An unnamed man (later revealed to be Harry) says that it’s “marvelous” that something is “painless,” but he apologizes to his unnamed companion (his wife Helen) for its “odor.” Laying on a cot under a mimosa tree, Harry wonders if the circling birds are drawn by this smell or by the sight of him. The birds have been circling since “the day the truck broke down,” but they haven’t touched the ground until today—a fact he notices because he planned to “use them in a story” someday.
Hemingway begins right in the middle of the action with little context. That he withholds the characters’ names and the details of their situation echoes their sense of powerlessness. Slowly, the facts emerge: the circling scavenger birds indicate the presence of death, while the reference to the broken-down truck reveals that the characters are stranded in the wilderness. One thing Hemingway does disclose about the characters themselves is that the man is a writer— a fact divulged even before his name, highlighting its central role in his identity.
Harry tells Helen that it’s “much easier if I talk,” but that he doesn’t want to bother her; she says that she’s only nervous because there’s nothing she can do until the plane comes. Helen asks what she can do to help, and Harry tells her that she could “take the leg off and that might stop it,” or she could shoot him. Barring that, Harry says that talking is “the easiest” because quarreling makes the time pass. Vowing not to quarrel “no matter how nervous we get,” Helen says that maybe someone will come for Harry today, but Harry says he doesn’t want to move, which Helen calls cowardly. Harry responds, “Can’t you let a man die as comfortably as he can without calling him names?”
Helen’s reasonableness contrasts with Harry’s antagonism as they quarrel. Helen chooses optimism in an attempt to calm and encourage them both, despite her nervousness and his defeatism. She also remains focused on possible solutions, even though actual ideas currently remain lacking. Meanwhile, Harry seems concerned only with how to pass the time, choosing to bicker instead of thinking positively or living his final hours with forgiveness and acceptance. Beyond indicating that they are very familiar with each other, this dynamic establishes their personal dispositions: Helen is caring and sensible, while Harry is argumentative and petulant.
While Helen insists that Harry won’t die, Harry says that he is currently dying—“Ask those bastards,” he comments, referencing the circling birds. Helen tells him he won’t die if he doesn’t “give up,” and he calls her a “bloody fool.” The pair fall quiet and look across the plain at herds of gazelle and zebra in the bush. She offers to read to him, but he refuses. Instead they bicker about whether a new truck will come and whether he should have an alcoholic drink in his condition. She tells Harry their concerns are not so different, really. Harry orders a whiskey-soda from Molo despite her protests.
Here, the nature of their predicament becomes clearer: Harry is nearing death, although it remains uncertain exactly how. Harry is resigned to his fate and, given the presence of the scavenger birds, it seems he has some reason to be; death hangs in the air above them, reflected physically in the form of the birds. The description of the bush clarifies the setting of the story in the plains of Africa, in a camp offering relative comfort. During this round of arguing, Helen also uses Harry’s name for the first time, giving the reader further details about this dying writer. The pair are on holiday, it appears, and Harry ordering a drink from an African servant suggests they are financially comfortable. This gradual but steady stream of information reassures the reader all will be told in due course, establishing the narrative style and flow of the remainder of the story.
Harry thinks to himself that it’s really “all over,” and now he’ll never have the chance to “finish it.” He thinks about how since the gangrene started in his leg, the pain had left, and with it the horror of death. He feels great tiredness and anger, but no curiosity, even though the idea of death had obsessed him for years. Harry, still musing to himself, realizes now he will never have the opportunity to write all of the things he had saved up to write. Maybe he delayed it because he couldn’t do it anyway, he thinks, but now he’ll never know.
Harry is fatalistic, accepting his inevitable end. It is not the nature of his death that concerns him now, but simply the fact that he has run out of time. He is unsatisfied with his life, having never written about his many experiences. This seems at odds with his assertion he had been obsessed with death for years and raises the unwritten question of why, if he had been so concerned about the end, he didn’t begin writing long ago. The indecisive wording of his reflections, meanwhile, suggests he never had a serious push to consciously consider why he was not writing earlier, and betray a nagging fear that his procrastination may really have been a guise for a lack of talent. These new, incomplete lines of thinking crop up when death is closer than ever, leaving this question of why he has failed in his calling without a satisfactory answer.
