The Snows of Kilimanjaro | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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The Snows of Kilimanjaro | Context


The Lost Generation

World War I, which ended in 1918, scarred a generation of Americans and Europeans. The death toll from the war had been staggering. As many as 8 million soldiers were dead worldwide, 13 million civilians were estimated dead, and millions more were wounded. Many Americans felt the United States shouldn't have gone to war at all. The peace after the war-ending Treaty of Versailles felt tentative. To top it off the 1918 influenza outbreak was the deadliest of its kind in history. After seeing destruction on such a massive scale, many people felt disillusioned and bewildered.

The impact hit those who were closest to the war hardest. Hemingway volunteered to enter combat as an ambulance driver after being rejected for service. War and its effects fascinated him and informed much of his writing. Like his protagonist, Harry, in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," Hemingway was profoundly changed by his experiences in World War I. Despite his eagerness to fight on the front lines, Hemingway understood the trauma war could cause; he had been physically injured on a battlefield in Europe. He described the war's effects on him to his friend, American poet and literary critic Malcolm Cowley: "I was hurt very badly: in the body, mind, and spirit, and also morally." Other writers and artists in this time period felt the same way.

As a young veteran Hemingway was part of a group of writers whose careers began in the 1920s, including T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. These writers lost faith in traditional values such as patriotism, courage, and trust in government after witnessing the destruction of World War I. They had come of age during wartime, lost what remained of their innocence, and realized they needed new beliefs to fit the postwar world.

The whole postwar generation seemed adrift. Many young people in America and Europe turned to the material wealth of the 1920s for comfort; others rejected wealth altogether, feeling money and work to be "bourgeois" sensibilities. It is said that Gertrude Stein overheard a garage owner telling his young employee, "You are all a lost generation." She passed down the phrase to Hemingway, who used it as the epigraph, or quotation placed before the text, for The Sun Also Rises.

In "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," Harry, aimless himself, references this collective disillusionment. He tries to focus on his writing so he "[does] not go to pieces ... the way most of them had," referring to fellow soldiers and other members of his generation. The nonchalance in Harry's reaction to death and his vivid memories of the war show his identification with the lost generation.

Other famous "lost generation" artists make appearances in the story. Harry recalls meeting "a Roumanian who said his name was Tristan Tzara." Tzara was a pioneer of the Dada movement, a nihilistic conceptual art movement that emerged in response to World War I. The "American poet with a pile of saucers in front of him" was named in later versions of the story as Hemingway's friend Malcolm Cowley.

Harry recalls his fellow writer Julian as admiring the rich: "poor Julian and his romantic awe of [the rich]." This character is loosely based on writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote about the upper classes in works including The Great Gatsby. The quotation "The very rich are different from you and me" is adapted from a line in Fitzgerald's story "The Rich Boy." Fitzgerald was named as the "poor" writer in one printing of Hemingway's story, but he asked Hemingway to remove his name.

Minimalism and Modernism

During his years as a newspaper correspondent, Hemingway's editors encouraged him to communicate factually, with little use of adjectives or adverbs. This spare writing style, called minimalism, is also evident in his award-winning fiction, and it would become a hallmark of modernist literature.

Modernism, whose central authors included James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden, and Virginia Woolf, sought to challenge previous literary traditions by finding new ways to communicate with readers that ignored conventional structures. Hemingway employs another signature modernist technique, stream of consciousness, in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." With this technique, a protagonist's thoughts and feelings are presented in a continuous flow to mimic the process of thought.

Hemingway's Africa

Hemingway loved travel, adventure, and danger. In 1933 he went on his first safari to Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa, traveling (like Harry) with his wealthy second wife, Pauline. An avid hunter, Hemingway was inspired by former president Theodore Roosevelt, who went on an 11-month safari in 1909 to collect animals for the Smithsonian Institution. Like Roosevelt, Hemingway hunted lions on the Serengeti plains.

