An essay on “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by David Gagne

This is a paper I wrote for AML 4311 on October 22, 1995. Unfortunately, it was due on October 16, 1995.

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”: A Written Work

Maybe you could never write them, and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting.”

Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is a story about a man and his dying, his relationship to his wife, and his recollections of a troubling existence. It is also, more importantly, a story about writing. Through the story of Harry, a deceptive, dying, decaying writer, Hemingway expresses his own feelings about writing, as an art, as a means of financial support, and as an inescapable urge. Much criticism has been written about the failures of Harry in “Snows” (although most of it, apparently, is not available in Library West) and most of this is wildly far from understanding the most important ideas Hemingway presents. I will attempt to explain why what has been written is wrong and why what has not been written is fundamental to the story.

Harry and his wife are not actually trying to climb the mountain.

Several critics have tried to analogize Harry’s failure to write what he wants to write to his failure to achieve the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. What they have overlooked, intentionally or not, is that Harry and his wife are not actually trying to climb the mountain. They have no lofty goals to reach the highest point in Africa, but are in their position while hunting game. They have gone to Africa on a safari and it is only a happenstance that they are situated at the base of the mountain when the story occurs. Obviously the mountain has significance in the story, but to view it as a symbol of another one of Harry’s failures is to place more responsibility on it than Hemingway intended.

It has also been written that when Harry comes to realize the summit in his death-dream, Hemingway is absolving him of his failures and granting salvation on the protagonist in the form of a successful climb. Harry has failed to achieve that for which he was striving in life, but in and through death he is able to gain fulfillment. Unfortunately again critics are (intentionally?) ignoring the fact that Harry and Compton do not ever reach the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Harry dreams that this is where he is headed, but Hemingway never has him actually arrive there. Instead the reader leaves Harry in an indeterminate state and returns to the world of the living, albeit sleeping, unnamed wife.

Harry is never given the opportunity to write these stories.

Finally, some critics revel in the pretense that Harry never writes the things about which he most wants, and is therefore a failure. Harry is the author who cannot bring himself to write about his past experiences, who cannot capture his sensory perceptions in language, who cannot summon the ability to do what has made him who he is. The critic Macdonald goes to great pains to explain that the italicized portions of the story are the ones about which Harry has always desired, but never been able, to write. Macdonald points out that the italicized text is comprised of the experiences which would have made good fiction, had they been written. Sadly, Macdonald would have us believe, Harry is never given the opportunity to write these stories because he has grown soft, he has lost the ability to create, he has failed as a writer. Macdonald says that Hemingway portrays Harry as a man who is a “failed artist” but this is not true. Hemingway portrays Harry as an artist who is struggling with his art, an art that Hemingway knows intimately. It is, in fact, a struggling which Hemingway utilizes wonderfully to show just how crippling the loss of one’s muse is to a writer. He is also able to communicate just how deceptive that muse can be, and how once that muse infects a writer, he is no longer in control over his craft.

Once something has been written, all aspects of intentionality are lost.

Through “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” Hemingway manages to convey the most universal of truths: Text is alive. Once something has been written, all aspects of intentionality are lost. Every word, every phrase carries with it so much convoluted and inexplicable baggage into any reader’s mind that to try and assume what a writer is trying to write is a supreme exercise in futility. The best that can be done is to try and untangle what something means without trying to project that meaning onto anyone else’s understanding of it. After all the critics and professors and students and bathtub readers have gone over what you’ve written with their own eyes, all that is left is simply what you have placed on the page. Like Frankenstein’s monster, the text, once it leaves the author’s pen (pencil, word-processor, computer, dictaphone…), has a life completely unto itself. It can be read but it cannot be altered. It can be interpreted, but it cannot be understood.

The only reason to view Harry as a failure is because he never writes what he wants to write. The stories, the text he most desires to write, he fears, will die with him. But what Harry is never allowed to write, the pieces of “Snows” in italics, is in fact written. How can Harry be viewed as a failure when what he most desires to write is, in the end, readable?

Dussinger, Gloria, ” ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’: Harry’s Second Chance,” Studies in Short Fiction, V:54-59, The State Printing Co., Columbia, SC, 1967
Macdonald, Scott, “Hemingway’s ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’: Three Critical Problems,” Studies in Short Fiction, XI:67-74, The State Printing Co., Columbia, SC, 1974
Maynard, Reid, “The Decay Motif in ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’,” Discourse, X:436-439, Concordia College, 1967

The Snows of Kilimanjaro

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 18 comments on this post

  1. I agree with your first two comments. I’ve always considered the image of the leapord’s carcass at the top of the mountain as a very sad and lonely image, suggesting wastefulness or making the wrong choice or even self-destruction. I’ve never understood why many critics perceive it as something positive.

  2. Hi! Your essay is quite interesting! I wonder if you could give me some help on “A Canary for One” as well! Thanx!

  3. I have always seen “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” as Hemingway’s way to express the idea of using the time one has to its fullest extent, for this hour may be your last.

