The Snows of Kilimanjaro | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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The Snows of Kilimanjaro | Symbols

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Snow

Harry associates snow with Christmas celebrations, lights, music, and purity but also with obstacles and populations freezing to death in the war. This contrast of lightness and darkness, kindness and cruelty, good and evil, demonstrates the moral ambiguity Harry finds in life. The snow can be innocent, "as smooth to see as cake frosting and as light as powder"; adventurous, in "the fast-slipping rush of running powder-snow on crust"; and menacing, when it prevents migrants' progress through the mountains and leaves a deserter's feet "bloody in the snow."

Snow is also unexpected in the warm climate of Africa. Its presence on the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro has an unspoiled otherworldly feeling. There, the snow seems to hold a redemptive promise for Harry as it lies "unbelievably white in the sun."

Mountaintop

A journey to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro symbolizes the search for deeper meaning in life and for redemption. Harry's imagined ascension to the top of the mountain comes after he has spent significant time regretting not making the effort to fully document his life and reflecting on a few redemptive actions, such as his provision of pain relief to the dying Williamson.

Peaks and valleys figure heavily in the narrative. Harry skis down Austria's mountains in a "noiseless rush," and he walks to the Black Forest "down the valley." The topography mirrors the characters' lives—danger and changes in fortune are always around the corner.

The plane flight gives Harry an opportunity for a grand, wide view of Africa, like the broad view he's taken of his life. He can finally have "not all I want but all there is." The grim reality of his death from gangrene on the ground stands in stark contrast to the goals he set for himself, represented by the peak of Africa's highest mountain.

Leopard

The leopard mentioned in the epigraph is primarily a symbol of immortality, although it also represents strength and courage. The leopard has attempted to overcome difficult situations to attain its goal, climbing to great elevations in frigid temperatures toward the mountaintop. Arriving near the summit before succumbing to the lethal cold, the leopard achieves a form of immortality as its frozen body is preserved for all time.

During his decline toward death, Harry also yearns for some intimation of immortality—whether a state of grace for his soul or an everlasting presence in the form of a written legacy. As Harry recollects his past, he regrets not taking the difficult route—like the leopard did—of documenting his experiences instead of relaxing in the lazy comfort that Helen's wealth provides. He also reflects on some instances when—like the leopard—he exhibited strength and courage: making the hard, ethical decision to turn in the chore boy to the authorities and providing Williamson with his hoarded morphine to alleviate the man's suffering.

In his final moments, Harry believes that he is achieving the leopard's higher plane of existence, or redemption, as Compton flies him toward the square top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. However, the "unbelievable whiteness" Harry perceives isn't a doorway to heaven; it is instead his moment of death. While the leopard remains unblemished for eternity, Harry's corpse continues disintegrating on the plain below.

Hyena

Hyenas are known to be scavenging animals and skilled hunters. They are often associated with savagery and death in literature. The hyena circling Harry and Helen's campsite represents Harry's psychological or spiritual death and foreshadows his physical demise. It also represents Harry's gradual dependence on the life provided by Helen's money. "Scavenging" off her wealth has stifled any efforts to reenter his former writing life.

After the hyena crosses the plain, Helen calls it a "filthy animal," portraying her fear of death. Harry soon gets a sense he's going to die, feeling the hyena "[slipping] lightly" at the edge of death's "emptiness." The hyena signifies his own gradual awareness of death, which comes, like the hyena, closer and closer. Harry later says death can appear as a hyena rather than as a scythe and skull.

When Harry dies, the hyena makes a "strange, human, almost crying sound," signaling the final futility of Harry's dreams. The hyena's crying is another instance of mystery in nature.

Vultures

Vultures in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" symbolize Harry's impending death. Where the hyena that haunts Harry and Helen's camp is at first seen only as darkness descends, the vultures are far bolder. They arrive at the moment their truck breaks down, sensing perhaps that the humans are now isolated and at risk. Once the gangrenous smell of Harry's infected leg begins drifting around, a growing number of vultures circles closer. They land nearby and parade nonchalantly about the camp. When Harry and Helen quibble about whether or not he's dying, Harry evens calls on the vultures as witnesses to his imminent demise: "Ask those bastards," he quips. When night falls, the birds roost in the tree that shades the camp, returning to their vigil in the morning.

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