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A Plane Ride to Kilimanjaro - Redemption or Tragedy?

The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway is a story about a writer named Harry who has traded his career and potential for a life of comfort and riches. He later realizes he regrets this move and goes on an African safari to regain his inspiration. Unfortunately, he does not succeed. Harry dies of gangrene caused by a scratch from a thorn. This story explores the psychological aspects of a man unsatisfied with his life and lover as he contemplates death.

At the end of the story, we rejoice when we see Harry being saved - or so we think. A friend of Harry, a man we only know as old Compton, arrives on the scene in his airplane to save Harry and the rest of his party from imminent death. Only having enough room in his plane for one passenger, Harry and Compton fly off to civilization. On the way there, Harry sees the snow filled peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, or the "House of God" as it is referred to in the epigraph. We are then told that "he knew that there was where he was going" - an implication that Harry has reached and is about to transcend the House of God. The next scene, however, leaves the reader with a rude awakening. We realize that this plane, in reality, has not come. Harry has not been saved, and he lies dead, his gangrene affected leg "hung down alongside the cot. The dressings had all come down and she [his wife Helen] could not look at it" (1864).

This ending leaves the reader questioning what Hemingway was trying to accomplish. Should we read it as an ending of redemption, with Harry finding the snow filled peaks and then transcending them - in a way symbolic of even transcending heaven? This would leave the last scene with Helen as just a way to allow the reader to know that Harry has in fact died, and in this death, he has found eternal peace. Or is the reader to read a tragic, depressing ending? Is Harry's plane ride one last delusion before his death, causing him to fool himself into thinking his life has had eminent qualities while in reality he is lying on a hard cot as his skin deteriorates off his leg as if being slowly eaten away by maggots? Is Harry's death and final vision of Kilimanjaro a redemption that his change of opinion of his life has brought, or is he only fooling himself into thinking he was a better person than he really was?

Wirt Williams, in his book The Tragic Art of Ernest Hemingway, argues the ending has redeeming qualities. First he asks, "Is the vision an epiphany of fantasy that Harry achieves in the instant before his death? Or is it something else?" (134). It would seem most critics would argue that if it is only "an epiphany of fantasy" or a "vision" then it is a tragic hallucination Harry is having to make some sort of redeeming sense of his life. Critics would also argue that if indeed it is "something else" - reality - Harry has been redeemed. His realization of his unfruitful life and his quest to find something to write about has saved him. He is now able to see and transcend the House of God - Mt. Kilimanjaro. Williams, however, argues that it does not matter whether it is reality or a vision. He says, "Whichever, the awaited plane 'arrives,' piloted by Compson . . . and takes Harry away." He says that the flight is the "final victory of [Harry's] drive toward beauty and its creation" and that he will "at last reach the absolute that appears as Mount Kilimanjaro seen from the plane." He claims that Harry's death had caused him to "[triumph] over his own forces of negation to touch ultimate beauty." Williams also says Harry has found and earned transcendence "by never really relinquishing his quest despite his mistakes and his sins" (134). He concludes his critic of the story by saying, "[L]if is tragic, real triumph is possible only in death but the quest must go on. The leopard is Harry, and all men" (135) (We read earlier in the epigraph of the story about a leopard found dead and frozen on the snow-capped peak of the mountain. Most critics agree that the leopard represents a pure, clean death of a noble creature on a heavenly mission to reach the top of the mountain - to transcend the House of God).

In A Reader's Guide to Ernest Hemingway, Arthur Waldhorn seems to argue for both sides of the argument. At first, he seems to say that the ending and story as a whole is tragic. In using the leopard to support this view, he says, "Most [critics] agree that the leopard's death is clean, his failed search for the unattainable summit noble. Whatever spurred the leopard parallels the artist's drive. Harry had that drive, squandered it, and must pay the penalty of corruption" (145). He believes the leopard and artists drives are the same. But once Harry turned from having this drive, he becomes just like the dirty vultures and hyenas seen in the story. Waldhorn alludes to this by saying that Harry must pay "the penalty of corruption: stench and unremitted, death obsessed and - through the presence of vultures and a whimpering hyena - death imaged remorse." He says that Harry's death, in fact, mocks his failure. He calls the plane ride Harry's "final delirium." He says that Harry ["clings] to a vision of himself" to regain a "dissipated artistic and moral strength." That said, he also argues that Harry does, in a way, gain some redemption. He says that, through dramatic, psychological, symbolic, and philosophical methods used by Hemingway, Harry "wins more sympathy and respect than the evidence may seem at first to warrant." Waldhorn says that by Harry's willingness to face himself with remorseless honesty, he "strips away all the pretense and discards every excuse for his failure as an artist and man" and that this "increases our willingness to extend compassion" to him. Harry's drive to "[cling] to a pure vision rather than succumb to despair or cynicism wins for Harry a narrow margin of victory" (146). Waldhorn concludes by saying, "Harry is neither a particularly good man nor a great artist, but he does die honest" (147).