Helen looks at Harry over her drink and says she wishes they’d stayed in Paris or gone shooting in Hungary, where they would have been safe. Harry responds: “Your bloody money”, which she protests, saying it had always been his money too, and she had followed him wherever he wanted to go, to do whatever he wanted to do. Harry says that she’d always loved it. She had loved it, she says, but not this trip, now his leg is injured.
Harry’s aggression toward Helen’s money begins to explain his ill-disposed demeanor toward his wife. Her protestation that she has shared her life and wealth with him contrasts her generosity with his petulance, characterizing him as a spoiled child. This also shows they have lived a life of comfort in Europe, placing them high on the social hierarchy.
Helen asks, rhetorically, why all this has happened to them, and Harry answers that he hadn’t treated his thorn scratch properly, leading to the gangrene. Or maybe it was the truck driver that had burned out the truck, he suggests, or maybe leaving her “goddamned Old Westbury, Saratoga, Palm Beach people.” Helen says, “I don’t mean that” several times, as Harry forces the point. Helen tells Harry she loves him and he’s not being fair. He replies he has never loved her. She dismisses his anger and tries to calm him down, saying, “You’re out of your head,” and begging him to stop drinking as they have to do everything they can to fight the gangrene. Harry tells her to do it, as he’s tired.
The strange, strained relationship between Harry and Helen plays out as he goads her, mocking her rhetorical question with direct answers. Despite Harry’s intentionally hurtful words, Helen remains calm and rational, reasoning that he is ill and cannot mean what he says. Helen comes across in this exchange as a sensible and clear-headed woman who loves her husband. Harry’s constant references to her money indicate his sense of inferiority that taint his view and treatment of her. He is not naturally one of her “people,” creating distance between the couple on account of his insecurities.
In a stream-of-consciousness flashback, Harry remembers leaving Thrace on the Simplon-Orient railway from Karagatch after a retreat on the front during World War I, and hearing Nansen misjudging the mountain snows in Bulgaria, leading to the deaths of those he ordered to cross it. There was also snow another Christmas on the Gauertal when they lived in a woodcutter’s house for a year, where they helped a barefooted deserter evade the police. On another Christmas day, in Schrunz, the snow was blinding as he looked out from the inn, as memories of skiing and gambling in Europe come flooding back to him. Herr Lent lost everything gambling the week they were snow-bound in the Madlener-haus. But Harry had never written about any of that.
In the first of many series of flashbacks, Harry recalls memories relating to his experiences around World War I, which took place from 1912-14. Thrace is an area in Europe that is now spilt between Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. After the war and the changing of borders as agreed upon in the Armistice, Fridtjof Nansen was a key figure in the movement of peoples across these new borders. Harry overheard his fateful miscalculation of the safety of the mountain passage while riding the Orient Express, a glamorous railway that traveled across Europe, showing he lived in close proximity to key decision-makers at the time. The Gauertal valley lies in Austria, where the war still loomed over Harry's life, as a deserting soldier wanders across his peaceful mountainside hermitage. Harry speaks with familiarity of Schrunz, in the tiny European principality of Liechtenstein, and the variety of his travels demonstrate his diverse life experiences—experiences that Harry never got around to writing about.
Nor had Harry written about another cold bright Christmas day, when a soldier had bombed the Austrian officers’ train and someone had called him a “bloody murderous bastard.” It was the same Austrians they’d skied with after, Harry thinks, before reconsidering this. He had talked with Hans about the various battles they had both witnessed when they hunted hares together, but Harry had never written a word about that either. He’d lived four winters on the Vorarlberg and the Arlberg, sipping good kirsch and skiing on powder snow as they sang on their way to the inn, where in the “smoky, new-wine smelling warmth, they were playing the accordion.”
These recollections reveal that Harry saw many terrible events during his time at the front, which blurred the idea of right and wrong—a phenomenon that strongly influenced the Modernist movement in art and literature. People on Harry’s own side, this moment makes clear, committed unthinkable acts, and after the war Harry even socialized with people who were once his enemy (although none of them were truly the same people as they were before the war started). Alongside the horrors of war lies Harry’s nostalgia for leisure time spent in Europe, drinking too much and singing rousing songs while skiing. The stark contrast shows how on the one hand Harry had the worst experiences of his life in Europe, but one the other he also had some of his best. To him, these are all worth writing about—the pain alongside the joy. Again, though, he never wrote about any of it.
