A Psychoanalytic and Marxist Critique of Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”

Ernest Hemingway is one of the most accomplished writers in human history, his influence and style changed the landscape of literature forever. He is also one of my favorite authors, as I have read most of his novels and short stories and studied at length about the man, Ernest Hemingway, himself. It’s with great excitement as I read “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” that I see connections to places and actual events in his life that he uses as a fictional foundation and embellishment in his writings. But it is not the focus of this paper to concentrate on such material, rather, through a detailed analysis of the short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” using the literary theories and techniques of Psychoanalytic and Marxist Criticism I’ll show the profound influences both play at various levels in the narrative and detail the significance of the overall meanings of the work.

The reason for choosing Psychoanalytic Criticism as one of the two theoretical approaches in analyzing this work is because of the numerous “dream-like” states that the main character, Harry, has throughout the story. The setting includes the protagonist, Harry, and his wife Helen, and their camp and hunting support staff on safari in Africa. The story begins in the afternoon after two weeks of being stranded because of mechanical difficulties with the transport vehicle. The entire story takes place in one afternoon and evening, yet the narrative includes five separate flashbacks, or dream-like states, and a sixth one after (or as) Harry dies, which is the one that describes his flight towards Mount Kilimanjaro for which the story is named. It is because of these many references during the dream-like states, and the unstable relationship between Harry and Helen, as well as the issues regarding Harry’s self identity that Psychoanalytic Criticism is so applicable. And by using this critical theory I’ll show how our “unconscious is a dynamic entity that engages us at the deepest level of our being,” (Tyson 13) and therefore, shapes our self identity, affects our relationships with people, especially romantic relationships, and describe and explain the manifest and latent meanings of the dreams as they relate to the story.

The other theoretical approach that will be applied to the story has a much deeper influence than as it first appears, Marxist Criticism. Identifying the underlying economic ideologies at play and showing “how that ideology supports or undermines the socioeconomic system (the power structure) in which that cultural production plays a significant role,” (Tyson 60) is the goal of a Marxist critique of literature. The cultural conditioning of the character’s within “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (as well as the reader) is so ingrained that the casual reader can easily miss the significance of the numerous references to wealth, poverty, power, leisure, work, struggle, comfort, and social and economic class divisions. In fact, there are so many applicable references that it would be irresponsible not to address their role as ideology in shaping the meanings of the text. It’s through the lens of a Marxist Critic that I’ll expose the ideological structure within the society of our story’s characters and by doing so illuminate the social, political, and economic realities of the time and ask how those realities, if at all, are different from ours today, and why.

Let’s begin with Psychoanalytic Criticism. Psychoanalysis, in the broad sense of the term, attempts to better understand human behavior. “The goal of psychoanalysis is to help us resolve our psychological problems…the focus is on patterns of behavior that are destructive in some way” (Tyson 12). Surely each of us at some point or another has been self-destructive or acted in ways that could be considered destructive to others or the situation. In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” Harry is no different, his destructive behavior, which serves as defense mechanisms and outlets for his anxieties over his core issues, deserves examination as a literary character. Tyson says “if psychoanalysis can help us better understand human behavior, then it must certainly be able to help us understand literary texts, which are about human behavior” (11).

In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” Harry’s self identity, hidden anxieties over his core issues, overt anxieties about his health and impending death, and communications with Helen needs to be analyzed to show how they are affected by a combination of his unconscious mind and life experiences. Harry’s suffering from an infection that started when he scratched his right leg on a thorn and didn’t take care of it. If he would have treated the wound properly maybe he wouldn’t have gotten the gangrene that’s now spreading throughout his body and killing him slowly. Was it part of his macho self identity to neglect the wound, was it a simple oversight, or is he consciously aware of his physically self destructive behavior as part of an unconscious “death drive”? Harry seems to have neglected proper care because he says “I never infect” (Hemingway 41). This is a simple statement but reflective of his macho self identity which is supported by the very act of being on an African hunting safari. Harry is in a crisis, which “brings into the spotlight wounds, fears, guilty desires, or unresolved conflicts that [he has] failed to deal with and that demand action” (Tyson 21) as his health deteriorates, and the narrative of the story illuminates his identity and core issues.

