Man has been pursuing purpose and the meaning of life since the beginning of creation. As society has advanced technologically, this perennial struggle has not changed. Each generation seeks to prove the worth of its great struggles and triumphs hoping to make some great impact on the future of Earth that will somehow stand out among the countless generations that have come before and will come after. This struggle is no different and is often reflected by the individual members of these generations. The desire to be remembered for great accomplishments is seeded deeply within every person who has walked the planet throughout history. In the story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” the desire of the human heart to be remembered by future generations and to be satisfied as one enters the twilight of life is highlighted as Harry, robbed of physical capability by a gangrenous wound, looks deep inside himself and recounts his personal struggle between integrity and decadence, as well as the lingering difference between leaving a lasting, positive legacy and obscurity.
It had begun as a journey to rediscover who he was. This African safari was supposed to remind Harry of everything that he loved and everything that he had been in the glorious days of his past. This was to be a safari teetering between hardship and luxury reminiscent of the distant past, but with many of the comforts of his present situation that his rich wife afforded. Perhaps, he was trying to rediscover his muse, but what had begun as a journey of rediscovery had come to a screeching halt and pulled up to the station of utter tragedy. Why hadn’t he treated this silly little scratch with iodine? How did such a small nick turn into a gangrenous life threatening wound? Why hadn’t he forsaken this blasted safari in the first place? These were the questions that Harry pondered as he lay on his cot feeling the very presence of death stalking him, hunting him. Something had drawn him back to the African continent. Was it death? Was it God? Harry was not sure of what or who had drawn him back to the Dark Continent, but now that he was firmly in its terrible grasp, he pondered the implications of the life he lost−the trade that he had made in order to secure his present situation of fiscal security and comfort. Like the leopard climbing Kilimanjaro forever frozen in place on its noble quest, Harry had set out on a quest of his own to ascend the House of God and find the part of him that he had lost and desperately sought to regain. Now he found himself in utter desolation surrounded by a wife that he didn’t love, an inept guide, and the presence of an oddly familiar hyena. What had led him down this path?
Harry was a writer. He was a good writer. Ironically, though, Harry hardly wrote. In one of life’s most tragic twists, he had surrendered the creativity that was most important to him in the pursuit of the decadent, easy life. “She didn’t drink so much, now, since she had him. But if he lived he would never write about her, he knew that now. Nor about any of them. The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and repetitious” (2256). As Harry lay on his cot, the implications of his life washed over him like an uncomfortably hot summer wind, causing him to seek within himself the answers that he thought he could find on his ill-fated safari. Why hadn’t he written? Why had he compromised his talent and cheapened the love and aspiration of his life? “What was his talent anyway? It was a talent all right but instead of using it, he had traded on it. It was never what he had done, but always what he could do. And he had chosen to make his living with something else instead of a pen or a pencil” (2248). Compromise is such a terribly wonderful concept when used within the bounds of a relationship. It is the fuel that keeps love’s fire burning brightly and balanced. But when used in relationship to one’s morality or life aspiration, the word compromise has a much more ominous and deadly meaning. When Harry chose to compromise all that he deemed important, which was his God-given talent for writing, he lost himself irrevocably. He had effectively committed mental and spiritual suicide because he had lost not only what was vitally important to his mental well-being, but in actuality he had lost everything that made him who he was.
As he lay on his cot, reveling in the emptiness of his life, he began to recount the stories that he had meant to tell. Wave after wave of regret washed over him as he tried to put the pen to paper one last time as death silently stalked, its weight becoming more and more tangible with each passing moment. He tried to remember. He tried to remember and write as fast and as furiously as possible, but it was not enough. Harry then realized the futility of his effort. His life was wasted. Now they would never know. The world would never know the story of Williamson the bombing officer or the half-wit chore boy because Harry chose to compromise who he was created to be instead of clinging to integrity and the pursuit of his life’s purpose. Death then made its final approach and settled its weight on Harry’s chest stifling any chance at redemption.
This story has grave implications for the reader. There are several themes that run throughout the course of the story, but the most salient theme by far is one that despises the compromise of one’s created purpose to pursue personal indulgence. Each person is created with a purpose. “For I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you, not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future” (New International Version, Jer. 29:11). Harry had lost his desire to accomplish his purpose. Hemingway uses this story as a parable of sorts to caution the reader to never deny the purpose for which you have been created. This is seen within the story time and time again as Harry reminisces about his past. The regret of not writing his stories comes bubbling through in his final moments of life. Hemingway’s overarching theme is to be true to oneself and live without regret.
Another important theme that can be gleaned from the story has to do with the internal struggle within the heart of mankind to find balance between compromise and notoriety. Every person has a desire to leave a lasting mark on the generations to come. Some will have a greater footprint than others, but the desire to be remembered exists in the heart of every member of the human race. The interesting fact of humanity, however, is that although everyone desires to leave their mark, few actually have the drive to ensure a lasting impression. Harry is the epitome of this condition. He embodied the talent needed to leave his mark on the literary world, but due to needless self-indulgence and the pursuit of easy living, his potential will be forgotten. In the final moments of Harry’s life, he ponders what his legacy will be and how his legacy would have been changed if he would have put his talent as a writer to good use instead of trading it for a lavish life of comfort and debauchery. This is again another caution from Hemingway to the reader to live each day like it is your last with no regret and to use what you have been gifted with to leave a positive impression that makes life better for future generations.
The simple truth of this life is that material possessions pass away with time and the only thing that matters when death begins its slow dance, is the sum of what an individual has done to better the life of those that have been put into his or her path and that he or she has stayed true to the purpose that God has set forth for life. Heed the warning of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” It is better to be forever frozen on a mountaintop as a monument to the pursuit of life’s purpose rather than to stalk the plain in comfort and decadence, fading into obscurity and leaving this life with unfulfilled dreams and very evident regrets.
Hemingway, Ernest. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” The Norton Anthology: American Literature. Shorter 7th Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton Company, 2008. 2243-2259.
Zondervan NIV Bible. Fully rev. ed. Kenneth L. Barker, gen. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002. Print.