Coming back into focus on the present, Harry asks Helen where they had always stayed in Paris, bickering over the details. She says, “You said to loved it there,” to which Harry replies love is a dunghill and he’s the cock that gets to crow on it. Helen asks him if it’s necessary for him to, metaphorically, burn his saddle and armor on his way out. He replies that her “damned money” was his armor. She asks him to stop and he agrees to as he doesn’t want to hurt her, though she says it’s too late. He quickly decides antagonizing her is “more amusing,” as the only thing he really liked to do with her he can’t now. She points out they liked to do many things together, and he tells her to stop bragging.
Fresh from mulling over the blurred lines between good and evil, right and wrong, Harry questions the nature of love. He suggests lovers are merely performers—an insight into his own mercenary approach to romance. Helen reminds him of her feelings by once again trying to bring him back to reason. Turning the argument back to her money via a tenuous link, Harry shows he is only concerned with licking his own wounds. They cannot make love to pass the time, so he chooses to quarrel instead. His selfish approach evidences his dismissive view of the other sex. Referring to Helen's money as his protection underlines Harry’s insecurity on this point, suggesting he feels emasculated because he relies on her wealth.
Helen cries. Seeing this, Harry explains he doesn’t know why he’s being like this, suggesting “it’s trying to kill to keep yourself alive.” He says he does love her really, like he’s never loved anyone else. He thinks to himself how easily he tells this familiar lie he has used to “make his bread and butter.” Helen says he’s sweet to her, but Harry immediately falls back to insulting Helen: “You rich bitch.” She asks him why he has to become a devil now, to which he responds he doesn’t like to leave things behind.
Harry does not love his wife but has used her for her money. The social norms of the time stipulated Harry ought to provide for his wife, but the opposite is true in this relationship. This causes him embarrassment, which he deflects into contempt directed at Helen, whom he characterizes as the source of his shame. The strength of his cruelty to Helen reflects the depth of his inner anguish at his inability to provide for himself. Just as Harry’s cruel words say more about him than Helen, his insecurity says more about the social framework of the time than his own mental strength. Although Hemingway does not directly argue this point, his characters’ relationship reflects the perspective of the wider society from which Hemingway wrote. Gender roles and expectations were restrictive and inflexible, causing pain where there could be love. Helen, a good woman, loves and cares for her husband, but he cannot accept and reciprocate her love freely due to his sense of financial—and, as such, masculine—inadequacy.
It seems Harry has been asleep, as he awakens in the evening. There are more birds waiting in a nearby tree. A servant tells him Helen has gone off to shoot. He notes she has gone far off so she won’t disturb the animals nearby he likes to watch. She’s thoughtful, he thinks to himself. It is not Helen’s fault she believes his well-practiced lies, he muses, which he has used on many women previously, repeatedly moving onto richer and richer circles. He had seen himself as a spy in the midst of high society, but he had discovered there was nothing he wanted to write about any of these rich people. They were dull and living among them had dulled his ability and willingness to write.
The fact that more birds gather and Harry unwittingly falls asleep bodes ill. Death lingers on the edges of the narrative. Helen, meanwhile, remains hopeful and continues with her day-to-day activities, albeit with respect to Harry’s peaceful repose. She remains a positive figure—optimistic, pragmatic, and independent. Harry’s attacks on her seem to be even greater evidence against his view of her and the social pressures on their marriage. Sensing this himself, Harry’s thoughts turn inward toward his own failings. Here Hemingway presents Harry as an emasculated figure, as he disdains himself for his leech-like lifestyle. In contrast to the harsher memories in Harry’s earlier flashbacks, his life among these wealthy people, however comfortable, has been unproductive. High society provides no writing prompts, and worse yet, has attacked his drive to write at all. Comfort has undermined his calling, while hardship had fostered it.
Harry had come to Africa, where he had the best and happiest times of his life, to escape from that inertia, to try to work, like fighters who go to the mountains to train. Helen had enjoyed the adventure, Harry thinks to himself, and he mustn’t punish her because his end is near. If it hadn’t been her it would have been another; each woman always seemed to have more money than the last. He destroyed his talent himself, by betraying himself, drinking too much, and by trading his talent. Yet he was never satisfied. Perhaps how “you make your living is where your talent lies,” he reflects. But he would never write that now, though it was well worth writing.
