Autobiographical Elements in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" by E. Hemmingway

Term Paper, 2004

14 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1.) Introduction

2.) Themes in the Story and their Interpretation

3.) Symbols in the Story and Their Possible Meanings

4.) Autobiographical Elements in the Story

5.) Conclusion

Works Cited

1.) Introduction

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is among Ernest Hemingway’s most impressive short stories. While the fascinating and mysterious African background forms an almost adventurous or dangerous setting, the story itself deals with the major motifs of human life: Love, death, loss, culture versus wilderness or self-realization and sense of life are just some of these. The existentialistic text about many secrets of human life with its ironic as well as deeply serious messages however reveals also the author behind the story, Ernest Hemingway.

He himself called his literary works biographic and according to many critics, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” can be seen as his most autobiographical one where he deals with issues having concerned him during all of his life. Not only his relationship to women but also topics like war, death, love, sex, nihilism, existentialism, travelling, hunting, wilderness and his fear of losing his talent are some of the themes Hemingway coped with during his adventurous and colourful life – and they also play an important role in his African short story. This term paper firstly examines the main themes in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”.

Three themes will be considered, each theme followed by possible interpretations. The second part will then concentrate on symbols in the text and their possible meanings. However, the main focus of the term paper will be on the autobiographical elements in the story: It will bring out parallels between Hemingway’s real life and elements in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”. Thus, situations or traits of characters in the novel will be compared to similar experiences Hemingway made during his adventurous life. The examination of all these similarities between the life of ‘Papa’ and the text will then be the basis for a short conclusion. The term paper might help us to better understand the author behind the story as a man with his sorrows, thoughts, problems and motives. Knowing the short story with its symbols and themes as well as its autobiographical background may lead us to a more comprehensive approach to the fascinating world of the literature and life of Ernest Hemingway.

2.) Themes in the Story and their Interpretation

Hemmingway’s famous “Iceberg Theory” (he thereby meant that in his texts, only a short part of the overall content is actually written down, the rest of it stands in-between the lines) has often caused confusion in reading his short stories and his omissions have tended to obscure their thematic implications. His short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, however, is embarrassing by its riches. Hemmingway commented on the plethora of material. According to him he put the material for four novels into this one story (Santangelo 251). The abundance of themes however opens various possibilities of interpretation.

One of the themes in the text is Harry’s salvation linked with the plane ride at the end of the story. There are two possible interpretations of the air trip: Either you can think that the airplane really arrived at the camp and took the protagonist to the top of Kilimanjaro or that it is only a vision of the dying man. Does it represent a journey earned by true deathbed repentance or is it only a final dream as an ironic counterpart of his wasted life?

The theme of salvation at the end is linked with the theme of death and life. Harry’s review on the vivid scenes of his life is contrasted with death approaching him more and more. This takes place in the field of tension of a difficult relationship of a couple and the African wilderness colliding with the protagonist’s memories of culture, represented for instance by Paris. Then there is the major theme of the story: the theme of self-realization. Harry is convicted of his failure as a writer because of moral delinquencies and his dependency on the wealth of his wife. We see the dramatic situation of Harry as an author having lost his ‘world’ and talent because of a lack of soul, character and faith. He didn’t manage to be a spy in the world of the rich, gets lulled to sleep by their comforts and money, and never writes about this world. He then waits for death to come in a matter-of-fact view.

As his wife and behaviour lead to moral death in life the reader asks himself if the protagonist may have realized that there was no sense in his life. The recipient might here perhaps go so far and ask himself if there is any redemption after death at all or any task in life for the individual. He might deal for some time even with an atheistic or nihilistic view of human life. One thesis coming up by looking at possible interpretations of the story might be that Hemingway’s story deals with the theme of self-realization and plays with the question if there is any sense of life or redemption after death at all. This thesis or interpretation of the story would also fit the same basic questions of modernism: “What am I in it? - What’s my function in the universe? - What are the limits of knowledge? - What is real?” After this short look at some themes and possible interpretations, the term paper will now consider some symbols of text and their possible meanings.

3.) Symbols in the Story and Their Possible Meanings

Various symbols are set around Harry’s fate: One for example is the leopard mentioned at the beginning of the story. The frozen carnivore may stand for Harry’s salvation at the end or for his redemption of the cruelties of life through death. Additionally the question can be asked how much this wildcat does contribute to the transcendental, almost kind of religious “background feeling” of the story. The leopard in the mighty highs of Africa’s legendary mountain may be standing for elegance and moral rectitude which collides with a carcass-eating, dirty hyena down in the hot steppe representing decay and ruin. This may also be linked with Harry’s description of the wonderful snowy heights of the mountain called “Ngaje Ngai” and have its counterpart in the bad reality of his infected, lethal leg down in the glowing air of the African plains. On the contrary, the ugly vultures gathering around the protagonist can be seen as death symbols. These big birds usually circle in the air above an infected or wounded animal and kind of foreshadow Harry’s fate in the text already at the beginning. The symbols and themes in the story can however be seen also in the context of Hemingway’s own problems in life, as autobiographical elements in the text as the treatment of his personal experiences and creeds.

4.) Autobiographical Elements in the Story

In the early thirties, Ernest Hemingway was hurt by the attacks of critics about A Farewell to Arms. Winner Take Nothing didn’t reach his normal high standard of writing, Death in the Afternoon was severely criticized and his last fictional work lay five years back; on the whole, he didn’t seem to be able to write a long novel. So when “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” took shape, he might have had sorrows and problems not only concerning his further career as a writer. His self-doubts and problems during the thirties seem to have entered the short story and it may present Hemingway as he might have been or as he feared he might be.

‘Papa’, as he was later called, was all his life terrified of the notion that he could lose his talent and soul as a result of giving in to the temptations of wealth and women. As he had married the rich Pauline Pfeiffer in Paris in May 1927 and therefore left his son “Bumby” and first wife Hadley Richardson, life with financial problems was over. But Hemingway might have had some reservations about living on his wife’s money and his pride could have been hurt by the feeling of being bought. In the thirties when millions of Americans still suffered from the consequences of Black Friday and the world economic crisis, Hemmingway bought his very expensive sporting set and his fishing yacht. In addition to his luxurious villa in Key West he later acquired also the Finca Vigia in Cuba as well as his Ranch in Idaho, mainly with the money of Pauline. So perhaps he himself felt that he wasn’t safe of the allurements of money, wealth and leisure, which he saw as a big threat for his talent.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Autobiographical Elements in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" by E. Hemmingway
University of Stuttgart  (Institut für Literaturwissenschaft: Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Introduction to Literary Studies
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Autobiographical, Elements, Snows, Kilimanjaro, Hemmingway, Introduction, Literary, Studies
Quote paper
Jörg Vogelmann (Author), 2004, Autobiographical Elements in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" by E. Hemmingway, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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