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The Snows of Kilimanjaro, 1936

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The Snows of Kilimanjaro, 1936


Ernest Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois, the son of Clarence and Grace Hemingway. His first published works appeared in the Oak Park High School newspaper and the school’s literary magazine. After graduation, he worked as a reporter covering the police and hospital beat for the Kansas City Star. The allure of World War I appealed to him, and he enlisted with the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. Not long after he arrived in Italy in 1918, he was severely wounded when a bomb exploded near the front line where he was delivering canteen supplies. After a lengthy recovery during which he wrote short stories and received many rejections from magazine editors, he began writing features for the Toronto Star newspaper.

In 1921 Hemingway married Hadley Richardson and moved to Paris as a European correspondent for the Toronto Star. In this old city, he wrote short stories while living the expatriate life. The couple traveled throughout Europe skiing and hiking, and Hemingway’s enduring fascination with bullfighting began when he attended his first bullfight in Spain.

In 1923 his first book, Three Stories and Ten Poems, was published as a very thin volume in Paris. Hemingway’s In Our Time, a collection of short stories published in the United States in 1925, caused critics to take notice of his terse modern style. The following year his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, a barely disguised fictional recounting of his summer of drinking and attending bullfights in Spain with friends, was published.

In 1927 Hemingway divorced his wife and married Pauline Pfeiffer. A year later the couple moved to Key West, Florida, and Hemingway discovered deep sea fishing. During this marriage, he went on his first African safari and found big game hunting to his liking. He returned to Spain to report on the civil war, and based his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls on his war experiences.

In 1940 he divorced his second wife and married Martha Gellhorn. The two had been living in Cuba, and now Hemingway bought the Finca Vigia estate. Hemingway returned to Europe as a war correspondent during World War II. Here he met Mary Welsh, who became his fourth wife after his divorce from Gellhorn.

Hemingway’s charismatic personality (which later was diagnosed as manic-depressive), his sporting exploits, his extensive travel, his womanizing, and his persistent drinking made him a celebrity. He was more a news item than his books, although they were bought steadily by an admiring public. Most of his books were based on his own experiences, so critics saw his books as holding keys to the writer’s own character.

In 1952 Hemingway published The Old Man and the Sea, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Two years later, while on safari in Africa, he survived two plane crashes, but with serious injuries that plagued him the rest of his life. Also in 1954 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his contribution to literature. He wondered if the plane crashes and the premature obituaries published in newspapers around the world swayed the committee to award him the Swedish prize.

During the turmoil of the civil war in Cuba, Hemingway left the island and settled in Ketchum, Idaho, where he had vacationed and hunted small game. After treatment at the Mayo Clinic for major depression, he returned to his Idaho home and shot himself on July 2, 1961.

None of Hemingway’s work was written specifically for young adults, but since many of his stories and novels are regarded as classics, they are taught in schools and have wide appeal to various ages.


First published in the August, 1936, issue of Esquire, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” has been called Hemingway’s short story masterpiece. He wrote the story after his first safari to Africa and was so fascinated by the place that he told reporters he wanted to go back as soon as he had enough money. A wealthy woman read his remarks and offered to finance the trip for Hemingway, his wife Pauline, and herself. Hemingway turned her down, but he wondered what the trip would have been like if he had gone, and the story was born from that notion.

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is a combination of fact and fiction. Hemingway based the main character on, as he said, someone “who cannot sue me-that is me.” In the story, while facing his imminent death on an African safari, a writer goes in and out of consciousness. During his conscious moments, he argues with his wife and seems intent on destroying her. During unconscious or dream-like states, he remembers his life and has insights into why he made some of the choices he made. He has regrets, fears, and some wonderful memories of good times, as well. These memories are based on Hemingway’s own experiences and professional career.


The African safari encampment of Harry and his wife, Helen, is in sight of the snow-covered Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. The couple have set off on safari in Tanzania and had a wonderful time before fate overwhelms them. Harry believes that if they had hired a good driver, he probably would have checked the oil and not have burnt out a bearing. But the truck broke down, and they are stranded until one of the safari servants returns with help.

Harry lies on a cot with a gangrenous leg and is unable to walk. The infection sets a time bomb ticking, and circling vultures forewarn of death. A rescue plane should be on the way, and that hope keeps the couple going for a while. Fires, waiting to be set to guide a plane to a safe landing, have been laid by the servants.