Through Harry’s failure and regret, Hemingway demonstrates how writers who turn away from their calling cannot blame their chosen distractions—in Harry’s case, the comforts of being a kept man—as an excuse. Hemingway sets high standards for men of talent, condemning Harry for wasting his; talent is something to be deployed purposefully and meaningfully, not traded for prosperity. Harry speaks mockingly of his relationships with a series of rich women, and his scorn reveals both the transactional view he takes of the, and, on a deeper level, his disgust at this mercenary approach.
Harry sees Helen heading back to the camp with a ram she has shot. Harry looks at her with admiration as a good shooter, lover, and drinker. He recalls her past, how her husband had died, and she had sought solace in alcohol and men. Later, one of her two children died, and she had to make a new life for herself, as she was frightened of being alone. The way she pursued Harry was a “progression” by which he had “traded away” his “old life” as she built a new one, he thinks to himself. He had traded his old life for security and comfort, and for something else he can’t quite identify. He is as happy to have her for a partner as anyone else, though this new life was now ending because he had not properly treated his thorn scratch while trying, and failing, to photograph waterbuck.
Giving Helen a more detailed background, Hemingway paints her as a well-rounded character with her own motivations and interests. Harry’s scorn for her reflects badly on him, and Helen’s loyalty to Harry is laudable. Death once again hangs over the text, this time in Helen’s past. Unlike Harry’s response to similar experiences, however, in the face of loss and an awareness that death could come at any time, Helen set out to create a new life for herself. Harry, meanwhile, depended on others to provide a life of comfort, aiming simply to pass the time. Hemingway focuses here on Harry’s betrayal of his calling: he traded away his talent to secure his comfort. Helen and her money have been simply vehicles to aid that transition.
Helen arrives back in camp, saying she has killed the ram to make a broth for Harry, and asks how he is. He treats her far more civilly, saying she shoots “marvellously.” She says she’s loved Africa, if only Harry was all right. It’s “marvellous” to see him better, she says, and asks him to treat her better now. Harry claims not to remember what he said. Helen shares her fear that Harry will “destroy” her again, and having been destroyed several times before, she cannot bear it. Harry responds he would only destroy her “in bed,” which she describes as they way we’re made to be destroyed. Helen is sure the plane will come tomorrow, and says the boys have everything ready for its arrival. After Harry’s better they’ll have the good destruction, she says, not the “dreadful talking kind.”
Having settled on blaming himself for his own inadequacies, Harry can now treat Helen with the courtesy she has shown she deserves. Despite his treatment of her earlier, she still seeks to care and provide for him, hunting meat for a broth to strengthen him and voicing both concern and optimism. She makes herself vulnerable to Harry by expressing her fear of being “destroyed,” which he playfully turns into a well-received sexual advance. Helen’s approval and reciprocal responses suit a happily married couple’s exchange, as Hemingway presents his view of a healthy romantic interaction—losing (destroying) themselves in each other.
Harry suggests they have a drink. Night falls as they do so, and a hyena passes beyond the edges of the camp. Harry says the “bastard crosses there every night.” Helen describes it as “a filthy animal,” although she doesn’t mind them. In the evening calm, with camp activity taking place around them, and no pain except for the discomfort of lying in the same place, Harry regrets his earlier injustice to Helen, who has been kind to him. Suddenly, Harry feels the rushing realization that he will die. It reminds him of an evil-smelling emptiness, with the hyena somehow circling the edge of the void. He hides his dread from Helen, saying only he feels “a little wobbly,” and she leaves to have a bath.
The presence of the hyena, a scavenging beast, brings the narrative focus back onto the ever-looming presence of death. Although Harry and Helen are on better terms, he remains on his fatal trajectory, the contrast clearest when an ominous foreboding interrupts Harry’s admiration of his wife. The hyena’s presence in his image of the void cements the creature’s role as a symbol of death in the story. Harry’s perception of death, meanwhile, reveals the nature of his fear. He does not fear pain, and in fact has none. Rather, the bleak unknown prompts his dread. Harry’s time is nearly up, and he fears dying without success, as a nobody, with no chance to make it right. In this way, Hemingway uses Harry’s regret as an example for all artists of talent, suggesting that they must make the most of the time given them while they still can.
