Ernest Hemingway: The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

The Style in Relation to the Content and Structure of This Short Story

The aim of this paper is to discuss the style of Ernest Hemingway’s short story The Snows of Kilimajaro in relation to the content and structure of the short story. The Snows of Kilimajaro contains powerful images of death. Indeed, the very opening introductory paragraph of the story tells the reader about a carcass of a leopard and Hemingways creates a trio of images that are present throughout the short story: snow - God - death.  The story deals with an extreme life situation – the experience of being close to death and the experience  of dying. Death is omnipresent in the short story, it is present in the main plot of the story as well as in the parts depicting the remembrances from the main hero’s life. Decay, destruction and death are the main themes of this short story.

But it is not only the physical death of Harry, the main character of the story, that is crucial in the story. The story contains passages about spiritual, artistic death or the death of the creative power of the mind. 

He had had his life and it was over and then he went on living it again with different

people and more money ... (609)

He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he

believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by

laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice, by hook and by crook.


Living in luxury and comfort are the main reasons of the declining power of Harry to write. He recalls his favourite neighbourhood in Paris that was very poor and that was inspiring for him. All that peculiarity stemming from poverty, all the life energy needed to fight the life in poverty, seemed interesting to Harry. In contrast, Harry never considered worth writing about the rich. ‘But if he lived he would never write about her, he knew that now. ... The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious.(624)  Harry is spiritually decayed because he has been indulging in the comfortable  and boring life which he so despised.

The feeling of loss, of themes worth writing about but which will never be put on paper and thus will be wasted, haunt the writer Harry. But it is also the loss of Harry´s freedom and opportunities that is evident from his memories.

Harry’s journey to Africa was an attempt to regain this ability of mind that he had lost, and ironically, what he found there was death. Death is expressed in symbols, such as the already mentioned carcass of the leopard, the vultures flying over the camp, the hyena appearing there several times. Snow is a strong symbol in the story. In the first passage in italics, the stream of consciousness is united by the leitmotif of snow. Snow is here the sinister background of death, injury, blood, and it is described as something ominous and dangerous: „snow was so bright it hurt your eyes“. It was also snow that reminded Harry of frightful war experiences. And it is snow that Harry sees in his last dream.

...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. (629)

It is interesting to examine the way Hemingway works with symbols. He uses repetition and there is also a gradation of intensity. Death is personalized in the story when it is described as it approaches the main hero.

He lay still and death was not there. It must have gone around another street. It went in

pairs, on bicycles, and moved absolutely silently on the pavements. (622 - 3)

And later in the text death is almost materialized as it gives a smell:

Because, just then, death had come and rested its head on the foot of the cot and he

could smell its breath. (626)

It is one of the most powerful Hemingway’s stylistic devices to describe abstract, spiritual phenomena in terms of the physical, corporeal, material language. The description of death is most urging and insistent if it is described as something that has its shape, body, smell. Then it seems more real. Another example of using the paralells from the bodily sensation follows:

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. (610)

Death is presented in manifold contexts   in the story. Many cases are from the World War I. They are hideous but still in a way justified. Whereas it is the utmost absurdity when someone is shot in the time of peace. It is one of the stories that Harry, who is a writer, saved for some later time to write about.

A very vivid sensual description is used to depict the decay, i.e. the gangrene in Harry’s leg. The reader reads about the bothering odor, about the painfulness and finally about the unbearable look of it. The theme of destruction is present also in both parts of the narration -  Harry and the woman use it as a term for sexual act and then in Harry’s remembrances of the past it features too. He thinks of a burning down of a house and of a destruction of a person, of an owner of a hotel who went bankrupt and commited suicide. 

As has been mentioned earlier, the story deals with an emotionally hard, challenging situation. But are the emotions expressed in the story? It is evident already from the first page of this story that Hemingway’s style is by no means an ornate one. It is rather plain and simple. He does not have a wide register of adjectives or adverbs. His most frequent comments of direct speech are “he said”, “she said”. The tension of the situation is expressed by the two people quarrelling and by the sarcasm of Harry. But there is no space for sentiments in the story. The fear is communicated through the dream remembrances of Harry. One reads about people dying and suffering without any emotional commentary. The reason may be that the images of death are so strong themselves (what would be more emotionally strong than talking about death) that they do not necessitate any other comments.

Hemingway makes most of the theme of this short story, he exhausts it by discussing it on many levels. He piles up manifold manifestations of death and destruction. The Snows of Kilimanjaro is overwhelmed by the numerous forms of death and this may say a lot about the life-long devastating experience of people who lived through World War I.

Irony, sensuality and symbolism characterize Hemingway’s style in this short story.

The narration of The Snows of Kilimanjaro is carried out in two modes, differing in the time they refer to, but not differing in the themes. There is the narration about Harry´s injury in Africa which deals with the last day of his life. It is based principally on the dialogues, i.e. the conversation of Harry and his wife Helen. This line of narration is intertwined with passages of stream of consciousness, letting the reader inside Harry´s mind preoccupied with memories from his past, related to the basic plot by means of associations. The editor of Portable Hemingway comments: „But the two planes intersect, with the reality dissolving into nightmares and the nightmares taking flesh“. (600).

As the two levels of narration are juxtaposed, two aspects of Harry are confronted. He has a distinct notion of what he failed at in his life, of how he wasted his talent in order to gain comfort and luxury. But he has still his idealistic notion of proper writer, who uses his talent which was also the case of Harry in his younger days. The confrontation of these two sides of one person is a significant issue in the face of approaching death.  Wasting of his writing talent makes a parallel with wasting people’s lives.

The Snows of Kilimajaro may be understood as a journey. It is a journey through the time of Harry´s life, through the space of his travels and through his memories. Even his death is drafted as a journey towards the House of God, Kilimanjaro. There is the tension of whether the death of Harry is the climax or anticlimax. To Harry it definitely seems as an anticlimax of his life and a disappointment:

So now it was all over, he thought. ...So this was the way it ended in a bickering over a

drink. ... For this, that now was coming, he had very little curiosity. For years it had

obsessed him, but now it meant nothing in itself. (603)

I’m getting as bored with dying as with anything else, he thought. (625)

The literary climax is beyond all doubt there. Helen is so excited she can not hear the sound of the hyena for the loudness of her heart beating. And symbolically too there is the climax, as Harry’s journey ends at the top of Kilimanjaro.

In the linear development of the story, as well as in the desultory excursions to Harry´s past, there is the urgent feeling of destruction, loss and wasting. And there comes the question Why? Why does all this happen? Is it because something better shall come? No suggestion is insinuated. All destruction in this world seems to happen  just for the sake of it. How significant is that the Masai name of the western summit of Kilimanjaro is called the House of God? Is that the ray of hope gleaming white in the sun? Is that the light, redemptive point? Many questions are left unanswered.

The narration split into two time and spatial levels made it possible for Hemingway to incorporate wider experience. The first level is precisely defined in time and space, whereas the second level is not restricted in this respect. It is on the edge of a dream, so it belongs rather to that surreal world. The combination of both gives strong sense of deep feeling and bitter experience of this violent world. Life is seen as a constant flow of conflicting activities, a mixture of phenomena flourishing and at the same time fading and due to destruction.


Hemingway, Ernest. The Snows of Kilimanjaro In Hemingway, The Portable Viking

Library, ed. by Malcolm Cowley, The Viking Press, New York, 1944.