Hemingway is as an author who presents readers with an “iceberg” scenario in which most of the substance lies far beneath the surface and cannot be seen or known. As a result, one is constantly forced to play detective and unravel (or sometimes merely guess at) the brief glimpses of inside stories presented. In addition to this, Hemingway also offers several metaphors and figurative images and ideas that serve as guides for the reader when attempting to dismember a story. Throughout his short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” metaphors play an important role, particularly as they relate to the disintegration of Harry as an author and creative man. Strangely, however, this process of decay, despite its parallels to the gangrenous infection plaguing his right leg, did not begin suddenly, but evolved over time.
Much of the short story by Hemingway, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is thus given over to the idea of infection and its causes—namely, in this case, becoming accustomed to a domestic kind of luxury and relative ease and the reader is left to extrapolate the far deeper ideas that wait under the surface. In the process of deeply analyzing the metaphor of infection, one finds related issues such as apathy, self-pity, and the creation of scapegoats are not symptoms of weakness caused by such a creative or even spiritual infection, but are actually the cause. Through this examination of these more subtle meanings, allusions, and symbolic functions of different aspects of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” one is able to see clearly many layers of depth in a story that is about far more than a man with gangrene who resents the fact that he is faced with unfulfilled ambitions and is rather, in fact, a deep meditation on issues of true creativity and more generally, the human impulse to grow complacent in the presence of comfort. The story itself takes a backseat to these more compelling philosophical questions and by the conclusion, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” becomes more allegory than straightforward tale.
There are extensive parallels between the infection in Harry’s leg and the metaphorical “infection” of his writing talents. In one of the first narrative breaks after the beginning of the story where the couple is bickering, the narrator finally introduces the reader to the inner world of Harry, stating, “Since the gangrene started in his right leg he had no pain and with the pain the horror had gone and all he felt now was a great tiredness and anger that this was the end of it” (1849). Interestingly, this infection in his leg that leads to an extreme feeling of numbness and emptiness is echoed in the way Harry feels about the stifling of his writing abilities and motivation by the domesticating influence of Helen and perhaps more importantly, the easy security and comfort afforded by wealth. In perfect sync with this description of the numbness and tiredness caused by the physical infection, Harry’s mental and creative infection, which has been caused (at least in his mind) by the comfort of Helen and her money is described with exactly the same sense of gradual loss of feeling until only emptiness remains. The narrator recounts Harry’s feelings, saying, “each day of not writing, of comfort, of being that which he despised, dulled his ability and softened his will to work so that finally, he did no work at all” (1853). In other words, the “gangrene” in this metaphor is this crippling influence on his writing and creativity as he has spent too long simply living rather than pursuing his craft and instead of feeling constant pain over this loss, he is empty and oscillates between apathy and sudden moments of rage and sadness and is unable to sustain one emotion for long. If one emotion or sense remains at the end of the story, it is that same emptiness as the reader realizes that only the emptiness of unused and unrealized vision remains amid a brief but useless fantasy.
The narrator’s description of Harry’s process of infection, despite its medical tone, actually masks an even deeper metaphor about the nature of Harry’s demise as a writer and his demise as a once whole and “uninfected” person. When Helen asks how they ever managed to get to such a point, Harry replies in what might seem to be a rather non-complex statement, “I suppose what I did was to forget to put iodine on it when I first scratched it. Then I didn’t pay attention to it because I never infect. Then, later, when it got bad, it was probably using that weak carbolic solution when the other antiseptics ran out that paralyzed the minute blood vessels and started the gangrene” (1850). The metaphorical significance of this seemingly straightforward statement cannot be ignored as it is central to one of the major themes of the story.
By allowing himself to sit too long in the lap of luxury without devoting attention to his craft, Harry “scratched” himself and instead of applying the metaphorical “iodine” of an escape from this easy life and return to places of true inspiration (Paris, Constantinople, Austria) he merely used a “weak carbolic solution” whose metaphorical equivalent is a trip to Africa. This trip to the mountain was supposed to help him “work the fat off his soul” (1853) but he waited too long to apply the remedy when the first signs of danger emerged. What is most interesting about the parallels between the physical and the mental or creative infections is that in order to try to find a way out of the emptiness and numbness, he attacks Helen.