In another rambling flashback, Harry remembers his time in Constantinople after quarrelling with a previous wife in Paris. He had “whored the whole time” but failed to kill his loneliness. Feeling worse, he had written a letter, cold sober, to his first love, who had left him long before, telling her how “he’d never been able to kill it.” Everyone he’d slept with after had made him miss her more. Missing her so much he felt sick, he picked up a “hot Armenian slut” at a club and picked a fight with the tough gunner she was with. In the morning, he returned to his own hotel before she woke up. He had a black eye and was carrying his coat because one sleeve was missing.
As he weakens, Harry begins to fall into longer and more frequent flashbacks. In this section, sentences run together to create a breathless, rushing narrative as Hemingway pulls the reader into the middle of Harry’s frenzied, dramatic encounters. The strength of his memories overwhelms him as his desperation to write them becomes more urgent. Here, the reader sees another motivation behind his dismissive treatment of women: beyond seeking their money, he has used women to heal himself of past wounds, albeit unsuccessfully.
Harry recalls leaving that same night for Anatolia and later on the same trip riding through fields of opium poppies. The newly-arrived Constantine officers “did not know a god-damned thing,” and upon attacking the guns had fired into the troops and the British observer had cried like a child. It was the first time they had seen dead men wearing ballet skirts and pompoms, and when the Turks had advanced “lumpily” the skirted men had run, so officers had shot into them, but then they fled themselves. They all ran, the British observer included, until they could taste “pennies” in their mouths and their “lungs ached.” When he got back to Paris that time he couldn’t stand to talk of it, or the other worse things he had seen. He passed an American poet in a café with “a stupid look in his potato face,” whose conversations with another intellectual about literary movements seemed irrelevant.
Death returns to the story, this time in the faceless, massive losses of war. The horror of the scenes drove grown, worldly men to cry like children. The fact one instance involves friendly fire underlines the pointlessness of this loss. The ballet skirts and pompoms refer to the uniforms of Greek soldiers, lying dead on the ground as the Turkish forces advanced. The officers randomly executed deserting soldiers, shooting into the fleeing masses, although in the face of their own certain death they themselves joined the retreating horde. That Harry highlights the Greek uniforms as ridiculous mirrors the grotesque comedy of their deaths, while the officers’ failed attempts to stem the retreat further shows the pointlessness of all the violence. This chaos and terror contrasts starkly with the poet Harry later sees at a cafe in Paris discussing literary theory. Writers, Hemingway argues, need to be on the ground, living in the middle of the action and hardship to understand the meaningful realities of the world. Sitting comfortably in a cafe leads to creative impotence.
Harry recalls being glad to be home after returning from the front, and loving his wife again. But the “end of the beginning of that one” started when a response to his letter to his long-lost love had been sent up to the apartment one morning and his wife has seen it. Harry thinks back on the good times with “them all,” and the quarreling. He wonders, why is it “they always quarreled when he was feeling his best?” He considers why he had never written about any of those experiences. He hadn’t wanted to offend anyone, and then there had been other things to write. But he had seen the world change, and he remembers the people and how they changed too. He had been there and seen it, and he had a “duty to write of it,” but now he never would.
Having seen Harry bait Helen into quarreling despite her determination not to humor him, the reader takes Harry’s rhetorical question with a pinch of salt. An imperfect narrator, Harry does not provide an objective view of his relationships. As Harry approaches his final moments, the memories that overwhelm him are those he had saved up to write down. He recollects the meaningful chapters of his life, rather than any of the time spent amid high society. He sees these as not only worth writing about, but his “duty” to write about. Hemingway expands the directive he provides for writers of talent: to follow and commit to their calling as an obligation. Harry’s laziness is a moral failure, then, and a warning.
Coming round from his flashbacks, Harry sees Helen has returned from her bath. She suggests he have some broth to keep his strength up. He declares he’ll die tonight and doesn’t need his strength. Helen tells him not to be melodramatic, but he tells her to use her nose, as the gangrene has rotted halfway up his thigh. He demands a drink instead. Helen asks more softly for him to try the broth, and he agrees. He tells Helen, a “fine woman,” not to pay attention to him. As he looks at her “well-known pleasant smile,” he feels death approach him again, this time like a puff of wind that makes a candle flicker. Once again, he hides the imaginary encounter from Helen.
Death is a stench in the air, a future reality plaguing the couple’s thoughts, and a physical presence as Harry’s condition deteriorates. The gangrene progressing up his leg heralds his soon departure, as well as the closing door on his opportunity to achieve his calling. Helen remains pragmatic, offering broth and positivity, although Harry is a reluctant recipient of both. Her insistence paints Helen as independently minded, while Harry’s obedience despite his pessimism shows his reformed approach to his marriage. Yet this cannot save him from the reality of his situation, as death again makes itself known to its next victim.
