) and Harry dies on a lower plane of existence (symbolic to hell).
Vulture & Hyena
Vultures and Hyena are animal symbolism of death. Both circle around dead rotten things and consume dead bodies, hence they are considered unclean. In this story, they are the harbingers of death for Harry, they surround him as if intentionally gathering around his rotten soul.
Snow is significant to loneliness, loss, and abandonment. The bleak harsh days of winter are dark and dull which so perfectly symbolize the moments before death.
The flight is symbolic to the final flight of the soul as it leaves the body and worldly woes to attain its final resting place. The plane symbolically represents his ascension to Kilimanjaro (which is symbolic for Heaven). He trusts that he is in the plane with Compton and that he is flying over the peaks of Kilimanjaro. Harry believes his soul has gone or is going to heaven and achieving immortality, just like the frozen leopard in the epigraph. But the reality being that he passes away on the plains of Africa.
Harry has lived a colorful life, well traveled in Europe, having various women at various points in life. Even though he pursued a career in writing, he is not well accomplished because he is drawn towards living a lazy luxurious life. On his death bed, he is full of regrets especially regarding his wasted talent, he repents for his alcoholic ways and craves to write that one epic masterpiece that he has longed to write throughout his lifetime. During his flights of fantasy, he seeks God and wishes to attain spiritual redemption. He feels some of his past benevolent deeds would qualify him to reach heaven. Yet he already knows that his soul has lost its battle to eternity. His only way of seeking solace is through his brief periods of fantasy and chronologically recalling the deeds of his life. In the end, he stargazes about meeting his inner strength in the form of the legendary leopard and finally finds peace knowing that he has fought the good fight, he has finished his earthly race, and has kept his faith in the supreme.
Helen is a very realistic women, she is like a nurturing figure in Harry’s life. The author gives her a well rounded background of being a wealthy widow with grownup children who seeks a perfect companion. When she meets Harry she is impressed with his writing skills and marries him, however Harry loves only her wealth. Helen genuinely cares for him throughout the story.
One of Harry and Helen’s servants who appears briefly in the story serving whiskey and soda to his master.
One of Harry’s friends who appears in Harry’s final dream to fly him to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. He is positive and tries to make Harry feel better about his unpleasant situation. However, he is just a filament of Harry’s illusions.
This story is striking in the way it compacts so many of the details of Hemingway’s life – sexuality, his multiple affairs, artistic outlook, ethical orientation. The writing is plain and yet powerful, it makes an impact with little ostentation and unforgettable clarity.