The Snows of Kilimanjaro | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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The Snows of Kilimanjaro | Themes

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Death and Decay

Images of death pervade the story from beginning to end. Vultures circle the camp as soon as the truck breaks down. Death itself is personified as a visitor who passes by Harry three times before Harry finally succumbs. Harry thinks of other deaths he's seen, both on a massive scale in the war and on an individual scale with the deaths of Williamson and the man killed by the chore boy. Even on safari, through the physical exertion and labor Harry thinks will save him, he's consumed by death. Helen kills a ram (gazelle) in the middle of the story. Locusts, animals that symbolize the destruction of nature, appear toward the story's end.

Harry's decaying leg symbolizes the slow demise of his life's best intentions. He quips that he's full of "rot and poetry. Rotten poetry." His writing career, like his body, has been rotting. The waste of Harry's talent has decayed his soul. When Helen wakes and sees Harry's leg, the dressings have come off and she's faced with the truth of his condition. Death illuminates reality the way it is, not the way Harry and Helen would like it to be.

Death is seen in the guise of many ordinary things—breezes, cycling policemen, vultures, hyenas, and a presence sitting on Harry's chest and crushing him. Death's constant presence in the world shows readers how close death is to daily life.

Postwar Trauma and Loss

The post–World War I generation struggled to find meaning after witnessing the horrors and chaos of conflict. Harry's memories of the war are lyrical as well as image and impression based. He keeps the worst horrors buried inside him; he can't talk or write about them. The incident described in greatest depth is the death of Williamson, the bombing officer, who was defeated by pain the way Harry is defeated by boredom and regret.

Harry's most vivid memories highlight people and places he's lost. Some of these people are nearly strangers, such as an Armenian street woman he spent one night with and a chore boy on a ranch. Some he was closer to, like his grandfather and Williamson. Harry's reflections on his former lovers and on the distance he feels between himself and Helen reveal a habit of losing or driving away those he's closest to. He feels he's "spoiled everything," even death—the one experience he's never had. Helen has also lost close family members, and these losses define the changes she has made in her life. The story emphasizes the inevitability of trauma and loss.

Writer's Responsibility

Writing would have been a way to memorialize the people, places, and events Harry recalls. Since he hasn't documented them, however, these memories will die with him. As a writer he feels an event not written down is lost to the world. He enjoys his "life of pleasant surrender" with Helen, but it has compromised his career goals.

His dilemma raises questions about the practice and ethics of writing. Is it more important to recount events correctly or simply to get them down on paper? Which stories are worth telling? What is Harry's obligation to his readers and to himself? Has Harry destroyed his talent through "laziness," as he fears, or has he simply run out of time? As a recorder of the human condition, Harry wonders what he owes to the people he's observed and how to best embody and honor them.

Memory and Legacy

Harry's memories tell a larger story of World War I in Austria and Italy—both the mundane lives of the soldiers and the horrific events of battle. They give insight into European postwar society, particularly in Paris. His memories also speak to the healing power and indifference of nature. Despite the boredom Harry claims he's felt throughout his life, his memories sometimes convey thoughtfulness and gratitude.

Hemingway explores how places can come to be associated with trauma through both individual and collective memory. Harry recalls postwar skiing and hunting with Hans, who was a member of an Austro-Hungarian army called Kaiser Jagers. The two men "talked of the fighting" during European battles in World War I, and Harry wonders if he's skiing with "the same Austrians they killed." His calming experiences as a skier in Austria, even in relatively peaceful times, are overshadowed by the legacy of conflict and his own role in the killing. In an example of collective memory, the post–World War I citizens of Paris, who are "descendants of the Communards" (members of the rebellious Paris Commune of 1871), remember the injustices their ancestors received at the hands of soldiers.

Harry also recalls dramatic events in which he was involved, when he could have changed the outcome for someone else (for better or worse). Instead he lives with the consequences of the choices he made. Ultimately, because Harry neglected disinfecting his scratch, Harry will die. "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" explores which moments matter in an individual's life.

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