Wildlife, the reason they are on the safari, is at a minimum around the camp, yet the presence of animals is felt throughout the story. A hyena crosses the edge of the camp each evening. Helen kills a Tommie ram, and servants cook it for supper to make a good broth for Harry. Mosquitoes buzz the camp. From his cot, Harry sees a far-off herd of zebras. Later from the plane, he sees a herd of wildebeests and a swarm of locusts.

In the wanderings of his mind, Harry travels to many locations that hold important memories. Hemingway used his own travels for these places: his grandfather’s log house on Walloon Lake, Michigan; the apartment where he lived with his first wife in Paris; the ski lodge in Schruns, Austria; and his friends’ ranch in Wyoming.


Harry, the protagonist of the story, is a writer. As he lies near death on a cot in the African wilds, his thoughts go back to his life experiences. Hemingway skillfully develops Harry’s character by use of his cutting words to his wife, his memories of other women and other times, his attitude towards death, and his ceaseless drinking even when he knows it is harmful.

Since Hemingway based this character on himself, he made Harry very realistic, drawing on his own professional resume to establish a journalistic background for Harry. The main character’s wife was loosely based on Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline. In the story, Harry feels that he has been bought by his wife’s money, and it is a feeling he can barely tolerate.

Harry never calls Helen by her name, and it is only near the end of the story, during the plane trip episode in his mind, when she is named. Otherwise, he refers only to her as “she.”

Helen is one of Hemingway’s more developed women characters; he gave her a rounded background. She had been devoted to her first husband who died just as their two children had grown and left home, leaving her quite alone and needing to build a new life. She turned to drink, horses, and books. Then she took lovers. When one of her children was killed in a plane crash, she was devastated and scared. She no longer wanted lovers; she wanted a solid relationship, and she found Harry. She admired his books and thought his life exciting. She had started a new life with him, and in turn, he had lost his old life.

There are many minor characters in this story. At the African camp are the servants, and one is mentioned by name; Molo is called several times to prepare the ever present whisky-soda. Near the end of the story, the pilot Compton flies Harry off toward Mount Kilimanjaro. Other characters are briefly mentioned in the flashbacks that take place in the many locations where Harry has lived.

Hemingway’s hero, when faced with death, looks back on his life and tries to make sense of it. He sees a talent destroyed by not using it, by drinking too much, and by laziness caused by too much money. Most of all, he is filled with regret-some regret for being selfish in his dealings with others, but mostly regret that he will not be able to write all the stories he thought he had time to relegate to a later day. He had put away the most important parts of his life, waiting for another time to put the emotions and thoughts on paper, and now it is too late.

The theme of facing death with courage and “grace under pressure,” Hemingway’s code of living, is dealt with from the beginning of the story when Harry admits that death is painless. He has lived in fear of death all his life, even been obsessed with it, and now that he is faced with it, he finds he is too tired to fight it. He accepts it. Still, he wished he had written about the things that had affected his life: the joy of skiing, the emotional upheaval of the first true love, the unquestionable loyalty to an old soldier. He has learned too late that every day counts and that tomorrow might not come; every day should be lived to the fullest.


Hemingway’s masterpiece is divided by printer’s regular type for the main story and italics for the flashbacks that take place in Harry’s mind. The imagined plane ride is told in regular print, giving the reader momentary pause before discovering that it is not real, but only in Harry’s mind as he faces his final living moment.

Scenes in the African encampment are full of hostile dialogue between Harry and his wife. Hemingway sparingly uses dialogue tags and relies on the tone of the conversation to convey who is speaking. Harry’s words are filled for the most part with disdain, but sometimes disinterest. Although Helen seems encouraging, saying the plane will come in time to save his life, she seems at times to disbelieve her own words. Still, she is determined to keep peace between them.

Hemingway never describes Harry, and his description of Helen does not mention hair color or skin tone, but her “good breasts and those useful thighs and those lightly small-of-back-caressing hands” and her pleasant smile. The writer focuses on attitudes, not physical attributes to convey character.

The flashbacks into Harry’s past are filled with sensory details that reflect Hemingway’s poetic style: “cool night,” “rose-petal” skin, running “until his lungs ached and his mouth was full of the taste of pennies,” “silvered gray of the sage brush,” “snow so bright it hurt your eyes,” “skis heavy on the shoulder.” Hemingway also appropriately uses similes: he described a day on the ski slope with “the snow as smooth to see as cake frosting and as light as powder and he remembered the noiseless rush the speed made as you dropped down like a bird.”

