The Snows of Kilimanjaro

Ernest Hemingway’s notion of personal authenticity is central to many of his works. Though the word "authenticity" is inextricably bound to words like "trueness" and "purity", in this context it is simply a construct, an arbitrary ideal developed by Hemingway that places an emphasis on frankness, honesty, and grace under pressure. Essentially, in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" it boils down to the idea that men who are capable of facing death with dignity and courage are those who have lead an authentic life.  By presenting Helen as an accessory to Harry’s less than dignified death in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” Hemingway creates a misogynistic portrayal of women as destroyers of men’s personal authenticity.

It is first necessary to establish that Harry’s demise does not fulfill the criteria of Hemingway’s ideal death. While awaiting death Harry is completely fearless; despite the stench of his gangrenous leg he feels only “a great tiredness and anger that this was the end of it” [1]. Though he also exhibits courage in the face of death, managing to sneer “‘you’ve got a hell of a breath,’ […] ‘you stinking bastard’” [1] when it approaches, as it moves closer he finds that he can no longer speak. In the end he perishes with death crouched upon his chest, dominating him. Certainly this end is not analogous to that of the symbolic dead leopard described prior to the beginning of the story. The daring leopard’s body, though dried and frozen, is preserved eternally in the heavens by its resting place on the western summit of Kilimanjaro. Conversely, Harry dies with his flesh rotting, his physical death already having been foreshadowed by his spiritual one, the inevitable result of failing to live authentically.

Snows of K leopardCredit:

The reason for this failure, Harry knows, is that he was never able to fulfill his potential as a writer. When his leg becomes gangrenous he realizes that “now he would never write the things he had saved to write” [1]. His flashbacks show the reader the richness of his experiences and, implicitly, the great waste of not writing about them. Harry initially places all blame on his wife, calling her the “destroyer of his talent” [1], but then recognises that he destroyed his talent himself “by not using it, by betrayals of himself” [1] and admits that “if it had not been she it would have been another” [1]. He recounts that Helen “had acquired him […] and he had traded away what remained of his old life […] for security, for comfort” [1]. Ultimately he alone chose to live off of selling his soul rather than off of his writing ability. Despite his recognition of his agency, Harry persists in his misogyny, placing responsibility on women by presenting them as the instigator, rather than the source, of his failure. In his mind women remain corruptive forces, the gangrene of his soul, “[dulling] his ability and [softening] his will to work” [1]. Had it not been for the temptation of a succession of rich women, Harry believes he would have fulfilled “his duty to write of [his life]” [1] and thereby lived authentically and faced the end stoically. This idea that Helen, and women in general, lead to Harry’s undignified death is reinforced by Hemingway’s repeated juxtaposition of Helen with her husband’s death.

scene from Snows of K

On the four occasions death visits Harry he is with his wife. Two of these occasions occur as he contemplates her, with the narrative transitioning from wife to death suddenly: “she was a fine woman, marvellous really. And just then it occurred to him that he was going to die” [1] and “as he looked and saw her well known pleasant smile, he felt death come again” [1]. In this second instance the sight of Helen’s smile and the thought of death are separated by a mere comma and happen simultaneously. The other two visits by death occur while he speaks to her, with the dialogue transitioning in a less powerful but nonetheless notable way: “he had just felt death come by again” [1] and “because, just then, death had come and rested its head on the foot of the cot” [1]. In addition, Helen is placed in relation with the hyena, a symbol of death that has been lingering around the camp ever since Harry scratched his knee. Shortly before dying Harry looks at his wife’s face in the firelight and immediately hears “the hyena make a noise just outside the range of the fire” [1]. After he perishes Helen is surrounded by death in the form of his body, rotting leg exposed, and of the strange crying of the hyena. The link between women and death is reinforced by the complete absence of women from Harry’s post-mortem reality, with even the love of his life failing to make a last appearance. Instead Harry is flown towards the heavenly “square top of Kilimanjaro” [1] by a man, Compton, leaving Helen behind. Hemingway’s message is clear: if men wish to live authentically they must elevate themselves away from the constraints imposed by women.

Hemingway on SafariCredit:

In conclusion, in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” Ernest Hemingway boldly presents the misogyny behind his notion of personal authenticity. By illustrating Harry’s inability to face death with dignity while presenting Helen as an accessory to that death Hemingway portrays women as the destroyers of men’s authenticity. While this may make him an unsympathetic figure to some, it is worth remembering that, in his mind, "women [...] and the lack of [...] women" are both things that harm a writer.


The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories
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