Harry says he’ll lie out by the fire tonight rather than in the tent as it will not rain. He thinks to himself, “so this is how you died, in whispers you cannot hear.” He promises himself he will not spoil the “one experience” he has never had with quarrelling. He asks Helen to take dictation, but she doesn’t know how. There is no time anyway, Harry says to himself, but it feels like he could fit it all in one paragraph if he could just get it right.
Perceiving tonight will be his last, Harry decides to sleep under the stars, perhaps planning to gaze upon the void to prepare himself for that other abyss. A worldly man, Harry does not want to spoil the one experience he has never had himself. Death has been presence throughout his life, but he has learned its lessons too late. Now, he has run out of time to write, though—in phrasing reminiscent of Hemingway’s own writing philosophy—Harry feels he could fit it all into one well-written paragraph; Hemingway often said that starting with “one true sentence” would provide the momentum for the rest of the work. Harry expands that idea, suggesting that all of his truth could be captured in a paragraph, “if only he could get it right.” The implication is that one paragraph capturing the essence of existence is the writer’s ultimate, perhaps unattainable aim, though Harry certainly cannot achieve that within the few hours he has left.
Slipping back into flashback, Harry remembers his grandfather’s log house on a hill above a lake, which had been burned down and rebuilt with white lumber. The melted remains of his grandfather’s guns had been left where they fell. He didn’t buy any others and had stopped hunting. After the war, they rented a trout stream in a Black Forest valley, and Harry casts his mind back to the two tree-lined mountainside trails that led there. A hotel owner in nearby Triburg whom they had been great friends with had killed himself when the next year’s inflation put him out of business. He could dictate all that, Harry thinks.
Harry casts his mind back to idyllic mountainside scenes, but even here death and destruction are present. Harry’s grandfather’s loyalty to his melted guns reflects his sense of loss, leaving their remains in the ashes as a memorial to his burned down house. Life and circumstances are always temporary, a lesson Harry has not acted on in good time. The beauty of the Black Forest in southwest Germany cannot protect the hotel owner, whom economic forces overwhelm, driving him to suicide. These stories of people’s vulnerability and suffering are placed at odds with Harry’s unproductive life of comfort, which has led to his betrayal of those people whose stories he believes he had the duty to write.
You could not dictate the Parisian slums Harry had lived in, he thinks to himself, with their flower sellers, the old men and women always drunk, and runny-nosed children. He remembers the smell of sweat, poverty, drunkenness, and whores. His poor neighbors were descendants of Communards. The Versailles troops had come in and killed their family members—anyone who looked working class—after they took down the Commune. In that quarter was where Harry had written the start of all he was to do. There was never another part of Paris he had loved like that, where he lived in a cheap room at the top of a hotel and could see all of Paris’ roofs, chimneys, and hills.
Harry feels he cannot dictate the poverty of the Parisian slums, but actually being there, in the midst of it, had given him the power and focus to write. Again, Hemingway emphasizes that writers must be personally familiar with their topic—including its people and the locations—to truly capture them in writing. Harry’s detailed memories come in quick succession as he rushes to remember all the details while he still can; unable to write them now, he seeks at least to remember. Once again death is present even in his memories, reflected in the massacre of communists in the slums. Here the killing was largely indiscriminate, further reflecting the unpredictability of death.
Helen brings Harry back into the present, offering him some more broth. He asks for a drink instead, though they agree it’s bad for him. He thinks to himself, when she leaves he'll have all he wants. Feeling exhausted, he notes death is not there at that moment. It must have gone around to another street, he thinks to himself: “It went in pairs, on bicycles, and moved absolutely silently on the pavements.” He falls back asleep.
Although Harry cannot feel death’s physical presence at this moment, its menacing influence lingers and he bides his time until it comes to collect him. He feels he is becoming more intimately acquainted with death now that he knows it is on his trail, beginning to imagine its specific shape and habits. Helen, though meaning well in her care for Harry, distracts him from his more urgent task of “writing,” in his mind, the memories he is desperate to save. He views Helen as an impediment, one he would rather be rid of.
