Note: This post is part of The Hemingway Collection, an archive of essays, images, and hyperlinks to interesting articles about the great American author.
an essay on “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Jerianne Wright
In several of his short stories, Ernest Hemingway uses one or more animals as symbols around which the stories revolve. As central symbols, Hemingway’s animals are the manifestations of the psychological states and emotional desires of the main characters in the stories and are used to enable the reader’s apprehension of the often unstated psychological forces that motivate them.
Perhaps the most obvious occurrence of animal symbols can be observed in the story “The Snows Of Kilimanjaro,” in which Hemingway uses two different animals to symbolize both the type of person Harry wishes he is and the type of person he has actually become. The leopard is seen only in the epigraph at the opening of the story, but its presence is extremely important to the rest of the story. Here the reader is told the legend of the leopard carcass found at the top of Kilimanjaro. The leopard, it seems, was seeking the summit, known as “the House of God” (52). A leopard has associations for the reader of grace, speed, strength, courage, and dignity. It is an animal that pounces with purpose, with lightning speed, and with accuracy. In this story, the leopard symbolizes all of these qualities. The hyena is a symbol of qualities that are present in Harry. It is representative of the scavenger-like qualities of Harry’s personality and his spiritual death, which has occurred long before his physical one. The reader finds, through his delirious visions, that the qualities of the leopard are ones with which Harry could never be associated. Harry has never been able to exercise his talent decisively because has been too afraid to try. He realizes that, if he died, he “would not have to fail at writing [his thoughts] down” (54), and therefore does not fight against death. He merely awaits death, expecting to gain from it the spiritual enlightenment that others must work hard for. This quality of laziness can be seen in his vision of his trip to Kilimanjaro, to the “House of God.” Unlike the leopard, who made the grueling climb in search of the mountain’s summit, Harry takes a helicopter ride to the top. Harry is certainly closer related to the hyena that circles his campsite, waiting for him to die. He has lived off the riches of his wife, calling his love for her “the lie he made his bread and butter by” (58). Harry lies crippled on a cot while his wife goes “to kill a piece of meat” (59). The microcosm of the camp is an extension of the real world in which Harry picks up the leftovers of others, just as the hyenas live off the leftovers of the better hunters. Whenever the hyena appears in the story, they are associated with Harry’s death. When Harry faces the realization of his eminent death, it comes “with a rush … of a sudden evil-smelling emptiness … that the hyena slipped lightly on the edge of” (64), and, when the death actually occurs, it is the hyena that announces it with “a strange, human, almost crying sound” (76). Since it is with Harry’s psychological state that the hyena is associated, it is not necessarily of Harry’s physical death that the hyena is symbolic. It is more likely a symbol of the psychological death that has already occurred because of his inability to act decisively for himself. The physical death is simply the last step in this process. These two animals represent conflicting personality traits. Harry, in the end, dies as he lives, as a hyena scavenging the leopard’s leftovers on his path to Kilimanjaro.
In “Cat in the Rain,” the main animal symbol is so essential to the story that it is described in the title. This “cat in the rain” is symbolic of the near-drowned emotional state of the American wife in the story. When the cat is first observed cowering under a table in the rain, it is described as “she” (167), although the wife is not physically close enough to determine its gender. This automatically creates an association for the reader between the cat and the only other female character mentioned to this point in the story, the American wife. As she is leaving to rescue the cat, the woman is told repeatedly, both by her husband and the maid, not to get wet. Getting the cat is more important than getting wet however, because she empathizes with the cat. She knows that “it isn’t any fun to be a poor kitty out in the rain” (169). It soon becomes clear to the reader why the woman feels like a cat drowning in the rain. Her husband is the source of her emotional despair. He leaves her drowning in an avalanche of apathy and lack of affection. When she tells him of all the things she desires, he merely tells her to shut up. The woman wants the cat so that she can hold it on her lap and pet it as it purrs. If the cat is a symbol for the woman, then she is expressing a desire for someone to do the same for her. She wants someone to stroke her, perhaps physically as well as emotionally. She feels unwomanly, like a boy with her short hair. She is starved for the physical and emotional attention that the husband should be giving to her. When the cat is finally brought in from the rain, it is the hotel-keeper that has responded to her needs, rather than her husband. The man who had caused in her “a momentary feeling of supreme importance” (169), in whom she admired “the way he wanted to serve her” (168), has brought both the literal and symbolic cats in from the rain. He has provided the woman with the attention that she is not receiving from her husband, at least in an emotional sense. The maid, however, holds the “cat pressed tight against her and swung down against her body” (170) in much the same way that one would hold a baby. This, combined with the husband’s apathy and the wife’s obvious connection with the hotel-keeper, suggests that the wife will be satisfied sexually as well as emotionally by this man.
Hemingway’s use of animal symbolism is a contribution to the richness of his characters. It provides the reader with a vehicle through which to better understand the psychological experiences of the characters with which they are associates. Without them, the stories would lose much of both their color and their clarity.
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