Hemingway stays in the third person except in Harry’s thoughts when he reverts to second person (you), which is not a technique commonly used by today’s writers.


Hemingway was ahead of his time by writing about a discordant marriage. Instead of drawing a word-picture of a man facing death and making an effort to forge peace with his wife, Hemingway wrote about a protagonist who seems bent on destroying his wife as well as himself. The happy times the couple shared were mainly physical. Hemingway does not describe sex between them, but mentions that Helen “had great talent and appreciation for the bed.”

There are no racial slurs intended in this story. Natives are servants on the safari, but no mention is made of race. These men are called “boys” because that was what they were called at the time that Hemingway wrote the story.

Hemingway’s disdainful attitude toward the very rich is something he felt strongly. Too much idleness and playing wasted talents of many kinds. In the story, Harry wants to believe that he is a spy among the rich and that he will write about their lifestyles, but he never did. He (and Hemingway) became one of them, and it was not a feeling he relished.


1. Hemingway had heard about the frozen carcass of a leopard on Mount Kilimanjaro from a former safari guide. Why did he begin his story with that information? Does it relate in any way to the hyena that comes near the camp, or does it relate to the plane trip that Harry imagined?

2. What was Harry’s initial reaction to seeing the vultures? How did that view change?

3. Had Harry feared death most of his life? What is his view of death throughout the story?

4. Did Harry love Helen? Why did he say he did not and then change his mind and tell her he did love her?

5. What specific things had Harry waited to write about? Why?

6. Why did Harry call it bragging when Helen told him she did everything he wanted to do?

7. What destroyed Harry’s talent?

8. “The one experience that he had never had he was not going to spoil now.” What is the experience that Harry’s thinking of?

9. How does Harry feel about the rich?

10. Hemingway’s working title for this story was “A Budding Friendship.” He changed it to “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” before it was published. Which is the better name? Why?


1. Harry mentions the names of many places he has visited during his life. With the help of an atlas, locate the towns and list them and the countries they are in.

2. Several times Harry apologizes for the odor of his leg. How did his leg get infected? Research gangrene and determine if Hemingway was accurate in how gangrene develops and if it can be fatal.

3. The relationship between Harry and Helen is quarrelsome throughout the story. Do you feel that was always the way they related? Back up your ideas with examples of their behavior from the story.

4. Harry wanted to go on safari to “work the fat off his soul.” What did he mean by this? Support your answer by excerpts from the story.

5. Pretend you are Helen and write an essay about what she thinks of her husband.

6. Harry believed anything a person did too long became a bore. Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

7. In your own words, describe the way death found Harry. What did death feel like? What did it look like?

8. Pick one of Harry’s dream sequences and make a list of the different sensory details he includes in his description.

9. How does Hemingway tie the end of Harry’s story in the plane to the beginning of the story?


Hemingway relies on the basic value of “grace under pressure” (his motto for his own life) when creating characters who are faced with death. He has instilled this value in Harry and in many of the heroes in his novels and short stories.

Hemingway uses the African setting in other writings. “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” (Cosmopolitan, September, 1936) also deals with the death of a man on safari. Two books, Green Hills of Africa (1935) and the posthumously released True at First Light (1999), recount Hemingway’s adventures in Africa. Both are basically nonfiction, but Hemingway used fiction techniques in dialogue and organization and changed names of people on the safaris.

Although “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” was first published in Esquire magazine, two years later it was included in an anthology, The Fifth Column, and the First Forty-Nine Stories (1938). The Fifth Column was Hemingway’s play about the Spanish Civil War. Later this story was included in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and Other Stories (1961) and The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (1987).

In the Esquire story, Hemingway referred to F. Scott Fitzgerald as the writer who was taken in by the rich and thought they were so very different from him. Fitzgerald asked Hemingway not to pick on him and to change the name if he published the story again. In subsequent editions of the story, Fitzgerald’s name was changed to Julian.

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” was made into a movie of the same name that was released in 1952. The lavish big-budget film starred Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Susan Hayward. As Peck lies on the cot in the African encampment, he relives his life in flashbacks. Scenes show bohemian Paris, the battlefields of Spain, and the plains of Africa.

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