The Snows of Kilimanjaro
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“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is a short story that was written by Ernest Hemingway. It is considered to be one of the finest stories among other stories that were authored by him. This story was first published in Esquire in the year 1936. Two years later, it was republished with a set of other stories in a collection referred to as ‘The Fifth Column and the First Forty-nine Stories’ (Oliver 22).
This story is built upon the memories of a writer known as Harry, and his wife Helen, who become stranded in Africa while on safari. Unfortunate for him, he develops an infected wound which results from a thorn puncture, making him to lie down and desperately wait for his slow death. His state of physical incapacity makes him to look deeper inside himself, and at his past memories, and he realizes that he had made very few accomplishments in his work as a writer throughout his lifetime. Even though he had seen and experienced a lot of breathtaking and amazing things and events in his life, he never recorded these events down. It is therefore noteworthy that his reluctance to write down these events contradicts his status as a writer.
Even though Hemingway and his wife wait for a plane to arrive from Nairobi so that it could rescue them, he is pretty sure that it would not arrive in time. Therefore, he keeps on drinking and quarrelling with his wife Helen, blaming her for his own decadent way of life which had caused him to forget writing about the things that actually mattered to him, such as his experiences with remarkable people and the poor. He starts reviewing his past life and realizes that he had actually wasted his writing talent through procrastination and the luxurious life that he led after marrying Helen, a very wealthy woman whom he didn’t even love (Oliver 24-7).
Through a series of flashbacks, Harry is able to recall the mountains of Constantinople and Bulgaria, and the impulsive and sick feeling of loneliness in Paris. Afterwards, he recalls about the Turks and an American poet who were talking ill of the Dada movement, and quarrels and headaches, and how he used to watch people who later on, he wrote write stories about them. He nervously recalls about a boy whose frozen body had been half-eaten by dogs, and about a wounded officer who was entwined in a fence that was made of wire, with his bowels spilled all over the fence (Oliver 29).
As he lies desperately on his cot, he is absolutely aware that vultures are scavenging around his makeshift camp and a hyena is prowling behind the shadows. He therefore knows that he is definitely going to die before he wakes up and so he decides to sleep so that death could take him unknowingly. In his sleep, he dreams that the rescue plane actually arrives in time and takes him to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa which is capped with snow. The Western summit of this mountain is referred to as ‘Ngaje Ngai’ by the Maasai people, a phrase which is translated as ‘The House of God’, and it is here where he is able to see the preserved dead legendary leopard (Bryan 30). On the other hand, Helen wakes up and takes a flashlight, then walks towards the cot of Harry. When she realizes that his clothes have been pulled down and his leg is hanging on the cot, she tries to call him but Harry does not respond. She tries to listen for his breathing but she could not hear anything and so she understands that Harry is actually dead. The hyena whines outside the makeshift camp with a weird cry that resembles a human voice.
Hemingway begins this story with an epigraph, a brief and concise observation with reference to a lone leopard which sought after the tip of Mount Kilimanjaro. Harry made a safari to Africa as an attempt to redirect his life back to track since he had been living a life that was full of procrastination, indolence and luxury which made him to forget about his writing career. Therefore, this safari was meant to redirect his energies back to his old virtues of struggle, honesty and hard work as a move towards the right direction. He realized that he was living a decadent life because of the direct access that he had to the wealth of his wife, something which led to a steady decline in his artistic work (Oliver 40).
It is indeed interesting to note that both Hemingway and Harry belonged to the ‘Lost Generation’ of the First World War, and therefore they were both looking forward to rebuild their lives after having seen and experienced the horrors of the war and the combat attacks that wounded them so much. Some people therefore hold the view that this particular publication seems to reflect both Hemingway’s and Harry’s concerns with regard to the idea of a writer leaving uncompleted business behind, as well as the appropriate lifestyle which a writer requires to lead, which provides a conducive environment that can allow him/her to write constantly. At one particular instant, Hemingway was quoted saying that women, politics, money, drink and ambition are some of the things that can ruin the career of a writer (Bryan 38). Hemingway divides the structure of this story into six distinct sections, and within each section, he incorporates a flashback which he puts in italic, and repeatedly juxtaposes the desperate and distressing present with the past, which time and again seem to be very promising.
