17 April 2013
Beneath The Summit
Ernest Hemingway is widely known for many literary reasons—one being his expert use of symbolism and detail. The detail in his short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is no exception. The story is rich with detail, as Hemingway claimed he “used up four novels in one rich short story” (Santangelo 251). This rich use of detail ultimately lays the groundwork for a brilliant idea beneath the text. Throughout the story, the idea of death is examined. Although subtle, Hemingway uses detail and symbolism to comment on religion and its hollow validity. The beginning of the story opens with an interesting italicized section. It says: “Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summer is called the Masai ‘Ngaja Ngai,’ The House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude” The “House of God” reference juxtaposed with the leopard who was seeking something that nobody can figure out is an interesting critique on religion, a higher power, and the existence or lack thereof. Hemingway may be suggesting that society as a whole often seeks a higher power, but upon arrival, they are met with nothing. Silvia Ammary writes in her article “The Road Not Taken in Hemingway’s ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’” of the leopard’s “physical perfection, agility, and boldness: it has the power to climb and reach the mountain peaks” (Ammary). Yet, despite the leopard’s beauty and grace, it is ultimately met with death. The leopard, in a sense, symbolizes Harry’s writing career and, more importantly, how he could never reach what he truly wanted. Furthermore, Hemingway may be suggesting through Harry that humans are often times possessed by religion, but, eventually, they are met with nothing, like Harry and the leopard.
The primary symbol in the story is the snow-covered mountaintop of Kilimanjaro. The mountaintop, according to Oliver Evans’s article “The Snows of Kilimanjaro: A Revaluation,” does not symbolize death, but rather “life-in-death” (Evans 602). This idea of “life-in-death” gives further meaning to the idea of salvation and life after death. The mountain’s peak, according to Evans, stands for “a kind of perfection that is attainable only in death, through union with nature” (Evans 602). It must certainly be true, then, that if life after death were legitimate (as many religious human beings believe it to be), the leopard would have reached the summit of the mountain. Hemingway chose for the leopard to die on the side of the mountain, close to the summit, for a reason—to comment on religion’s emptiness. There is, in fact, an exceeding amount of truth to claims that Hemingway was not a religious person. In Paul Johnson’s book Intellectuals, he writes that Ernest “did not only not believe in gods and regarded organized religion as a menace to human happiness.” Johnson also writes that Hemingway “ceased to [practise] religion at the earliest possible moment” (Johnson 144). In Carlos Baker’s essay “Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story,” he writes that “Dr. Hemingway's religion centered on sin and made him a melancholy, stern and sober moralist” (Baker). There is no doubt that the ideas expressed beneath the surface of Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” are sobering to a religious reader.
Although more subtle, the symbolism of snow within the story is important and apparent. The coldness of the snow that is apparent during winter is also apparent in the story, through death and loss. It is often times true that, in literature, death is associated with something cold, and Hemingway chooses to use snow in his story for good reason. The coldness of the snow that covers Kilimanjaro can be associated with a number of things in the story, such as Harry’s cold personality toward his wife, or, more importantly, the...