The story opens with a paragraph about Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, which is also called the “House of God.” There is, we are told, the frozen carcass of a leopard near the summit. No one knows why it is there.
Then we are introduced to Harry, a writer dying of gangrene, and his rich wife Helen, who are on safari in Africa. Harry’s situation makes him irritable, and he speaks about his own death in a matter-of-fact way that upsets his wife, predicting that a rescue plane will never come. He quarrels with her over everything, from whether he should drink a whiskey-and-soda to whether she should read to him. Helen is obviously concerned for his welfare, but self-pity and frustration make him unpleasant to her.
He then begins to ruminate on his life experiences, which have been many and varied, and on the fact that he feels he has never reached his potential as a writer because he has chosen to make his living by marrying a series of wealthy women. In italicized portions of the text that are scattered throughout the story, Hemingway narrates some of Harry’s experiences in a stream-of-consciousness style.
Harry’s first memories are of traveling around Europe following a battle, hiding a deserter in a cottage, hunting and skiing in the mountains, playing cards during a blizzard, and hearing about a bombing run on a train full of Austrian officers.
Harry then falls asleep and wakes in the evening to find Helen returning from a shooting expedition. He meditates on how she is really thoughtful and a good wife to him, but how his life has been spent marrying a series of women who keep him as “a proud possession” and neglecting his true talent, writing. Helen, he remembers, is a rich widow who was bored by the series of lovers she took before she met him and who married him because she admired his writing and they had similar interests.
Harry then recalls the process by which he developed gangrene two weeks before: he had been trying to get a picture of some water-buck and had scratched his knee on a thorn. He had not used iodine and it had become septic. As Helen returns to drink cocktails with Harry, they make up their quarrel.
Harry’s second memory sequence then begins, and he recalls how he once patronized a series of prostitutes in Constantinople while pining for a woman in New York. Specifically, he had a fight with a British soldier over an Armenian prostitute and then left Constantinople for Anatolia, where he ran from an army of Turkish soldiers. Later, he recalls that he returned to Paris and to his then-wife.
Helen and Harry eat dinner, and then Harry has another memory, this time of how his grandfather’s log house burned down. He then relates how he fished in the Black Forest and how he lived in a poor quarter of Paris and felt a kinship with his neighbors because they were poor. Next, he remembers a ranch and a boy he turned in to the authorities after the boy protected Harry’s horse feed by shooting a thief. Next, he remembers an officer named Williamson who was hit by a bomb and to whom Harry subsequently fed all his morphine tablets.
As Harry lies on his cot remembering, he feels the presence of death and associates it with a hyena that is running around the edge of the campsite. Presently, Helen has Harry’s cot moved into the tent for the night, and just as she does, he feels death lying on his chest and is unable to speak.
Harry dreams that it is the next morning and that a man called Compton has come with a plane to rescue him. He is lifted onto the plane and watches the landscape go by beneath him. Suddenly, he sees the snow-covered top of Mt. Kilimanjaro and knows that is where he is bound.
Helen wakes up in the middle of the night to a strange hyena cry and sees Harry dead on his cot.
This story focuses on the self-critical ruminations and memories of a writer dying of a preventable case of gangrene on safari. Its main themes are death and regret, and Harry’s morbid thoughts epitomize a classic case of taking things for granted. Harry takes his blessings, including his caring wife, his full life, and his writing talent, for granted, and on his deathbed muses on how he could have appreciated each more. His main regret, of course, is that he has not reached his full potential as a writer because he has chosen to make a living by marrying wealthy women rather than memorializing his many and varied life experiences in writing. The progression of his gangrene symbolizes his rotting sense of self-worth.
This last regret is made so bitter to Harry because, as he admits, it is his own fault he has not adequately exercised his great talent: “He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in.” In a strange parallel, it is also Harry’s fault that he developed gangrene; by not using iodine on his scratch, he allowed it to become septic and is therefore to blame for his impending death.
Viewed in this light, Harry’s predicament is self-inflicted, and is therefore a fitting punishment for his repeated acts of self-betrayal over the years. The lingering question of the story is how Harry’s situation is resolved by the dream sequence that ends the narration. Does his journey to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro symbolize Harry’s acceptance of his punishment and acquiescent passage into the afterlife, or does it stand for Harry’s redemption as a character and continuing desire to rise above his past mistakes, even at the moment of his death? What does Kilimanjaro stand for?
There is abundant symbolism in this story, as many scholars have noted. The actual significance and meaning of these symbols has been hotly debated, but generally, the frozen leopard on the summit of Kilimanjaro is associated with death, immortality, and possibly redemption. The hyena and vultures are associated with illness, fear, and death, and Kilimanjaro itself, though its role has sparked the most controversy among scholars and critics, seems associated with a sort of redemptive heavenly afterlife. In addition, throughout the story, low-lying, hot plains areas are associated with difficult or painful episodes in Harry’s life, including the situation in which he begins the story, and snowy mountainous areas are associated with his happier, more uplifting experiences, including his final imagined ascent to the top of Kilimanjaro. In addition, gangrene, the rotting of the flesh, is symbolic of Harry’s rotting soul.
In terms of style, Hemingway narrates the sequences between Harry and Helen in a straightforward third person format and breaks into italicized stream-of-consciousness for Harry’s many memory sequences. These memories are often conveyed using run-on sentences and consist of bewildering pastiches of characters, places, and events which are consistent with Harry’s delirium. According to Hemingway scholars, these memories are mostly autobiographical. Using Harry as a vehicle, Hemingway writes of a log house he visited as a child in Michigan, of his experiences during World War I, of his life in Paris with his first wife and their fishing trip to the Black Forest, of his skiing trips in Austria, and of a location near the Yellowstone River in Wyoming.
Harry, as a character, produces similes and metaphors with regularity as he speaks to Helen (“Love is a dunghill…And I’m the cock that gets on it to crow”; “Your damned money was my armour”). This is also true during his memory sequences (“the snow as smooth to see as cake frosting and as light as powder and he remembered the noiseless rush the speed made as you dropped down like a bird”; “in some way he could work the fat off his soul the way a fighter went into the mountains to work and train in order to burn it out of his body”).