There is a note at the beginning of Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” about an old Masai legend. The legend tells of a frozen leopard that lies near the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro. No one knows how the leopard got there or where exactly it is. The frozen leopard has been spotted several times over the years, once by a Lutheran missionary in 1926 above 18,000 feet, and again the bones were spotted in 1997.
In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” Hemingway introduces us to Harry, a writer who is dying of gangrene at a remote camp while on safari in Africa. He is with his wealthy paramour, a widow named Helen. As the story unfolds, we learn more about their complex relationship. During the safari Harry was unfortunately scratched by a thorn while taking a photo. He forgot to immediately put iodine on the wound and his leg becomes gangrenous. He knows that he is dying. His mortal leg wound is a metaphor for his own decay in his relationship with Helen, as well as his forgotten former life.
Harry resents Helen for her wealth which he claims has prevented him from writing. He treats her poorly throughout the text. And now that he is facing death, he has nothing but his own memories to comfort him in the night. A hyena howls off in the distance, signifying Harry’s imminent death. Soon, he experiences the stench of death.
In a series of fascinating flashbacks we receive glimpses into Harry’s past: his first love, travels through Europe, his life in Paris, fishing, war, and so on. The reflections are some of the most beautiful passages in the story.
The story opens with Harry marveling at the painlessness of life when death is imminent. He is aware of his own fate (i.e. he is not a tragic figure like Oedipus). He is somber and disgruntled at his own lack of place -his relationship, and his purposelessness as a writer. At the end of the story, Harry gives up the ghost with the vision of being airlifted to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro to die.
The selection of Mount Kilimanjaro points us, again, to the idea of placelessness: Kilimanjaro is the largest mountain in Africa it rises out of northern Tanzania. The mountain seems out of place because it rises high over the plains, and it is snow-capped, while all around it is a low lying plain. Mount Kilimanjaro looks out of place to the naked eye. Like the mountain, and like the leopard that lies frozen near its peak, Harry is also out of place. He is a writer who does not write, he is married but does not love, and he is dying with the recollections of an extraordinary life well-lived. Perhaps Hemingway points us to a certain restless placeless feeling that is natural to the human experience -or at least as natural as leopards and mountains.
“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” was first published in August 1936 in Esquire Magazine at the same time that “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” was published in Cosmopolitan Magazine.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Short Stories. New York, Scribner, 1955.