Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is a story about a man and hisdying, his relationship to his wife, and his recollections of a troublingexistence. It is also, more importantly, a story about writing. Through thestory of Harry, a deceptive, dying, decaying writer, Hemingway expresses his ownfeelings about writing, as an art, as a means of financial support, and as aninescapable urge. Much criticism has been written about the failures of Harry in”Snows” (although most of it, apparently, is not available in LibraryWest) and most of this is wildly far from understanding the most important ideasHemingway presents.
I will attempt to explain why what has been written is wrongand why what has not been written is fundamental to the story. Several criticshave tried to analogize Harry’s failure to write what he wants to write to hisfailure to achieve the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. What they have overlooked,intentionally or not, is that Harry and his wife are not actually trying toclimb the mountain. They have no lofty goals to reach the highest point inAfrica, but are in their position while hunting game. They have gone to Africaon a safari and it is only a happenstance that they are situated at the base ofthe mountain when the story occurs.
Obviously the mountain has significance inthe story, but to view it as a symbol of another one of Harry’s failures is toplace more responsibility on it than Hemingway intended. It has also beenwritten that when Harry comes to realize the summit in his death-dream,Hemingway is absolving him of his failures and granting salvation on theprotagonist in the form of a successful climb. Harry has failed to achieve thatfor which he was striving in life, but in and through death he is able to gainfulfillment. Unfortunately again critics are (intentionally?) ignoring the factthat Harry and Compton do not ever reach the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Harrydreams that this is where he is headed, but Hemingway never has him actuallyarrive there. Instead the reader leaves Harry in an indeterminate state andreturns to the world of the living, albeit sleeping, unnamed wife. Finally, somecritics revel in the pretense that Harry never writes the things about which hemost wants, and is therefore a failure. Harry is the author who cannot bringhimself to write about his past experiences, who cannot capture his sensoryperceptions in language, who cannot summon the ability to do what has made himwho he is. The critic Macdonald goes to great pains to explain that theitalicized portions of the story are the ones about which Harry has alwaysdesired, but never been able, to write.
Macdonald points out that the italicizedtext is comprised of the experiences which would have made good fiction, hadthey been written. Sadly, Macdonald would have us believe, Harry is never giventhe opportunity to write these stories because he has grown soft, he has lostthe ability to create, he has failed as a writer. Macdonald says that Hemingwayportrays Harry as a man who is a “failed artist” but this is not true. Hemingway portrays Harry as an artist who is struggling with his art, an artthat Hemingway knows intimately. It is, in fact, a struggling which Hemingwayutilizes wonderfully to show just how crippling the loss of one’s muse is to awriter.
He is also able to communicate just how deceptive that muse can be, andhow once that muse infects a writer, he is no longer in control over his craft. Through “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” Hemingway manages to convey themost universal of truths: Text is alive. Once something has been written, allaspects of intentionality are lost. Every word, every phrase carries with it somuch convoluted and inexplicable baggage into any reader’s mind that to try andassume what a writer is trying to write is a supreme exercise in futility. Thebest that can be done is to try and untangle what something means without tryingto project that meaning onto anyone else’s understanding of it.
After all thecritics and professors and students and bathtub readers have gone over whatyou’ve written with their own eyes, all that is left is simply what you haveplaced on the page. Like Frankenstein’s monster, the text, once it leaves theauthor’s pen (pencil, word-processor, computer, dictaphone. . . ), has a lifecompletely unto itself. It can be read but it cannot be altered.
It can beinterpreted, but it cannot be understood. The only reason to view Harry as afailure is because he never writes what he wants to write. The stories, the texthe most desires to write, he fears, will die with him. But what Harry is neverallowed to write, the pieces of “Snows” in italics, is in factwritten. How can Harry be viewed as a failure when what he most desires to writeis, in the end, readable?