A fundamental belief in Psychoanalysis is that every person has both a conscious and unconscious mind, that is, they are at the same time both aware and unaware of things- many, many things. To be conscious is to be awake, it is our psychological ego; and to be conscious of something is to know it, be familiar with it, understand it, or aware of it. To be unconscious is the opposite, or unaware, and it consists of our conflicting psychological id and superego. “The id is devoted solely to the gratification of prohibited desires of all kinds- desire for power, for sex, for amusement, for food- without an eye to the consequences,” (Tyson 25) and the superego is our internalized cultural and social value system. Our ego is the referee between what society says we can and should want/have (superego) and what we actually want/desire (id). Tyson says “the relationships among ego, id, and superego tell us as much about our culture as they do about ourselves” (25).

Classic Psychoanalysis, established by Sigmund Freud, claims that our “unconscious is the storehouse of those painful experiences and emotions, those wounds, fears, guilty desires, and unresolved conflicts we do not want to know about because we feel we will be overwhelmed by them. The unconscious comes into being when we are very young through the repression, the expunging from consciousness, of these unhappy psychological events” (Tyson 12). No one has a choice of having or not having an unconscious mind; it is a necessary part of being human. Psychoanalysis believes the “unconscious is a dynamic entity that engages us at the deepest level of our being,” (Tyson 13) that our lives are controlled by our unconscious repression of painful experiences and emotions in childhood. Arguably some childhoods are more difficult than others but all consist of some problems and issues that provide the material for the development of the unconscious. And because we store and hide, or repress, our greatest fears and core issues at the deepest levels of our unconsciousness we are blind to how deeply they affect us and our experiences in life. Even though we don’t easily recognize our unconscious as affecting our every action, inaction, wants, needs, intentions, fears, motives, or desires, it’s always at work in the background, and plays a significant role in shaping our self identity. Tyson says “The most important fact to remember is that core issues define our being in fundamental ways” (17). According to Psychoanalysis our core issues, hidden deep within our mind, defines us.

In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” Harry suffers from the core issues of fear of intimacy and fear of betrayal, and he’s unaware as to the extent that both affect his behavior. Most people make the same mistakes over and over, always stumbling over their own destructive behavior because of unrecognized, deep rooted psychological wounds and issues. Harry loves his wife Helen but he’s not as emotionally attached to her as he was to his previous loves, and particularly to “the first one, the one who left him” (Hemingway 48). Most of us remember our “first love” and put them on a pedestal by which future relationships are compared, not that they deserve to be there, but because they were the first they inherently shape all future relationships. In the story Harry recalls writing his first love

a letter telling her how he had never been able to kill it…. How when he thought he saw her outside the Regence one time it made him go all faint and sick inside, and that he would follow a woman who looked like her in some way, along the Boulevard, afraid to see it was not she, afraid to lose the feeling it gave him. How every one he had slept with had only made him miss her more. How what she had done could never matter since he knew he could not cure himself of loving her. (Hemingway 48)

Harry admits to being unable to stop loving “the first one,” he loves her more than he loves his current wife Helen because he’s unable to get beyond his fear of betrayal and intimacy; he’s protecting himself against the sharp pains of the loss of love and loneliness but in doing so his relationship suffers. And sleeping with many women is also a way for Harry to avoid intimacy, as it spreads the emotional bonds from his wife to other women it insulates the emotional separation he needs to feel secure.

Harry is a writer, or more appropriately was a writer, as he seems to have not written much in the time leading up to his death and makes many comments lamenting what should and could have been written. From both a personal, and presumably, professional standpoint Harry admits to having been obsessed with the concept of death, what Freud describes as “thanatos, the death drive” (Tyson 24). But now that the infection is taking him over he is too tired and angry to care, “he had very little curiosity…and [death] mean[s] nothing in itself” (Hemingway 41) and “I’m getting as bored with dying as with everything else” (Hemingway 54). He’s giving up, like he gave up on writing. Harry “destroyed his talent [as a writer] by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice” (Hemingway 45). Harry lost his ambition as a writer on trade for the comforts his life with Helen provides (which will be discussed at length later). Harry gave up as a writer and now he’s bored and giving up on life, which reflects poorly on his character and determination, but is descriptive of his self identity.