In another series of flashbacks, Harry returns to Paris, regretting never writing about that Paris, the one he cared about. He calls to mind the ranch behind the mountains where a “half-wit” young farmhand had killed a trespasser. Harry had strapped the frozen, half-eaten corpse onto a sled and the two of them skied it into town, where Harry had turned the boy over to the police. The boy had had no idea he was going to be arrested, thinking he'd be rewarded. There were at least twenty good stories from out there and he hadn’t written one, he thinks to himself. Why?
Harry sees the Paris he cares about as separate and distinct from the one that he later inhabited with his rich wives. Immediately returning there, to “that Paris,” after only a brief exchange in the present demonstrates how his memories are overpowering him, physically and mentally. His regret that he has not written these stories essentially paralyses him, gripping his consciousness. The story of the boy on the ranch yet again brings death to the fore, as Harry’s physical familiarity with its grim realities underlines his overdue realization of his own mortality.
Coming to, disoriented, Harry tells Helen to “tell them why.” She doesn’t follow his meaning, asking “Why what, dear?” Harry thinks to himself how he would never write about her, nor the dull rich people she associated with. They drank too much, played too much backgammon, and were repetitious. He remembers poor Julian who had a romantic awe of them, starting a story with the line: “The very rich are different to you and me.” Someone had responded: yes, they have more money. Julian had thought they were a special, glamorous race and when he found they weren’t it had wrecked him, Harry remembers. He on the other hand could beat anything as long as he didn’t care. The one thing that had worried him about death was the pain, though he could withstand it as well as any man, but here, with this, he had no pain.
Harry's memories hold him in their grasp as he cannot concretely separate his internal musings from the present, leading to a confused exchange with Helen. His contempt of the rich comes from experience, as his attempt to participate in their lifestyle and find something to write about has left his writing career in tatters. Harry scorns other writers who viewed them with “romantic awe.” The reference here often considered to be to F. Scott Fitzgerald, who began a story with a similar opening line. Harry’s scorn is hypocritical, given he abandoned his own calling as a writer to pursue a life of comfort from the rich. Although he might not have been “wrecked” like Julian, his life of leisure came at the cost of his talent. He distances himself from such psychological pain by not caring, and so the only aspect of death he fears has been physical pain. But even in death he remains in relative comfort, with no pain coming from the infection.
Falling back asleep, into another flashback, Harry remembers the gruesome fate of bombing officer Williamson in the trenches, his guts spilling into the wire after he was hit by a German stick bomb. He was a very brave man and a good officer. They brought him in alive and had to cut him loose. Williamson had begged Harry, “For Christ’s sake shoot me.” They had talked before that the Lord would never send anything you couldn't handle, and thought it meant you would faint before the pain was too great, but Williamson was awake until Harry gave him all of the morphine he had saved for himself, though it didn’t work right away.
Falling sleepily back into another flashback, weakened by his infection and rushing memories, Harry recalls a grisly death he witnessed that contrasts his own painless passing. Hemingway shows the grim reality of death close up here. Harry is intimately acquainted with human fragility, as well as the fact that life, or perhaps death, can portion out suffering beyond a man’s capacity to handle. This throws into sharp relief the excuses Harry had made for his failures earlier, as well as the blame he had apportioned to others; he has long known the horrors of death, which have obsessed him for years, yet he did not act on those insights and write his experiences in due time.
Waking up, Harry contemplates his coming death, which he considers his to be relatively easy. Only, he wishes he had better company. But no, when you do everything too long and too late the people are all gone, he thinks wordlessly. He’s left with the hostess of a long-finished party. He’s even getting bored with dying. Aloud, he says anything you do too long is “a bore.” The firelight shines on Helen’s “pleasantly lined face” and he hears the cry of the hyena beyond the firelight. He tells her he's been writing, but he got tired. They discuss going to bed, and Harry says he feels strange — he feels death come around. Harry tells Helen the one thing he never lost was his curiosity, and she says he’s the most complete man she knows. He responds, “How little a woman knows.”