Peter L. Hays, in Ernest Hemingway, argues the ending to be tragic. He compares the story to Ambrose Bierce's story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." He says Harry only believes that the plane has come to take him Nairobi; it does not really happen. He says, "[T]he entire plane flight and the belief that he has deserved the implied immortality that the summit of Kilimanjaro confers are delusions, Harry's last imaginative visions immediately before death" (88). Notice he says not only the plane flight, but Harry's belief in deserving it are delusions. Waldhorn is obviously saying he does not agree that Harry deserves to be redeemed; Harry deserves his disgusting death. He says that Harry is both "destroyed and defeated, self-defeated." He believes Hemingway uses the gangrene to symbolize a decay of talent in Harry. He says, "Gangrene destroys him, but he has not striven to maintain his craft to the best of his ability, he has not maintained self-control and self-discipline. And the decay of his body is the objective correlative, the natural symbol of that artistic degeneration" (87). He also uses the symbol of the leopard to argue Harry's death is a tragedy, that Harry's abandonment of his art cannot be redeemed by his thoughts and actions. He says, "Frozen, preserved, the leopard has achieved a certain immortality while striving to reach the summit, the top. In contrast, Harry is rotting on the plain, both literally and figuratively" (86). It is obvious Hays does not believe Harry transcended the House of God.

Carlos Baker agrees. In his essay "Two African Stories," Baker calls "Snows" a moral tragedy and says that Harry's death by gangrene "symbolizes all spiritual suicides among American writers" (119). He seems to argue that the symbols Hemingway uses for Harry's death in themselves destroy any redeeming character. He says that Harry's comment, "Never believe any of that about a scythe and a skull," implies that Harry cannot have a noble death. "Death" as we know it will not visit Harry. Baker says, "But the scythe and the skull, though ancient enough, simply do not fit the pattern of Harry's death and are therefore rejected in favor of the foul and obscene creatures which have now come to dominate Harry's imagination" (124). Baker leaves no room for redemption. Baker also shows tragic elements by comparing this work to that of Henry James. James was the writers of many psychological tragedies such as "The Lessons of the Master." Baker says that, like James's character Henry St. George, another "sold-out novelist," Harry is "depressing, the deplorable illustration of the worship of false gods. . . the idols of the market; money and luxury . . . everything that drives one to the short and easy way." He argues that Hemingway, in this story, uses themes regularly employed by James. He says, "[A] modern James would simply have altered the costume, the idiom, and certain of the social customs which appear in his novels. The themes, which were matters of greatest interest to him, would scarcely need to be changed at all" (123).

Those who argue for a tragic ending are right. One can first look at the symbolism of the leopard to see this. Some may wonder why Hemingway mentions the leopard in the epigraph, but never comes back to it in the story. It can be said that this story, as does life in a way, starts out pure and optimistic. This story seems to start off with a noble cause, with a sign that all will be right, honorable, and glorious. It can be argued that every birth is a chance for a better life than the one previous to it. Many want their children to have a better life than they had. The child represents hope for the future, a hope that says, "No matter what has happened before this, now a new time and a new generation has come that can change things." The story starts off the same. We see noble leopard, a clean, righteous beast of prey. One that brings a symbol of hope to the story. He starts the story off with a noble quest, to reach the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and transcend the House of God to gain wisdom greater that Solomon and immortality only dreamed about. Unfortunately, just as mankind seems to loose sight of the optimism, integrity, and nobleness they were born with as they move through life, so does the story. As these children - the hope for the future - grow old, they begin to take on hassles and responsibilities for themselves. They forget, or were never told, of their optimistic promise. They become content with life and with doing the same thing that was done for generations and generations before them. The story is the same. Hemingway seems to "forget" his "promise" to the reader. The reader expects to see Harry overcome his illness and start life over. They want Harry to write again, to love Helen, and to be happy with himself and his life. This, however, never happens. Instead we get a story of an angry and depressed author, who himself lost sight of his dream. Harry forgets the optimism his life once showed as he becomes content with what he has and who he has become. Hemingway never again speaks of the nobleness the leopard symbolizes because nothing in the story is worthy of the comparison.

