Tonight on Mount Kilamanjaro, Tanzania, it is mostly cloudy and about 22 degrees F. (-6 C). Though there is less of it now, but there is still ice and snow year-round on the mountain’s upper reaches. There are massive glaciers, ice fields, and towering walls of ice that blaze in the equatorial sun and beckon.
This past week I reread Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilamanjaro.” It’s a long story about Harry, a writer, who is dying of gangrene from a wound, and Helen, who is with him on safari in Africa.
You can read it online at the Esquire magazine site where it was originally published in 1936.
The story begins with the epigraph: “Kilimanjaro is a snow covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called by the Masai “Ngàje Ngài,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”
Hemingway used symbols but didn’t like people interpreting symbolism in his writing. The leopard is sometimes seen as just foreshadowing of the ending. At the end of the story, Harry falls asleep and dreams he is on the plane that was supposed to come and fly him out for medical treatment.
“…looking down he saw a pink sifting cloud, moving over the ground, and in the air, like the first snow in a blizzard, that comes from nowhere, and he knew the locusts were coming up from the South. Then they began to climb and they were going to the East it seemed, and then it darkened and they were in a storm, the rain so thick it seemed like flying through a waterfall, and then they were out and Compie turned his head and grinned and pointed 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.”
The western summit of the mountain is called by the Masai people “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God and that is where Harry knows he is going.
The leopard also seems to have been on a quest to reach the top. I doubt that the leopard was seeking God. Perhaps, as with human mountain climbers, it climbed because it was there and is a challenge. One idea is that Harry is like the leopard. In college, I wrote a paper on this story and argued that Harry is not the leopard, but the hyena. The hyena is not noble or a true hunter. It is a scavenger. He didn’t climb the mountain to the top. There’s no mention that of him ever seeking God. If he thinks that he is headed for Heaven, he’s dreaming.
Harry talks about how he has wasted much of his life and his talent by taking the easy path and marrying and being with rich women.
“The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious. He remembered poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, ‘The very rich are different from you and me.’ And how someone had said to Scott, Yes they have more money. But that was not humorous to Scott. He thought they were a special glamorous race and when he found they weren’t it wrecked him just as much as any other thing that wrecked him.”
They made a film adaptation of the story in 1952 starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward. But that’s Hollywood, so they threw in Ava Gardner as a character not in the story at all and changed the story almost completely. It’s not a spoiler 84 years later to say that in Hemingway’s story Harry dies in that tent in Africa with the hyenas sniffing outside. The film added a lot of “back story” about Harry’s life before the safari. For the film’s conclusion, Helen is able to clear the infection by following instructions in a first aid manual and the
calvary medical party arrives by airplane in time. The vultures and hyena who have been awaiting Harry’s death leave. Ah, Hollywood. Of course, the film version was a critical and commercial success and was nominated for two Oscars. Maybe more people have seen it than have read the story. The film is in the public domain, so if you want to give it a viewing go to archive.org/details/Kilimanjaro. I recommend you read the story,
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