Perspective on a Modern Marriage and Concerned Issues in The Snows of Kilimanjaro
Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro is one of the author’s finest and fantastical literary offerings. Quite compellingly, it is one part autobiographical in its protagonist’s mental ramblings and bravely one part drama as well. Set in the desert wildlands of Africa, the short story centers on a bitter and self-pitying writer named Harry who is stranded with his adoring, and ever doting wife, and slowly succumbing to his fight with the gangrene that has ravaged his leg. As the story progresses with the assistance of poignant lines of dialogue but mostly through Harry replaying his life, loves, and adventures in a fast-paced reel, it is clear that death is looming for the character. However, it is not death that assumes center stage in this composition. This work of Hemingway’s is in fact a critical look into the depths of a modern marriage; its limitations and unfortunate shortcomings.
It does not take very long for the emotional framework of Harry to be revealed to the reader. He is many roles and adaptations folded into one tragically human conundrum. He is a writer that no longer writes, a man who has had multiple lovers in multiple women (but has never truly loved one), and a well-traveled man who sees his marriage to his loving wife, Helen, as a hindrance to his inner muse and passions. Harry presents his story as to be pitied and sighed over, when the source of his anguish is in fact him and not his comfortable marriage. (Feminist critic Judith Fetterly has taken Hemingway to task for this particular trend in his works [the unreliable masculine narrator] even calling the writer out in her book, “The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction.”)Harry should be a very happy and fulfilled man; having settled down into a comfortable existence where he is assured the means to travel and explore opportunities, do newer and more amazing things, and have the loyalty of a woman by his side. However, Harry is far from satisfied; he is haunted by a history of regret and bad choices, and he cannot even be happy in the indulgent circumstances which his marriage to Helen affords him because he knows he’ll never love her back.
Helen cannot possibly see love in Harry’s eyes when it is gazing into hers, but she sees something in him worth loving, and she pines like the ever faithful wife for his love and attention. Like tired and world-weary companions, they bicker over drinks; Harry is caustic and careless in his argument but Helen is resilient and though still hurt, shakes off the words as though they were not indicative of Harry’s true feelings for her. Her pleas for him to forgo the whiskey and soda that he requests is not with the intent to control or manipulate him, but Harry still fights against her because as much as he resents her forbidding him, he resents himself for being immobile and not having the strength to fix it himself. Helen is the woman who enjoys loving, caring for, and needing a man; she finds herself and her emotional anchor in being wanted by a man as experienced as Harry. So she feeds his fancies and pleasures his appetites, and allows the calluses to grow on her ego, if it will meanall the world to his. It is highly speculative if Helen realizes her husband has merely settled down with her for stability and does not see her as a soulmate with whom he is complete and whole.
The greater picture is that while Harry is laying there physically dying of this monstrous disease that is wrecking his body; he is already the carcass remaining of a man who died several times over all in the name of living. He has loss lovers but not known the reward of sacrificial love; he has been a writer but has never established a distinctive voice for himself. He believes women to be his real disease as his relations with them have been the biggest waste of his years, and despite all his philandering, for being the fool in bed bought to please and to serve, he is a sexual failure. The writer Linda Wagner-Martin writes in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro: Overview,” that “Hemingway’s implication is that the rot that will cause Harry’s physical death is a corollary for the spiritual and moral rot that living with the wealthy- and neglecting his talent- has occasioned.” With his current wife, he is the ultimate fool; he has no motivation to write or even be himself so long as he can simply be whatever her financial comforts decide for him to be. At times, Harry pulls himself back from being too cruel with Helen or attempts to denounce his words. Yet, this only further betrays Harry as a manipulative figure who will only concern himself with caution or tact if and when the moment suits him.
It is in that African savanna that the reader experiences the gradual death of a meaningless marriage with Harry in his distorted state of being narrating rather lucidly how he has come to this point; his wife being the only one in the dark. Just as she is continually naïve and in denial over the irrevocable condition of his leg; maintaining that the plane will somehow arrive in time and all will be well. Perhaps, Helen is accustomed to protecting and holding onto a delusion, no matter how grandeur it might be. The reader recoils with every insult Harry casts his significant other’s way and hopes she has not been too terribly hurt, although one expects she would be. Although, it is clear Helen loves her husband; it begs to wonder how deeply this death has begun to take form in their marriage that Helen is so blind she cannot see her husband for who he is. The literary critic Robert W. Lewis goes so far as to discount the affections of Helen for her husband and instead portrays Harry as being the“tragic romantic” in his book of critique: “Hemingway on Love.” Still, this theory rings a little dully in light of the entire context of the story.
In conclusion, the characters of Harry and Helen serve as Hemingway’s customary references to turn to for a depiction of the modern American marriage. However, flawed and fragile they are drawn to be, they are the author’s creations and projections of a very warped marital universe. There is the verbally battering masculine figure who finds no contentment in his wife no matter what lengths she goes for him. This male figure is angry to be married, angry to be committed to anything other his pen and books; contained within this bubble of a world where he submits to his wife’s wishes and wants for purely ulterior motives. And then there is the wife, oh, the forgiving, taking, back-bending, and over-reaching female who submits to her husband’s domineering presence and personality, but can never submit enough for the world of Hemingway. Indeed, that is the real heartbreaking tragedy of this short story: the resignation of a romance doomed to fail and the resounding defeat of a woman’s love laid to rest at her husband’s cold feet.
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