  4. avatar
    the almighty zok

    I got a cut on my foot, didn’t pay attention to it, and now its infected. No joke.

  5. your essay ist very interessting, but the woman isn’t unnamed; her name is helen

  6. Very interesting essay. Thanks for writing it.

  7. I would like to suggest that the leopard is a symbol of Harry and his lonely attempt at finding something or reaching somewhere he can be at peace.

  8. I agree with your essay, you made some very clear and cohesive points. However, in my opinion, the carcass symbolized Harry, as well as Hemmingway’s need to reach self-satisfaction, then and only then would they be at peace.

  9. I don’t know why, but for years I have assumed that Compton is the ghost of someone from his past who has come to deliver him to the next world. Probably a little too simplistic for all this symbolism. I heartily agree with the analogy to the leopard carcass.

  10. I have not read this classic, but I imagine the carcass of the leopard to be something positive, uplifiting, a courageous example of overcoming adversity and obstacles, of reaching the peak simply because the peak was there…to discover.

  11. I disagree with the symbolism of the leopard. I believe it is a sign that the leopard had accomplished its goal by reaching the zenith of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and it is a symbol of Harry’s jealousy. The leopard is forever imobilized at the summit as proof that it did what it wanted to. Harry always wished to compose stories of his experiences but procrastinated to the point where it was no longer possible to complete his goal. He is jealous of the leopard and it’s boasting qualities.

  12. I’m very confused-_-;;
    why is Hemingway mentioning Mt.Kilimanjaro in this story?
    Is it representing Harry’s goal or somethin’?
    And we all know that Harry dies in the end of the story
    I don’t understand.. the last part when Compton comes..
    People say that it is Harry’s dream when he goes up to Kilikmanjaro with Compton. What does that relate to Hemingway?
    Also, does Harry drink because he knows that he will die soon?
    Uhh I’m very confused Guys

  13. I enjoyed your essay. The Snows…is one of my favorite Hemingway stories. I was actually reading an article in Smithsonian about Kilimanjaro and, of course, my mind immediately skipped to Hemingway, so I searched The Snows on the Internet. I can never hear the word “kilimanjaro” without plunging into the Hemingway milieu. He is an egnima for me. I read and reread his work, often years between. No other writer had that hold on me. Thanks for your analysis.

  14. I need help. Do you know where can i get free text of the snows of Kilimanjaro

  15. I need help. I want to write an essy on the Snows of Kilimanjaro. Shall I give some information about the author’s biography in the first of part my writing?

  16. I like how the title plays with Harry’s desire to write “Snows”.

    The work “Snows” are Harry’s thoughts spurred to reflection by his situation at Kilimanjaro. Seen that way, the Snows really are of Kilimanjaro.
    I also like how the mountain name has “Kill a man” in it.

    Word choice is often so primary to the feeling a piece of work takes on as you read it, I think what we take away from a story is almost never given to us at face value; impressions we take with us are the word associations inherent to the language it’s written in.

    Symbolism itself is less effectual at getting at writers idea than the words leading up to and passing by the symbol given to us.
    I think the leopard has more than one meaning, and if it made you feel anything at all, I think that is the truest purpose for it being there in the story. Any speculation as to what the leopard means is not the power of the leopard. Its power as a symbol is realized by how folks feel compelled to explain it’s meaning.
    A good writer channels associations with care and patience, making sure to not only convey a situation or feeling in a story, but to impart in a reader a feeling or thought process by threads of association:
    It is no linguistic accident that if you were asked to imagine an apple in your hand, the words ‘red’ or ‘green’ would come to you were you asked to identify the color of it. More importantly this is what you would expect someone else to say about the apple as well, and this confidence in finishing ideas started by another is at the source of understanding something of a writers intention.
    The heart of good writing is not an appreciation for the words the reader will follow, but for the scenery adjacent to the words that will arise in the reader’s mind from reading the words written.
    To say we can never understand what a writer means in the writing of particular work is too cold a judgement. Better to say we can only ever know the intention in partial.

  17. I enjoyed all the comments and interpretations. I think the leopard became lost, blinded by the snows while hunting alone without support for what he needed to sustain himself. Harry became lost and blinded by the snows in his life and was unable to sustain himself alone as well. The question is what do the snows represent. Snows could symbolize what enables the leopard to camoflauge/hide himself thinking he could get closer to his prey/sustenance/goal. The same snow also causes him to get lost and unable to see where he is going. Harry got lost in his snows/by being blinded by desire to be someone he wasn’t. He became lost by trying to appear wealthy and successful by being cautious, hiding behind his wealthy wives rather than taking risks and coming out in the open and be himself.
    Both the leopard and Harry ignore pain and injury and don’t allow themselves to learn from it and lose their ability to survive which causes the demise of them both. Given Hemingway’s end it could be said they both got lost and could no longer survive having lost their muse.

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