This story is tragic. However it is far more tragic than most critics say it is. Harry is selfish. In his death, he is thinking only of himself. He is remorseful only in the fact that he never completed his art. He has no cares or concern for the woman he is leaving behind. Sure she is rich. But should not a person with any shred of humanity be concerned about this woman's emotional and physical well-being? She has already suffered through the death of one husband and her son. The last thing she needs is for the man she loves to die again, just as she begins to relive life. And what is worse is that Harry could care less about her, constantly putting her down with vicious remarks. He tells her it is amusing to make fun of her and calls her a "rich b****" (1852). He never ask, "How will she cope?" or "Will she be able to move on?" In fact, he thinks more of his previous wife. About nine pages into the story, he has an entire thought sequence about how much he misses his old wife and regrets loosing her. He admits he is only with Helen for security and sex telling her, "Your d***ed money was my armour," and "The only thing I ever really liked to do with you I can't do now" (1852). Again, he only regrets not having completed his own art.

The true tragic element is not that he did not finish his work, or even that he became content in the rich, secure life as many argue. The tragedy is that even when he examines his life and is completely honest with himself, his only regret remains in that he did not write more than he would have liked to have written. He never asks himself how much he gave or contributed to society. He never questions whose life he has impacted. Or if he does, he asks them out of selfish intentions and to get the glory for himself. He does not ask out of concern of others, but out of concern of his own legacy. He never realizes that, though he may have felt passion, he was never in a true loving, committed relationship. He never realizes the vain attempts to fill the emptiness in his life. He never realizes he was chasing after fantasy and ideology to fill a void area of his life. The sad part is that he questions himself, is true and honest with himself, but still misses it.

Harry first attempts to fill the emptiness within himself with his art. This apparently never fills him, for if it did, he never would have stopped. If his art completed him, he never would have turned to sex and money by marrying Helen. His art did not complete him, he needed something more. He longed for something more, whether he knew it or not. He never learns that art cannot fill the void in a person's life; it can only help a person to find the void and realize that it is there and needs to be filled. This can be seen in his statement on page 1854. He says, "He had traded [his writing] for security, for comfort too, there was no denying that, and for what else? He did not know." He knew there was some other reason than security and comfort that he traded his art for. He just never realized it was to fill this emptiness that all humans naturally have since birth.

He then turns to Helen to fill the emptiness. He thinks that sex and riches will bring him happiness. He never would have allowed himself to stop writing if not. With this, though, he realizes the foolishness. He realizes that sex and money in themselves cannot bring happiness as he thought it would. What he misses is the condition of his heart. He is not satisfied by Helen's love for him because he either will not or cannot love her in return. He does not realize that, though these do not bring happiness, they can add to it when happiness is already there. Because of his own unhappiness, he lashes out at the entire upper-class community. He says, "The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and repetitious" (1861). He again does not realize it is not his lifestyle, but the condition of his heart that needs to change.

So again he returns to his art as a way to fill the void in his life. Who knows what the outcome of this search may have yielded if allowed to be played out. Harry may have realized his selfishness. He may have realized his need to change his attitude about life and others. He invests money in an African safari to inspire himself. But he dies on the trip. He never finishes writing. He never fills the void. He never discovers the root of his emptiness. It is not a lack of people in his life who care for him, not a lack of artistic ideas, not being content in the rich life. Harry is empty because he is selfish. He is selfish and content in his selfishness.

Works Cited:

Baker, Carlos. "Two African Stories." Hemingway: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Robert Weeks. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1964. 118-126.

Hays, Peter. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Continuum, 1990.

Hemingway, Ernest. "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym.6th ed. New York: Norton, 2003. 1848-1864.

Waldhorn, Arthur. A Reader's Guide to Ernest Hemingway. New York: Farar, Stratus, and Girouy, 1972.

Williams, Wirt. The Tragic Art of Ernest Hemingway. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.