Ernest Hemingway explores the themes of love, writing, and death in his short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” The main character, Harry, scratches himself in the African bush, resulting in an gangrenous infection that threatens his life. As he lies, immobile, he must struggle with the consequences of lost love, regret, and the trauma he has experienced in his life. Love, writing, and death are so entwined in Harry’s personality that they cannot feasibly be examined separately. On his deathbed, Harry’s reflections convey the interconnected nature of these three themes, which are visible in his dialogue with his wife, Helen, and in his flashbacks.
Without a doubt, the loss of his first love has had a tremendous impact on Harry. Their relationship disintegrated after she finds out that he cheated on her. The impact of this loss is clearly described in his flashbacks. “He had whored the whole time and then, when that was overhe had failed to kill his loneliness.” Harry attempts to forget her by engaging in meaningless one-night stands with a plethora of women. Unfortunately, these brief encounters do not help him to erase her memory. He knows that he “[can] not cure himself of loving her.” Instead, his sexual encounters leave him feeling perhaps even more empty and unfulfilled, inevitably turning Harry into a cynical and callus person.
Harry and his wife, Helen, become safe havens for each other, quelling each other’s pain and loneliness. Prior to meeting Harry, Helen drinks heavily to numb the pain she feels after her first husband’s death. “Her husband had died when she was still a comparatively young woman and for a while she had devoted herself to her two just-grown children, who did not need her and were embarrassed at having her about, to her stable of horses, to books, and to bottles.” Following another traumatic experience the loss of her son Helen begins to change her ways: “Then one of her two children was killed in a plane crash and after that was over she did not want the lovers, and drink being no anaesthetic she had to make another life. Suddenly, she had been acutely frightened of being alone. But she wanted someone that she respected with her.” Giving up alcohol, Helen decides to make another life with Harry, whom she admires, respects and finds to be an interesting personality. On the other hand, Harry’s feelings towards Helen are mixed. He acknowledges that he self-indulgently accepted Helen based on her financial stability and the basis of her sexual prowess. He makes several notes of her attractive attributes, stating that she has “good breasts” and “useful thighs.” At the same time, however, Harry resents their relationship, believing that his writing suffered as a result of his comfortable life with her. While he admits that his life of luxury has made him too lazy to write, he seems to recognize that his laziness is not Helen’s fault. Arguing with himself, Harry vents his frustration at Helen silently saying, “this rich bitch, this kindly caretaker and destroyer of his talent.” He continues, however, acknowledging his fallacious statement he adds, “Nonsense. He had destroyed his talent himself.” Finally, he concludes, “It wasn’t this woman’s fault. If it had not been she it would have been another.” Perhaps Harry knows that his relationships are doomed as a result of his inability to truly love after the loss of his first love. In any case, despite his apparent resentment and biting comments towards Helen, he tells her he loves her: “I love you, really. You know I love you. I’ve never loved anyone else the way I love you.” It may seem, for a moment, as if Harry really does love her, but then the narrator interjects the truth describing him as slipping “into the familiar lie he made his bread and butter by.” Although Harry’s declarations of love are false, at least he has the decency to spare Helen from his true feelings upon his deathbed, which would undoubtedly be more hurtful to her than his lies.
The familiar lie that Harry makes his “bread and butter by” is a clear reference to his writing. Although one might argue that writing is not always necessarily a lie, it seems as though Harry’s most core-shaking life experiences have gone unwritten. Lost in reflection, Harry notes that he knows “at least twenty good stories from out there” but that he “he had never written one.” Then, he asks himself, “Why?” He has seen and experienced so much in his life, “he had been in it and he had watched it. It was his duty to write it but now he never would.” Thinking about why he hasn’t written more, Harry develops several theories to explain the discrepancy of being a writer who has not accounted for experiences that have meant so much to him that he thinks about them on his deathbed. Perhaps he feels as though he is not good enough or able to truly convey the pain of his experiences. Perhaps he hasn’t written more because he did not have the courage to. Writing requires a sense of letting go and opening up oneself to one’s emotions. Perhaps Harry has never been capable of letting himself feel the true pain and grief of losing his love and surviving the trauma of the war because “one thing he had always dreaded was the pain.” Perhaps he has sought refuge in the comfortable life that Helen offered him. Whatever the case may be, his flashbacks (which to the reader are manifested in italics) are, in a way, his “writings.” The flashbacks are the events of his life that he always wanted to write, but never did.
Harry has attempted to live a double life as both an ordinary individual and as a creator of art. Upon his final moments, Harry longs for the sublimated world of art and fiction. This is the world that he has never been able to reach, but wishes he had reached. Ordinary, every day life contains distractions that have hindered Harry’s ability to act as an artist and create. In Harry’s case, these distractions include Helen, her money, and her way of life. However, as he continues to inch towards death he can “feel the return of acquiescence in this life of pleasant surrender.”
Clearly, Harry feels a deep sense of regret upon his death which comes “with a rush; not as a rush of water nor of wind; but of a sudden evil-smelling emptiness”. He is empty because of the loss of his first love, because of his unfulfilling life with Helen, and most importantly, because he has failed as a writer. He gave up writing and in doing so he let himself down. He dies in the hot, humid plains, which serve as a stark contrast to the cold, snowy, idyllic mountaintop of Kilimanjaro in the background where the white snow symbolizes purity and the sublimated realm of artistic creation. In the final scene where Harry imagines his death, he envisions himself going to the top of the mountain, where he believes he should have died: “And there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.” Unfortunately, Harry did not get to the high level of artistic ability that he would have liked to achieve because he got lazy as a result of marrying into money. In a way, however, he has come to realize that death would be the only experience he could not control, and therefore, could not spoil. Death, for Harry, becomes “the one experience that he had never had he was not going to spoil now.”
“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is the portrayal of a regret-stricken man who feels as though he has failed in life. Without true love and without any considerable work to leave behind to immortalize his thoughts and words, Harry is the embodiment of many writers’ greatest fear: failure. He has failed to open himself up to true love and true pain, but upon his death, he is finally allowing himself to experience true regret and true grief. In a way, death has allowed Harry to reflect on his life love and his life’s writing in a way that he would have never been able to in the comfort of his ordinary life. Facing death, Harry has been able to do what he set out to do by going to Africa. He has been able to “work the fat off his soul the way a fighter went into the mountains to work and train in order to burn it out of his body.” Harry dies fighting for the sublimated world of artistic creation and his death allows him to “burn the fat” off his soul.