In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Harry is on safari in Africa when an untreated thorn scratch turns into gangrene in his leg. Stranded without access to medical care, the leg slowly rots away, and Harry knows that he will soon die. As he awaits his end, he thinks about the death of his writing career, which will also be extinguished when he dies. Through Harry’s regret over his wasted life and talent, Hemingway suggests that one should make the most of life, as death is ever-present and could strike at any time.
Throughout the story, as Harry lays on his cot, death is a physical presence, and the constant stench of Harry’s lethal infection is the story’s clearest manifestation of death. In the first conversation that Hemingway depicts between Harry and his wife, Harry apologizes for the odor, since he believes it must bother Helen. Later in the story, the smell takes on a more psychological role, becoming part of Harry’s hallucinations as he feels that “death had come … and he could smell its breath.” The smell of death pervading both the story’s real and imagined scenes makes clear that death is inescapable, but the hyena lurking around the campfire also gives death a physical presence. Hyenas are scavengers, and the animal’s presence implies that Harry is close enough to death to begin scavenging for his remains—in fact, when Harry dies, it’s the hyena’s call that alerts Helen. The hyena is both literally there (Helen notices it, calling it a “filthy animal”) and part of Harry’s thoughts about his death. When he feels death approaching, he imagines “a rush of … evil smelling emptiness” and notes that “the odd thing was that the hyena slipped lightly along the edge of it.” The beast’s symbolic significance intertwines with reality in Harry’s mind, giving death physical form—one that is notably threatening and always lurking.
As Harry reflects on his many varied experiences, it becomes clear that death has in always been a dramatic force invading his life. For instance, Harry remembers a WWI bombing officer called Williamson who died caught in the wire lining the trenches. Having been hit by a German bomb, he screamed for Harry to shoot him as his bowels fell out and tangled in the wire. The deeply unsettling image is clearly one that has haunted Harry for a long time, revealing that he is no stranger to human mortality. Harry also recalls a hotel owner in Triburg whose livelihood had been ruined by inflation. The money he had worked hard to save became worthless, and he hanged himself. While economic powers beyond the man’s control drove him to his hopeless end, Harry has been living comfortably off others’ money. Since both men blunder into doom, the story suggests that luck and circumstance cannot thwart encroaching death.
Now that Harry is approaching his own end, he realizes he never learned to use the time and talent given to him. It is not so much his death itself that weighs heavy on Harry’s heart, but rather his wasted life and opportunities. Hemingway notes that the gradual decay of Harry’s writing career began years earlier: “each day of not writing, of comfort, of being that which he despised, dulled his ability and softened his will to work so that, finally, he did no work at all.” The focus here is on Harry’s willful inaction, as the fault is clearly his own. Hemingway encourages readers to “despise” Harry for this through his harsh, scornful language throughout the story. It is often Harry's own voice that uses such language against himself, underscoring his frustration. This serves as a stark warning from a character that has experienced such regret first hand. Given the evidence Hemingway has provided of Harry’s experiences with the untimely and often gruesome deaths of others, his unwillingness to write—that is, to make the most of his life and talent—is presented as a great moral failing: “He had been in it and he had watched it and it was his duty to write of it; but now he never would.” In this way, Hemingway shows that Harry has not only let himself down, but also betrayed those whose stories will now also die with him.
Death is ever-present in this short story, as it is in life. Hemingway paints many varied pictures of the way death has invaded Harry’s eventful life and his psyche as he approaches his own end. But Harry, though intimately acquainted with human mortality, has not heeded warnings of death’s simultaneous unpredictability and inevitability and has not completed his life’s work in time. Ultimately, the story makes the case for living life and striving toward personal goals while the opportunity remains, as no one can predict the time or nature of their own end.
Ever-present Death ThemeTracker
Ever-present Death Quotes in The Snows of Kilimanjaro
So now it was all over, he thought. So now he would never have a chance to finish it. So this was the way it ended, in a bickering over a drink.
Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either. Maybe you could never write them, and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting. Well he would never know, now.
And just then it occurred to him that he was going to die. It came with a rush; not as a rush of water nor of wind; but of a sudden evil-smelling emptiness and the odd thing was that the hyena slipped lightly along the edge of it.
“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.
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.