His safari wasn't perfect. He contracted dysentery and spent weeks recovering in Nairobi. However, his experiences in Africa and his rescue by plane led to "The Snows of Kilimanjaro"; a second short story, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber"; and the novel Green Hills of Africa (1935). In 1961 "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" were published together in a short-story collection titled The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories. The continent inspired Hemingway so much he returned for a second safari in 1953.

Africa's perils, its beauty, and the "machismo" behavior associated with hunting provoke both desire and internal conflict for Harry in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." Harry feels resentment and guilt about spending his wife's money on his travels. Hemingway similarly financed his trip with Pauline's family money. Though safaris are a privilege generally restricted to the rich, Harry goes to Africa to get away from the insulation wealth provides, traveling "with a minimum of comfort."

The Iceberg Theory

Hemingway has a signature style that is apparent in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro": sparse, short sentences without much description. Beginning his writing career in journalism, Hemingway needed to be concise and direct. He carried this precision into his novels and short stories. His prose is intended to imply deeper meanings and hidden truths without stating them directly in long or complicated descriptions. He tends to use the word and rather than internal punctuation to link ideas.

In his 1932 nonfiction book Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway describes why prose writers should use simple language to allow readers to fill in information themselves: "The dignity ... of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water." Known as Hemingway's Iceberg Theory, this approach to writing encourages readers to focus on what is left unsaid—the "hidden" part of the iceberg. The subtext is as important as the text itself.

Hemingway's stories are deceptively simple. His writing style features mostly nouns and verbs, limiting descriptive adjectives, adverbs, and emotional commentary. "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" generally adheres to this approach, leaving readers to supply details about the characters' emotions and background. The dialogue in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" features Hemingway's technique of "verbal counterpoint" or sparring between two characters—in this case Harry and Helen. This technique may reflect Hemingway's musical training as a child at the hands of his mother. In general the characters tend to repeat phrases, as people do in everyday conversation, but with different shades of meaning each time. They will sometimes say what they think another character wants to hear rather than the truth.

The story's italicized sections—Harry's regretful, hallucinatory flashbacks—differ from Hemingway's usual style in their rich use of metaphor. The two styles provide a stark contrast between Harry's outer life and his inner life, and between his ambitions and what he's actually accomplished.

The Code Hero

Like many writers, Hemingway uses archetypes, or characters and symbols representing universal human attributes. Diverse variations of the hero archetype appear in fiction (such as the antihero who lacks the traditional traits of a hero or the epic hero who is admired for great achievement), but Hemingway is known for one variation in particular.

Many of Hemingway's works, including "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," present an iconic male protagonist bristling with machismo and burdened with psychological problems. The character is called the Hemingway "code hero"—a phrase coined by scholar Phillip Young. The code hero feels the same despair and defeat many writers of the "lost generation" experienced after World War I.

The code hero emerged from the postwar atmosphere as a man who responds to the confusion around him with inner strength. He survives by thinking independently and having a strong moral code of his own.

A typical Hemingway code hero enjoys conventionally masculine pursuits, such as heavy drinking and hunting. In "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," Harry finds purpose in the actions he takes in life-threatening situations like the battlefield or the bullfighting ring. Physical experiences give him great pleasure, and he values self-control, courage, and the stoic acceptance of pain. He prefers to demonstrate his life philosophy through actions, not words. As he accepts his death in the story, Harry finds meaning in physical activity, such as going on safari, and recalls memories of skiing and hiking as times when he felt most fulfilled. His sarcasm masks an earnest desire to meet death bravely.

Gender in Hemingway

Hemingway's female characters often defy gender roles in their interaction with the male protagonists of his stories and novels. His writing explores the ways both men and women perform rituals of machismo and masculinity. The female character Brett in Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises along with Helen in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" are examples of women with power and wealth who take on conventionally masculine roles. Brett and Helen act like the "new woman" of the 1920s, with independent ambitions and a protective nature in relationships.

Helen is a nurturing presence in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," but she also takes on authority, urging Harry to monitor his health and financing their travels with her inheritance. Helen displays many of the masculine behaviors of the code hero. She "liked to ride and shoot and, certainly, she drank too much." Meanwhile, Harry is passive and dependent on her wealth, a role he resents.

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