Harry feels alone in the world because he has left the life with which he felt truly connected. His wife, though he admits her personal merit, is not part of a lifestyle that he feels has empowered him or his talent. Instead he has moved in high society circles but found they have sapped his talent, and now that the party is over he is left only with his wife, or “hostess,” who invited him. Harry's disparaging view of his wife's role in his life again underlines his transactional view of women, that she provides a service for his convenience, opening doors for him into higher echelons of society. Again, his perspective arises from his insecure sense of masculinity, as he depends on her, in what is a role reversal for the time, which implicitly suggests the limitations of those roles in the first place. The presence of the hyena, meanwhile, brings Harry’s approaching death back into focus, and soon after he feels death come by again. Hemingway characterizes death as predatory, and Harry himself is the prey. Harry tells Helen he has been writing, although of course he has not moved from his cot. For him, reliving his varied life experiences is a desperate attempt to symbolically preserve them, even if he is the only reader.
Harry feels death comes again, this time lying its head on his cot. He tells Helen not to “believe all that about a scythe and a skull,” as it can just as easily be two policemen on bikes or a wide-snouted hyena. He tells it to go away and asks Helen to tell it to leave too. It moves up him, no longer taking a shape, just taking up space. He finds he can no longer speak and it settles on his chest so heavily he cannot breathe. Helen asks Molo to carry Harry’s bed into the tent as she believes he has fallen asleep, and when they lift the cot the weight lifts from his chest.
Death takes on its most physically present form as it finally approaches and weighs heavily on Harry. Working up from the foot of his cot and settling onto his chest, the reader understands that it is the progress of the gangrene eating at him from the inside out. From Harry’s perspective, though, he has weakened enough for death to move against its prey, much as the nearby hyena only eats carrion or dying animals. After following him for much of his life, across continents and peoples, death has finally taken him for its own. Hemingway shows that death comes for all men, in the end, and the time and manner cannot be anticipated. As such, it is imperative to live a full life, particularly for writers or artists with the duty to represent those experiences.
In the morning, Harry hears a plane and the boys preparing for its landing. Compton arrives, and Harry offers him breakfast. After a brief discussion with Helen beyond Harry’s range of hearing, “Compie” comes back seeming cheery and decides to skip the cup of tea he’d requested. There's only space for Harry in the plane. The boys carry Harry over, and they manage to settle him in with his bad leg stretched out straight. They wave goodbye and set off with the familiar roar and clatter. Harry watches the wildlife and landscape below as they set out. Instead of going to Arusha to refuel as planned, they turn left. They begin to climb and seem to be heading East, Harry judges. After passing through a storm, Compie points to the mountain saying, “as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun … the square top of Kilimanjaro.” Harry realizes that was where he is going.
Although not italicized like the other imagined or remembered scenes (in order to delay the climax), this scene takes place exclusively within Harry’s mind. Given Harry has produced this alternative ending to his own story, it provides an insight into the manner of death he would prefer. First, he is remembered: his friend Compton makes it to him in good time to save him. Harry believes he has not stayed too long at the party, having lost track of his friends, after all. This reveals a core desire only hinted at by his previous, deflected frustrations: the desire to belong to a people that value him. Second, his final resting place on the highest mountain in Africa gives him an honorable ending worthy of remembering. Although he has not written down his life experiences for posterity, such a prestigious gravesite leaves a notable mark to commemorate a life well-lived.. Harry’s passing is bittersweet, as he believes he has been and will be remembered, though in reality this is not necessarily the case. But Hemingway does not condemn him for these aspirations. Rather, Harry’s failure to secure this manner of passing is a warning to others squandering their talent and wasting their lives, which can end in a moment.
Back in the tent, Helen is asleep. The “strange, human, almost crying” of the hyena rings out in the night. Helen, still asleep, dreams of her daughter’s debut at “the house on Long Island” and her father being rude. The hyena makes another, louder sound and rouses her. She wakes up disoriented and afraid. She looks over to Harry, who has lifted his leg out of the cot and is unresponsive. His dressings have come off his leg and she can’t bear to look at it. Panicking, she calls out for Molo to come help. She calls his name several times but cannot hear Harry breathing. The hyena calls out again, but she can't hear it because her heart is beating too loudly.
Hemingway brings us back into the present this time by focusing on Hele —this fact alone indicates the truth of Harry’s fate to the reader. She is dreaming of her own past and family, and of social situations a world away from those that plagued Harry’s dreams. The hyena’s call awakens her to reality, the one in which Compton did not make it in time to save Harry. She panics, not as familiar with death as Harry had been, and sensibly calls for help. But it is too late; it had long been too late for Harry. The hyena’s “strange, human, almost crying” call seems to lament and confirm Harry’s passing, as death finally has Harry in its grasp.