Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” chronicles the agonizing death of Harry as gangrenous rot slowly consumes his leg during his vacation in Tanzania. While incapacitated, he spends a great deal of the story contemplating his many relationships and experiences. In doing so, he comes to terms with his most profound regret: not saving the time to write them down. He attributes the majority of his underachievement to the caustic lifestyle embraced by the very wealthy, one of which he reaps the physical luxuries, but suffers great mental turmoil. In order to cope with what he considers to be the acute failure in achieving his most torrid desires, he attempts to separate himself from reality in his narrative through the use of flashbacks as well as perceptual contortions of traditional aspects of human sentience such as love, death, and religion.
The first evidence seen of Harry’s separation from reality is through the use of his narrative flashbacks, which he uses to artificially satiate his regrets. The syntax of the flashbacks consists of exhaustingly long-winded passages of seemingly stream-of-conscious description, which contrast sharply with the terse dialogue that dominates the rest of the story. The physical events of each flashback blend into one another, contributing to the tone of haze and confusion throughout the story. The shift in syntax, in addition to the visual distinction of italics, lets the passages take the form of dream sequences rather than truly chronological or realistic flashbacks. As Harry’s condition worsens and he grows closer to death, the frequency of these passages greatly increases, in that the fourth, fifth and sixth flashbacks are separated only by sparse lines of dialogue. Although the flashbacks are for the most part his own experiences, never does he assume the first person narrative. Instead, he relieves the weight of his regrets by pushing them onto the reader through the use of the subject “you,” (Hemingway 1031) seen in both the fourth and fifth flashback. In his anxiety of being unable to mend the mistakes of his past, his dreams begin to invade the physical plot, taking Harry farther away from the reality of his situation and closer to the successful reality he wish he had carried out.
Harry’s uneasiness with his death can also been seen through his relationship with his wife. He is clearly unhappy with his relationship, emphasized through his comparison of their love to a “dunghill,” (Hemingway 1025). Rather than honestly confront his wife with the his true unhappiness, he revises his true feelings with saccharine musings of love: “the familiar lie he made his bread and butter by.” (Hemingway 1025). In the acknowledgement of his deception, Harry also acknowledges the truth in honesty, yet still retreats into a realm of duplicity. In addition to his confession of the dishonesty of his relationship, Harry reacts to love by reversing its typical perception. Because he sees the act of intercourse as a form of “destruction” (Hemingway 1028), it is clear that he rejects its primary purpose, that of creation. This overthrow of traditional perception reveals his dismissal of reality. Similarly, he describes his first encounter with love as a plague of sorts, one that he is “unable to cure himself of” (Hemingway 1029). With these twisted conceptions of love, Harry abandons reality he falls deeper into his self delusion.
The concept of death plays a large role in the story and like love, it is distorted by the Hemingway’s narrative. The entirety of the story chronicles Harry’s arduous demise; the sluggish nature of gangrene exhausts both Harry and the reader. Furthermore, his death is illustrated in the blurring of reality and dreams; it is physically nothing more than the passive slipping away of breaths. Harry describes death throughout the story in an abrupt manner devoid of emotion and specifics. This style is exemplified through the statement in his first flashback, “those were the same Austrians they killed then that he skied with later” (Hemingway 1024). The confusing nature of this line distorts the chronological flow of events and makes the definitive nature of death obscure. A second illusion lies within the comparison of death to one of the hyenas of the plains which, “rests its head on the foot of the cot” (Hemingway 1035). The scavenging hyena in this instance behaves in a manner similar to that of a familial dog. This comparison is shown again with Harry’s assumption that he can simply “tell it to go away” (Hemingway 1035), a command normally heeded by a house pet. Because death in the story is the major source of Harry’s anxiety, its association with the domestic canine implies security. Harry’s shift of death to a familiar symbol of comfort displays another instance in which rejects transitional perceptions to appease his mental discomfort.
Harry’s greatest distortion of reality is in his perception of religion. The epitaph that precedes the story is the first introduction religion, in that it equates the summit of Kilimanjaro with a certain enlightened holiness through its translated name, “the House of God” (Hemingway 1021). Harry takes his final solace in this image of “unbelievable white” so consuming that it is “all he could see, as wide as the world” (Hemingway 1036) as his destination in the moments before his death. Like the frozen leopard carcass preserved at the peak, Harry seeks the permanence of a legacy that he was never able to achieve through his writing. This desire of reaching the crest of heaven serves as an illusion because Harry’s death is in no way similar to that of the leopard. The frozen leopard symbolizes immortality because it died in a heroic quest to satisfy an intangible desire, however, Harry dies meekly on the plains of Tanzania, infected with disappointment. Even in his dream he remains too cowardly to take control of his aspiration, as the plane is piloted by Compton, his personal servant and the embodiment of the indulgent lifestyle for which he blames for the majority of his death.
Hemingway illustrates the nature of Harry’s desire to separate himself from the tragedies of his reality throughout “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” with flashbacks enhanced by a distortion of traditional perceptions of aspects of life such as love, death and religion. The vastness and ambiguity of each concept are so terrifying to him that he recoils from the real world. In a haze of drunkenness, he twists each around in his mind until they come to embody distortions of their traditional meanings. It is through this kind of irrational rationalization of fears and regrets that Hemingway reveals the devastating extent of Harry’s innate cowardice.