Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

07 Jul 2012

(Short Story) The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway

(Reaction) Day's End by: Antonio Conejos

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Hemingway's short story is famous not so much for its theme (impending death) but rather on how its unnamed protagonist faces his end. The man, or he, the story does not give us a name, confronts the end with equal parts bitterness and surrender, For years it had obsessed him; but now it meant nothing in itself. It was strange how easy being tired enough made it.

Yet this surrender is not a laying down of arms but a raging for what might have been. In this, the man would find some affinity with Dylan Thomas's assertion on death.

It is this raging, the man's disillusionment with himself, which propels the story along. The very reason he is in Africa is That in some way he could 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... He had destroyed his talent himself. But there is no time now to resurrect his talent. And it is this waste, of himself, of a life, which galls the man.

Death is close by and the story signals this by the man's many introspective moments, when he shuts out the rest of the world to reflect on his memories. In a sense, his life is flashing before his eyes. Moreover, the story as well mimics the lapses of consciousness into fantasy which mark the reality of the very ill.

There is some irony too in the manner of the protagonist's death. He was evidently a man of vitality, who enjoyed hunting, sport and women. Yet such a larger than life character is felled not by an equally stupendous opponent but by a simple scratch, a random act of fate I suppose what I did was to forget to put iodine on it when I first scratched it. Then I didn't pay any attention to it because I never infect.

Hemingway's story suggests then that while our life is composed of plans (as seen in the protagonist's constant dismay at the material he planned to write, and now will never write); it is ultimately ruled by capricious chance.

And at the end of the day, after the fell clutch of circumstance is through with us, we find ourselves headed, as the protagonist is at the end of the story, towards the sky as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro.

Why Kilimanjaro? The epigraph identifies the mountain as the House of God. The story does not suggest though that the protagonist had a religious experience prior to his death; such would not be in keeping with his character nor is there any textual evidence to support such a notion. Note though that the epigraph also describes a lone leopard found on the slope of Kilimanjaro, its purpose for climbing the mountain, unknown.

There are similarities between the man the leopard. Both are fierce animals, savage in their respective ways. Yet at the end both head towards a reality greater than themselves, perhaps in the hope that all they have known is not all there is to existence. After all, as the man puts it, It's a bore... Anything you do too bloody long.


This story put me to sleep three times and I had to struggle to finish it. I think one has to be in the mood for Hemingway's style, always slightly brash, filled with dialogue of jarring stops rather than flowing conversation.

If in the mood a Hemingway short story is bracing, heady with ideas and the unsaid. However, if Hemingway is not your cup of tea at the moment then his stories can leave you bewildered and annoyed (as I was with the protagonist - whose tone is remarkably similar to that of the man in Hills Like White Elephants.)

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