Throughout the afternoon and evening Harry’s attitude fluctuates between extremely negative and depressing, to reserved and reconciled. He demonstrates destructive personal behavior as a defense mechanism but it’s his scathing, turbulent communications with his wife Helen that leaves her devastated, crushed by the blow of his comments and the cruel reality of his physical condition. Tyson says “romantic love is the stage on which all of our unresolved psychological conflicts are dramatized, over and over” (48). Harry is verbally abusive to Helen throughout the afternoon. When Helen asks if he still loves her he says “No. I don’t think so. I never have” (Hemingway 41). He calls her names and criticizes her and their relationship. But at some level Harry understands why he’s being abusive as we see when he admits “[i]t’s trying to kill to keep yourself alive” (Hemingway 43). Harry loves his wife Helen, he’s just afraid and resorting to the same defense mechanisms he’s used in the past to shield himself from his core issues. He’s angry about being sick with infection and scared about dying and he’s taking it out on Helen even though he admits “I don’t want to hurt you” (Hemingway 43).

In retrospect Harry is also very upset about his loss of ambition for writing. His numerous dreams and flashbacks deal with material that he always thought he would someday write about but now realizes he might not get the chance. In the first sequence of dreams he recalls various places in Europe and in each scene there is snow. Psychoanalysis would claim that while snow is the manifest meaning within the dream its latent meaning is a reference to the purity and happiness he remembers of his time spent living in Europe, the fun times skiing and gambling with friends, and even the friendships he made during the war. He dreams of snow because he is recalling a happy time in life, the whiteness of snow literally and figuratively represents purity and happiness. A few of his other dreams also share in happy memories, like when he dreams of his first love, and fishing, but most are a reflection of unhappy times, like his dreams about quarrelling with women, fighting, war, death, a fire at his grandfathers log cabin during his childhood, and all the stories he never wrote about. We see how anxious Harry is by the manifest and latent content of his dreams, and “anxiety always involves the return of the repressed” (Tyson 17).

The final dream in the story, the one that happens after (or at) Harry’s death, includes Helen and the camp personnel waving goodbye to Harry as the plane leaves the safari heading towards civilization and medical help. In the dream the plane climbs high in the sky allowing a broad view of the African landscape and wildlife. The dream is filled with various colors- green, purple, brown, pink, and “unbelievably white” (Hemingway 56). Harry knows he is going to a happy place when he sees the snow on “the square top of Kilimanjaro…he knew that there was where he was going” (Hemingway 56). In this description death is seen as his ascendance to heaven, a place of happiness and reward as manifest by the snow atop Mount Kilimanjaro.

Now let’s turn our attention to a Marxist critique. Marxism believes “the real forces that create human experience [are] the economic systems that structure human societies” (Tyson 53). While Psychoanalytic criticism focuses on the individual psyche Marxist criticism chooses to focus more broadly on the cultures “economics [as] the base on which the superstructure of social/political/ideological realities is built” (Tyson 54). When we speak of ideology from a Marxist perspective we mean a belief system created by cultural conditioning (Tyson 56). It is these underlying, pervasive, and sometimes disguised economic ideologies that shape our culture which in turn shapes each of us as individuals through cultural conditioning.

Economics, rather than the individual human psyche, is more responsible for our human behavior according to Marxism because “differences in socioeconomic class divide people in ways that are much more significant than differences in religion, race, ethnicity, or gender” (Tyson 54). And when we speak of socioeconomic class we mean differences in economic, social, and political power between people. Everyone who has studied economics or history should be familiar with the terms bourgeoisie and proletariat, which in simple terms refer to the rich and the poor, respectively. But Tyson says there are essentially five different socioeconomic classes in America: the underclass, lower class, middle class, upper class, and “aristocracy” (55). And people are always fighting and struggling to climb the socioeconomic ladder as part of their cultural conditioning. “For Marxism, getting and keeping economic power is the motive behind all social and political activities, including education, philosophy, religion, government, the arts, science, technology, the media, and so on” (Tyson 53).

But how are we to decipher the economic systems at play in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and what does that say about the ideologies involved? Tyson says “Marxism works to make us constantly aware of all the ways in which we are products of material/historical circumstances and of the repressive ideologies that serve to blind us to this fact in order to keep us subservient to the ruling power system” (57). We can use the historical situation of the story’s setting which includes the superstructure of ideologies on which the economics of the society is built. The historical situation is a product of the material circumstances, which is the society’s economic system. We know the setting of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is based on the time period in which the story was written and published, the mid 1930’s. Even though the story takes place in Africa it is predominantly influenced by the characters’ experiences in American (and European) culture. Harry and Helen are (presumably) American citizens and therefore their behavior has been shaped by the predominant American ideologies of the day, which include but are not limited to: classism, patriotism, religion, rugged individualism, consumerism, and the American dream.

