The Mountain at the Middle of the Earth

Hemingway once recounted receiving an offer from a woman who would happily bankroll his return to Africa provided she could join him on safari. He noted the offer was tempting, and stated that he turned it down because he feared it would, in terms of his writing career, prove lethal. The thought of not having to work was just too dangerous.

Thus Harry of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is Hemingway: a Hemingway who succumbed to temptation, who became soft and lazy, who allowed his talent to rot, and who fell into a stinking living death. We might call Harry Hemingway's lazy twin (rather than evil twin). Hemingway is taking Harry to the place of judgment, is offering the review of his life, is apparently passing judgment, and is sending him off to {is it hell or heaven?}.

The Place - the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro

Snow and Snows

The nature of Harry's sins

The story focuses on just one of the seven deadly sins, sloth (a sin traditionally represented by a leopard, offering a second allusion for that frozen leopard). We might suggest that Harry has drunk too much, gambled too much, fought too much, betrayed too many women, caroused too much, and has likely been abusive toward every woman except Helen, the last one, the one he "doesn't love." None of these sins appear to matter, as they appear to provoke little or no guilt in Harry and no sign of reprobation in the narrator's voice. [Reminder: In an interpretation Harry's "destination" of heaven or hell must be decided by internal evidence; we must judge based on the Harry's and the narrator's apparent standards, not on whether or not we approve of much of Harry's behavior.]

However, sloth is inexcusable. Harry notes he has "gone soft" from not writing. He has used his talent to impress, rather than produce, and has lived off a succession of women -- each richer than the last. He has enjoyed, not the fruits of his labor, but the unearned adulation of the rich.

As a result, Harry stinks {note: he literally stinks}. He is rotting {also literally as well as figuratively, from the gangrene}. His physical disease corresponds closely to his moral failing and its consequences.

From the Williamson story: the pain doesn't end until you pass out or die. Harry feels no pain; is this a suggestion that Harry is already "dead"? He may have killed his talent by sloth and easy living and remain, just pointlessly repeating an already lived and ended life.

Some other points for possible exploration

  1. Why is Helen named Helen? Is she the "ideal woman," in the style of Helen of Troy?
  2. What images of approaching death does Hemingway play with in the story? (Vultures, hyena, etc.) And what are their connotations?
  3. Why is Harry's relationship with Helen (who he says he does not love) so much better than that with the women he has loved? Does his continuing petty bickering suggest a deep hostility, one more pronounced in the earlier relationships?
  4. What does Harry offer Helen? What does he represent for her?
  5. What is going to happen to Helen? Old Compton tells Harry he will come back for her; does that mean soon or in his (Death's) own good time? Is that second hyena cry for Helen? Or is it mentioned to reinforce the imagery of Harry's death?

The Dream/Death Scene: Destination Heaven or Hell?

The Angel of Death arrives in the disguise of Old Compton, a friend of Harry's who may or may not be among the living. He "rescues" Harry in a scene that at first appears to be an earthly rescue. On our second reading, we see that the structure resembles an NDE (Near Death Experience) from which Harry does not come back:

Hell? Heaven?
we begin with the burning brush marking the runway the plane leaves the runway beneath it
locusts coming up from the South, like a pink blizzard game trails, "new water"
storm / like a dark waterfall the tunnel before the light
Compie grinned (like a demon!) Compie grinned ("you've made it")
the snow-capped summit: cold, ice, death the White Summit of Kilimanjaro: heaven, attainment, completion