The flashbacks in this story are mainly focused on erosion of values and other themes such as loose sex, lost love, revenge, war and drinking. These behaviors are brought about as a result of a combination of sentimentality towards the human nature, hedonism and leaving behind uncompleted business. In this story, the symbolism of Mount Kilimanjaro is highly distinguished from the symbolism of the plains. It is notable that Harry is perishing in the plains as a result of contacting the gangrene, a redolent and fetid deadly infection which causes his body to start rotting and changing its color to greenish black. Hemingway tries to contrast Harry’s background which seems to be dark, hopeless and smelly against his memories of the enjoyable moments which he had while he was still in the mountains. According to Hemingway, good events occur in the mountains, while bad events are experienced in the plains (Bryan 47). At the end of this story, Hemingway depicts that the spirit of Harry triumphs since when he dies, his spirit is released to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro which has a dazzling white square top that is as wide as the whole world. According to him, Mount Kilimanjaro is a clean, brilliant and well-lighted.
It is worth to note that Harry’s life was marked with three major deeds which facilitated his ethereal trip to Mount Kilimanjaro when he finally died. First and foremost, he gave away the last morphine pills which he had saved for himself, to his friend Williamson, who was experiencing dreadful pain. Secondly, his ethereal trip was also facilitated by his intention to write while he was in horrendous pain, i.e. he tried to create mental writings of the flashbacks that he was recalling in his life. The third deed which facilitated his ethereal trip was the fact that he sacrificed himself to his wife instead of pardoning himself.
Harry is able to see the legendary leopard while on his ethereal flight to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. This preserved dead leopard can be viewed as a symbol of immortality and a reward to him for deciding to take the intricate road. At some points in his life, Harry himself could be viewed as a leopard just as some of his associates in his own stories. There are indeed several specific instances where he could be viewed as a leopard. One of these instances was during his youthful life when he was still residing in a poor neighborhood in Paris while he was a writer. Another instance is during the war when he decided to give out his last morphine pills that he had saved for himself to the dreadfully suffering Williamson. Harry could also be viewed as a leopard at the time when he was on his deathbed trying to compose mental writings from the flashbacks that he was recalling in his experiences with his past life. Lastly, he could also be viewed as a leopard from his decision to remain loyal to his wife by not confessing to her that he never actually loved her. Some supernatural impulse that arose within both Harry and the leopard prompted them to seek out God, or the god that resided inside them, or the immortality which dwelt very far from ugly and ordinary reality (Oliver 50-6).
Many civilizations in the entire world believe that God, or God’s promise of immortality dwell on the highest mountain peeks. For instance, the Greeks believe that it dwells on Mount Olympus, the Hebrews on Mount Sinai, while for the Japanese on Mount Fuji. As such, if the leopard was seeking some sort of immortality, then it must have found it on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, where it laid dead but preserved in the snow for eternity (Oliver, 57).
Harry looks at Mount Kilimanjaro as a symbol of truth, purity and idealism. When he finally dies, he lives behind a tragic irony. While the leopard died in a high, clean and well-lighted place i.e. on the peek of Mount Kilimanjaro, Harry dies in a totally different situation, since he rots and stinks on the plains as he bewails of how he wasted his life and regrets of his inability to finish his desired writing business. In most of his novels, Hemingway usually uses mountains as symbolic objects for cleanliness, purity and goodness, while he uses plains as symbolic objects for evil and confusion. More frequently, this contrast has been remarked by Hemingway scholars.
It is actually not surprising that death is one of the main themes in this story since it is always one of the central themes that appear in most of Hemingway’s stories. In fact, most of Hemingway’s stories depict man’s direct encounter with death or impending death. In most of his stories and novels, whether a man is at war in the battlefield, or facing death, or is in large game hunts facing charged animals, as expressed in some of his stories, the theme of man’s direct experience with death or impending death is always present. The main goal of Hemingway is to examine how man behaves himself in the presence of death. For instance, in this story, Hemingway presents a writer, who he also depicts as a hero, known as Harry, who never accomplishes whatever he wanted to do as a writer in his life and time catches up with him. For Harry, death is very close that he can even smell it, even in the presence of the smelly and putrid hyena.
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