Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is a story about a man’s dying, his relationship with his wife, and his recollections of a troubling existence. It is also a story about writing. Through the story of Harry, a deceptive, dying, and decaying writer, Hemingway expresses his own feelings about writing as an art, a means of financial support, and an inescapable urge. Much criticism has been written about Harry’s failures in “Snows,” although most of it is apparently not available in LibraryWest. Most of this criticism is wildly far from understanding the most important ideas Hemingway presents.
I will attempt to explain why what has been written is wrong and why what has not been written is fundamental to the story. Several critics have tried to analogize Harry’s failure to write what he wants to write to his failure to achieve the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. What they have overlooked, intentionally or not, is that Harry and his wife are not actually trying to climb the mountain. They have no lofty goals to reach the highest point in Africa, but are in their position while hunting game. They have gone to Africa on a safari and it is only happenstance that they are situated at the base of the mountain when the story occurs.
Obviously, the mountain has significance in the story, but to view it as a symbol of another one of Harry’s failures is to place more responsibility on it than Hemingway intended. It has also been written that when Harry comes to realize the summit in his death-dream, Hemingway is absolving him of his failures and granting salvation to the protagonist in the form of a successful climb. Harry has failed to achieve that for which he was striving in life, but in and through death, he is able to gain fulfillment. Unfortunately, critics are ignoring the fact that Harry and Compton do not ever reach the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Harry dreams that this is where he is headed, but Hemingway never actually has him arrive there. Instead, the reader leaves Harry in an indeterminate state and returns to the world of the unnamed, sleeping wife. Some critics believe that Harry never writes about the things he most wants, and is therefore a failure. Harry is the author who cannot bring himself to write about his past experiences, who cannot capture his sensory perceptions in language, and who cannot summon the ability to do what has made him who he is. The critic Macdonald goes to great pains to explain that the italicized portions of the story are the ones about which Harry has always desired, but never been able to write.
Macdonald points out that the italicized text consists of experiences that would have made good fiction if they had been written. Sadly, according to Macdonald, Harry never gets the opportunity to write these stories because he has grown soft, lost the ability to create, and failed as a writer. Macdonald says that Hemingway portrays Harry as a struggling artist, not a failed one. Hemingway intimately knows the art that Harry is struggling with. In fact, Hemingway uses Harry’s struggle wonderfully to show how crippling the loss of one’s muse is to a writer.
He is also able to communicate how deceptive the muse can be and how, once the muse infects a writer, they are no longer in control of their craft. Through The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Hemingway conveys the most universal of truths: text is alive. Once something has been written, all aspects of intentionality are lost. Every word and phrase carries with it so much convoluted and inexplicable baggage into any reader’s mind that trying to assume what a writer is trying to convey is a supreme exercise in futility. The best that can be done is to try and untangle what something means without projecting that meaning onto anyone else’s understanding of it.
After all the critics, professors, students, and bathtub readers have gone over what you’ve written with their own eyes, all that is left is simply what you have placed on the page. Like Frankenstein’s monster, the text, once it leaves the author’s pen, has a life completely unto itself. It can be read but it cannot be altered.
It can be interpreted, but it cannot be understood. The only reason to view Harry as a failure is because he never writes what he wants to write. The stories he most desires to write, he fears, will die with him. But what Harry is never allowed to write, the pieces of Snows” in italics, are in fact written. How can Harry be viewed as a failure when what he most desires to write is, in the end, readable?