You Are At: AllSands Home > Travel > Places > The Snows of Kilimanjaro
It is not at all unusual for a writer to reflect the reality of his own environment in his works of fiction. Most writers write about what they know, so it makes perfect sense that we see detailed descriptions of Ernest Hemingway’s own perceptions portrayed throughout his famous narrative, The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Hemingway’s literary techniques are at their most astounding when we examine their uniquely symbolic and descriptive content. In The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Hemingway is immensely illustrative with his words yet he is often cryptic as to the meaning behind them. These ambiguities exist throughout this revered collection of works, with Hemingway's simple yet highly descriptive prose encompassing several recurring themes. One of the most prominent and powerful of these themes is animal symbolism.
This descriptive symbolism can most clearly be seen in the leopard and the hyena which appear in Snows. In this renowned short story, the main character, a dying writer named Harry, desires to become everything that the leopard is by nature. He envies the animal's grace, speed, strength, courage, and dignity. However, in reality Harry's qualities more closely mirror those of the hyena, who is far less admirable and much more pitiable than the leopard. Harry, who has been suffering from a frustrating bout with writer's block as well as a loveless marriage, equates his failures with laziness, which he sees as the defining quality of the hyena. While the leopard made the grueling climb of Mount Kilamanjaro with a goal of reaching the summit, Harry got a "free ride" to the top. It could be said that Hemingway felt guilty in his own life for having achieved what he considered to be undeserved success, and transposed those feelings of inadequacy onto Harry in an autobiographical manner. Harry feels like he is less than a man for letting his wife take care of him financially and for his inability to write with the talent and zeal he once possessed. He longs to respect himself by acquiring or re-establishing the admirable qualities that the leopard possesses, however he feels resigned to carry out the remainder of what he views as a laughable existence, acting as the hyena.
Harry is a man who feels he has wasted his life and uses his safari to Kilimanjaro as an attempt to make up for his failures. Both physically and morally shattered, he becomes infected by the slightest scratch and while he is dying he begins to reminisce about all of the events in his life that he wishes he would have had the courage to write about. While most people would probably reflect on the things they wish they could have changed, Harry seems to be primarily consumed with his recent inability to describe them on paper. His feelings of regret are not so much based on the choices he has made but rather on his incompetence in writing about them.
One of the most notable aspects of The Snows of Kilimanjaro is the way in which Harry views death. Harry’s experience with dying is neither mystical nor theological. It does not culminate with an angel or a demon spiriting him away into the afterlife. Hemingway soaks Harry’s suffering with realism, using beautifully descriptive prose to illuminate the character’s perceptions. What may initially seem to be simply a mundane catalog of a dying man's thoughts is actually a surprisingly intriguing representation of both spiritual and physical death.
As the hyena circles Harry’s campsite, waiting patiently for his prey to die, he is not only taunting his victim with his intentions but with his personification of Harry’s self-image. The camp is also a metaphorical extension of Harry’s “real world”; a world in which Harry is content to devour the leftovers left behind by the “better hunters”. Each depiction of the hyena appears in relation to Harry’s thoughts about death. And when the actual death occurs, it is the hyena that announces it with "a strange, human, almost crying sound"
Harry's attitude towards life and death inspire the reader to question many things, including whether man's intentions are as important as his actual deeds. By the end of the story, Harry feels that merely having had the intention to fulfill his goals is sufficient reason to feel pride. He feels he has done everything possible to redeem himself and to make his soul worthy of ascending into heaven upon his death. He has even sacrificed true love to be with a woman he feels very little for, which he views as a pure and unselfish act. He feels he is doing his wife a favor by staying with her, while in truth he is only depriving them both of a truly fulfilling existence. Harry appears to be quite prone to self-sacrifice in that he also saw fit to give up his own morphine to help another. This heroic and final deed, in his mind, would catapult him into eternal paradise. The question remains in the mind of the reader, however, as to whether or not Harry’s actions, though well intended, could necessarily be considered “holy”. Regardless, Harry has finally achieved some sort of peace with himself.
Hemingway's use of description and symbolism not only serve to enhance the depth of The Snows of Kilimanjaro, but they provide the reader with amazing insight into the character’s minds, hearts and souls. Like diamonds, each facet of this story is defined by its color and clarity while every metaphor is polished to the point of pure brilliance. It’s almost as if Hemingway actually experienced death before he wrote this story. Perhaps, in a spiritual sense, he did.