The Snows of Kilimanjaro (short story)

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Hemingway hunting on safari, 1934

"The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is a short story by Ernest Hemingway. It was first published in Esquire magazine in 1936. It was republished in The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories in 1938, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories in 1961, and is included in The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigía Edition (1987).


The story opens with a paragraph about Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, which is also called the “House of God.” There is, we are told, the frozen carcass of a leopard near the summit. No one knows why it is there. Then we are introduced to Harry, a writer dying of gangrene, and his rich wife Helen, who are on safari in Africa. Harry’s situation makes him irritable, and he speaks about his own death in a matter-of-fact way that upsets his wife, predicting that a rescue plane will never come. He quarrels with her over everything, from whether he should drink a whiskey and soda to whether she should read to him. Helen is obviously concerned for his welfare, but self-pity and frustration make him unpleasant to her.

Harry then begins to ruminate on his life experiences, which have been many and varied, and on the fact that he feels he has never reached his potential as a writer because he has chosen to make his living by marrying a series of wealthy women. In italicized portions of the text that are scattered throughout the story, Hemingway narrates some of Harry’s experiences in a stream-of-consciousness style. Harry’s first memories are of traveling around Europe following a battle, hiding a deserter in a cottage, hunting and skiing in the mountains, playing cards during a blizzard, and hearing about a bombing run on a train full of Austrian officers.

Harry then falls asleep and wakes in the evening to find Helen returning from a shooting expedition. He meditates on how she is really thoughtful and a good wife to him, but how his life has been spent marrying a series of women who keep him as “a proud possession” and neglecting his true talent, writing. Helen, he remembers, is a rich widow who was bored by the series of lovers she took before she met him, and who married him because she admired his writing and they had similar interests. Harry then recalls the process by which he developed gangrene two weeks before: he had been trying to get a picture of some waterbuck and had scratched his knee on a thorn. He had not used iodine and it had become septic.

As Helen returns to drink cocktails with Harry, they make up their quarrel. Harry’s second memory sequence then begins, and he recalls how he once patronized a series of prostitutes in Constantinople while pining for a woman in New York. Specifically, he had a fight with a British soldier over an Armenian prostitute, and then left Constantinople for Anatolia, where he ran from a group of Turkish soldiers. Later, he recalls that he returned to Paris and to his then-wife.

Helen and Harry eat dinner, and then Harry has another memory, this time of how his grandfather’s log house burned down. He then relates how he fished in the Black Forest, and how he lived in a poor quarter of Paris and felt a kinship with his neighbors because they were poor. Next, he remembers a ranch and a boy he turned in to the authorities after the boy protected Harry’s horse feed by shooting a thief. Next, he remembers an officer named Williamson who was hit by a bomb and to whom Harry subsequently fed all his morphine tablets. As Harry lies on his cot remembering, he feels the presence of death, and associates it with a hyena that is running around the edge of the campsite.

Presently, Helen has Harry’s cot moved into the tent for the night, and just as she does, he feels death lying on his chest and is unable to speak. Harry dreams that it is the next morning and that a man called Compton has come with a plane to rescue him. He is lifted onto the plane and watches the landscape go by beneath him. Suddenly, he sees the snow-covered top of Mt. Kilimanjaro and knows that is where he is bound.

Helen wakes up in the middle of the night to a strange hyena cry and sees Harry dead on his cot. The narration splits into two time and spatial levels. This 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.


"The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is regarded[by whom?] as one of Hemingway's greatest works, holding its own alongside The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms.[citation needed]


A film adaptation of the short story, directed by Henry King, written by Casey Robinson, and starring Gregory Peck as Harry, Susan Hayward as Helen, and Ava Gardner as Cynthia Green (a character invented for the film) appeared in 1952. The film's ending does not mirror the book's ending.