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 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.
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.
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.
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
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