In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” Harry can be seen as a patriot, he fought in the war; as a rugged individualist, Helen “thought he did exactly what he wanted to” (Hemingway 46); as a man living the American dream, climbing the social ladder, always improving his station in life by moving on to women with more money than the last, and enjoying the “acquiescence in this life of pleasant surrender” (47) and comfort; and as classist, although Harry shares his wife’s money he still felt like “a spy in [the] country…[of] the very rich” (44). Harry embodies all of these American ideologies and they shape his identity as an individual, even though at their root the ideologies are a result of the underlying capitalist American economic system.

We can also learn a lot about the prevailing ideologies from the narrative itself. Throughout the story Harry and Helen both shout orders to their camp and hunting support staff. In all likelihood the support staff is being paid but it is worth pointing out that there is a class division between the privileged couple and the workers whose job is to make their experience enjoyable. Also there are numerous references to money throughout the text. Harry says to Helen it’s “[y]our bloody money” (Hemingway 41), and “[y]our damned money was my armour,” and “[y]ou rich bitch” (43). Harry also thinks about how he “had his life and it was over and then he went on living it again with different people and more money, with the best of the same places, and some new ones,” and of the “very rich…which he despised” (Hemingway 44); and “this rich bitch,” and “[Helen] who had the most money of all, who had all the money there was” (45); and “because she was richer” (46); and “[t]he rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious” (53). Harry also recalls a story in which a guy named Julian says “The very rich are different from you and me” and someone responds to Julian by saying “Yes, they have more money,” but this crushed him because Julian “thought they were a special glamourous race” (Hemingway 53). These textual references deal with the subject of money, of economics, of ideology, and classism. But there is still more textual evidence of the capitalist American ideologies present in the story. Another example of classist ideology includes Harry’s statement to Helen “your own people, your goddamned Old Westbury, Saratoga, Palm Beach people” (Hemingway 41). And examples of consumerist ideology can be seen as Helen “had to make another life” so “she acquired him (Harry)” and “built herself a new life” (Hemingway 46). All of the above textual references are proof of the underlying economic ideologies that shape the characters in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and illustrate the ways in which Harry and Helen value their commodities for their exchange value and sign-exchange value. “For Marxism, a commodity’s value lies not in what it can do (use value) but in the money or other commodities for which it can be traded (exchange value) or in the social status it confers on its owner (sign-exchange value)” (Tyson 62). Viewed from this perspective Harry and Helen are using each other’s sign-exchange value in their relationship, in other words, they are showing off their possession of one another to society in a process called commodification. Commodification, or the use of sign-exchange value, is exactly what it means when Harry describes himself “as a companion and as a proud possession [of Helen’s]” (Hemingway 45).

As we have seen there are many, many references in the narrative of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” that illuminate the relevant ideologies as applicable to Marxist criticism. The ideologies of classism, patriotism, rugged individualism, consumerism, and the American dream are as predominant today as they were back in the 1930’s. Even though our social fabric has undergone unbelievable changes since then the fundamental structure of our capitalist American economic system remains unchanged, and the economic ideologies continue their cultural conditioning today just as they did in Harry and Helen’s time.

What I’ve shown by applying Psychoanalytic and Marxist criticism to Hemingway’s story is that both have significant influences to the overall meaning of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” By viewing the narrative under a Psychoanalytic and Marxist lens we gain valuable insight into the individual psyche, and the cultural ideologies that shape the identities, behaviors, motivations, intentions, hopes, and fears of the characters. The revelations provide depth and meaning to the characters, their culture, and to the story itself. The last line of the story takes my breath away. As a hyena moves across the African prairie it makes a “strange, human, almost crying sound” (Hemingway 56) and wakes Helen, then she finds that Harry is dead, and again the hyena makes “the same strange noise that had awakened her. But she did not hear him for the beating of her heart” (56).

Hemingway, Ernest. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” New York: Scribner, 1987. Print.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Originally published at www.happinessfootprint.com on April 17, 2012.

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