At first, Hemingway takes pains to separate Harry’s flashbacks from the story’s current events and Harry’s personal inner monologue. However, as Harry grows weaker, the distinction begins to fade, and his memories overwhelm and infiltrate his consciousness. The sum total of Harry’s life flashes before his eyes on his deathbed, overwhelming him as he remembers, regrets, and wishes to record the memories he has failed to put into writing. Hemingway suggests that memories overwhelm Harry’s grasp on the present because, in facing death, he desperately wants to relive—or to record—the experiences of his life.
With lines breaks, italicized text, and long, rambling sentences that evoke a stream of consciousness, Hemingway offsets Harry’s flashbacks from his interactions on the African plains. Breathless sentences containing Harry’s remembrance of the past run together as Harry’s memories crowd in on him, fighting for space in his mind and on the page. For example: “Now in his mind he saw a railway station at Karagatch and he was standing with his pack and that was the headlight of the Simplon-Orient cutting the dark now and he was leaving Thrace then after the retreat.” This creates two images of Harry: the aloof front that he presents to his wife and others, and his frustrated inner self hurtling through layers of long-distant past. The passages narrating the present also include Harry’s thoughts and memories, but they are far more ordered. Sentences are shorter, and Harry offers succinct analysis of his past: “It wasn’t this woman’s fault. If it had not been she it would have been another. If he lived by a lie he should try to die by it.” This is the introspection of a sane and conscious man in control of his faculties, and it contrasts greatly with the rushing narrative of the flashback portions.
As Harry’s condition deteriorates, however, he finds this line between past and present harder to maintain. The memories that have been consuming his private contemplation spill unfiltered into his interactions. As the gangrene in his leg progresses, Harry begins to forget whether he is thinking or speaking. Coming back from a reverie about life on a ranch and all the stories “from out there,” he demands that his wife, Helen, answer the question he had just wordlessly asked himself (that is, why he’d never written those stories): “‘You tell them why,’ he said. ‘Why what, dear?’” Harry’s mask begins to slip as his remorse outweighs his conscious front. Events and regrets from long ago increasingly absorb him as he approaches his death, making him progressively less concerned with actual, current conversations. Harry’s memories are all he has to show of his life, and his failure to write—in a sense, his failure to record the world he knew—while he had the chance, has consumed him. On emerging sleepily from yet another memory (this time the grizzly death of a fellow soldier in the trenches during WWI), Harry says to his wife, “I’ve been writing … But I got tired.” Lying in a sick bed, immobilized by his gangrene, he is now unable to write all he had planned to. His desperation drives him to resort to reliving his past as a last-ditch attempt to record his life.
Approaching his final breaths, Harry cannot look back on a life well lived, one in which his goals were met and his potential achieved. He re-lives key moments of his past in a race against the clock to symbolically preserve his experiences—something he failed to do with the time given him. Harry is finally, in a way, writing all those stories he never did—even if the only reader is himself.
Deathbed Memories ThemeTracker
Deathbed Memories Quotes in The Snows of Kilimanjaro
There was so much to write. He had seen the world change … He had been in it and he had watched it and it was his duty to write of it; but now he never would.
“You can’t take dictation, can you?”
“I never learned,” she told him.
“That’s all right.”
There wasn’t time, of course, although it seemed as though it telescoped so that you might put it all into one paragraph if you could get it right.