On Hemingway’s use of animals as symbolism

Hemingway’s Use of Animals as Psychological Symbols

For a long time I ran a sub-section of this website dedicated to my own essays about Ernest Hemingway. Often my readers would find it while doing research online and submit their own work, which I published here.

an essay on “The Snows of KilimanjaroJerianne 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.

Hemingway’s use of animal symbolism is a contribution to the richness of his characters.

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.

Hemingway’s Use of Animals as Psychological Symbols

This post is part of The Hemingway Collection, an archive of essays, images, and hyperlinks to interesting articles about the great American author.

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There are 22 comments on this post

  1. Dear Sir or Madam. I was really pleased to read your interpretation about “Cat in the rain”, due to the fact I have to make an interpretation of this story on my Language and Literature course. One thing I’d like to know is, the role the amweican women behave in US society, and what is cat’s symbol in American culture? I look foward to hear it from you Viviane

  2. i thought that was pretty apt. i’d just like to say how it’s helped me. it’s quite hard being 14 and having a literature exam for my age on cat in the rain…but it’s been easy so far, even easier after reading this 🙂 thanks ever so much!

  3. I m really impress with the analysis you just did about the use of animals as a psychologycal symbols. At the moment, i am writting an essay about the role of woman in four of Hemingways short stories, i came acroos this article and this inspire me to do a good research and analysis. I will like to ask you if you can help me with information about Hemingway’s life at the time he wrote Up in Michigan, cat in the rain, in order to see how his presonal life influences these stories,,,, please, i will be really grateful thanks in advance ana maria rey (colombian girl in India)

  4. avatar
    ana maria rey martinez

    I am really impress with the article i just read about the use of animals as a psychologycal symbols. There are so many interesting points that you can not easily recognise them when you are reading. At the momet i am writing an essay about the role of woman in four of Hemingway’s short stories and try to realte hispersonal life with the story in each plot. However, i have problems with my research. I will like to ask you if you can help me with information about Hemingway’s life at the time he wrote Up in Michigan, Cat in the Rain and The short happy life of francis Macomber. This in order to see how much Hemingway’s personal life influences these stories,,,, What i really need concrete facts or experiences, that in whatever way could be compared with the plots of these stories. thanks in advance ana maria rey Coombian citizen in India

  5. As an intructor in English, I feel I should tell you that this essay is being used by students as a source from which to plagiarize. I understand that this is not your intention. However, a notice stating that this essay is your own, copyrighted material, and that instructors regularly review such online materials, might help to deter future plagiarists. Thank you. I enjoyed your essay. I didn’t enjoy failing the student who copied from it, and who may be expelled from the university. Gregg Johnson Department of English Georgia State University

  6. I enjoyed reading your essay very much. I was searching for inspiration on an eanalysis I myself must write on a key passage from “Snows of Kilimanjaro” on animal symbolism in Hemingway’s works. Your essay helped me find my footing on this somewhat obscure project. Thank you.

  7. I enjoyed reading your essay very much. I was searching for inspiration on an eanalysis I myself must write on a key passage from “Snows of Kilimanjaro” on animal symbolism in Hemingway’s works. Your essay helped me find my footing on this somewhat obscure project. Thank you.

  8. After reading your article I was not only fasinated and intrigued but also persuaded that animals do serve as an importance in old Americn Literature. If it would not be too much trouble I would truely enjoy to read your opinion on woman in Hemingway’s stories as well, how woman in his real life effected how he portrayed woman in his stories. This will be greatly appreciated if you can do this. Thank you!

  9. dear sir would you please send me full details about symbolism for the short stories 1-cat in the rain 2- hills like white elephants for ERNEST HEMINGWAY PLEASE reply me as soon as yours khlan from lebnon

  10. I would like to reiterate Prof. Johnson’s notice to you that your essay is being plagiarized. I am a lecturer in the English Department at San Diego State University, and like Prof. Johnson, I am about to fail a student for having plagiarized your ideas. Students–your professors are aware of the practice of copying papers from the Internet. Don’t do it! Talk with your professors instead if you are having problems understanding the material and writing papers about it.

  11. Hi, I’m from Germany. In my english course I had to write an interpertation about “Cat in the rain”. So I searched for an interpretation in the internet. I found this one and it helped me very much. Respect to the authoer 🙂

  12. i’m from China. your essay really gave me inspiration and helped me a lot. thank you for your kindness of sharing it with us.

  13. Wonderful essay, I even quoted you a few times in my paper. ^_^ It was a great inspiration and very helpful in comparing all the symbolisms with other good writings, I just feel bad that others are stealing this for their own work, so to them:

    DO YOUR OWN WORK!!!! If you do use this, atleast quote it and say where you found it so others will have the chance to read it for what its worth!!!!

    Yep, that’s all I’ve got to say. Wonderful job and thank you for all the help. ^_^

  14. Very good essay indeed! will use this in my upcoming essay and site you’re work 🙂

  15. the part about holding cat like a baby was very usefull

  16. The world is growing hotter ever day. The bankers, with the collusion of the politicians, are stealing at an alarming rate, and you people are worrying about the symbolism in Hemingway’s books.
    Hemingway wrote many(from my viewpoint) good books. However, his works stand alone and do not need clarification/elucidation by a bunch of hacks. All writers use symbols, as do all humans. If you need an English major to tell you what Hemingway is saying or how he is saying it, then you do not need to be reading Hemingway. Or anyone else for that matter. But, if you get paid by the work, keep writing.

  17. Hello, Jerianne. Your piece is excellent. But (and I hope you don’t take offense, because I don’t mean to be critical), the word “eminent” in the second paragraph should be “imminent”.
    I’ll look forward to reading more of your analyses.

  18. avatar
    Rosemary M. Kenny

    Hi David! I’m part way through trying to write my dissertation on Hemingway’s use of animals and animal symbolism and imagery in his short stories and your website has proved to be a real goldmine of information – I can’t thanks you enough!

  19. wow! i needed this information so much for my presentation. shall i hope to see more?

  20. Also, to me ‘Cat in the Rain’, (if you say it fast enough) sounds like ‘Caught in the Rain’

    Hence the title if read this way could reflect how the husband and the wife have somehow been trapped in their marriage and have no escape, much like being caught in the rain without a refuge or an umbrella.

    P.S.- It’s been said a lot of times already, but excellent essay 🙂

  21. this is really a great work. it helps me a lot in making my thesis. keep posting up this very important piece..

  22. I came here because the subject interests me. I chose TIGER as the name for my software company. I saw TRACK OF THE CAT on TV and was thinking about what the cougar represented. That led me to think about MOBY DICK’s Whale and FAULKNER’s THE BEAR. What about the BULL in Sun Also Rises. Macho Hemingway admires man challenging his fate and nature, facing DEATH by the HORNED DEMONIC BULL. Then I was thinking about Two Hearted RIver, in which HEMINGWAY choses not to cope with a big trout on a fly line in a small stream. Just too unequal a fight. Too complicated. He does not want to lose another battle. He is alrerady battle scarred. Anyway, I googled “ANIMALS” + “SYMBOLS” + ” “LITERATURE”. The more I think of it. the more I realize how closely tied up we are with animals. Alice’s hare. Tortoise and the hare. Lonigan vs the Ants. And I must mention JAWS.

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