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Therapy in Writing: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Their Confessions and Fears in The Lost Characters

Updated on December 10, 2013
Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald
Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald

Finding Hemingway and Fitzgerald in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "Tender is the Night"

Many of the protagonists in modern American Literature are reflections of the authors who wrote them. The protagonists often make the novels become semi-autobiographical, since they exhibit the fears, thoughts, emotions, and self-reflections of their creators. In Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” the protagonist, Harry, is Hemingway’s “evil twin.” Harry is the image of everything Hemingway fears he could become, as well as a representation of Hemingway’s own fears of his death. On the other hand, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald employs multiple characters to represent different facets of his life, with Dick Diver playing Fitzgerald and Albert McKisco playing who Fitzgerald wishes he could be. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald both detail intimate portions of their lives and effectively use their characters as vessels of confession in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “Tender is the Night.”

In Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, the protagonist, Harry, is laying at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa slowly dying of gangrene. The infection originated from a cut on his leg that he failed to properly attend to. From the beginning of the story, Harry recognizes he is on his deathbed, with virtually no chance of surviving the ordeal. Accompanying Harry on this expedition is his (rich) wife, Helen, who attempts to comfort and encourage him, as she believes the rescue plane will inevitably arrive before Henry loses his life to the infection. Throughout the story, Harry’s inner-thoughts are revealed, describing his relationship and feelings toward Helen, his feelings on death, and numerous flashbacks which highlight assorted points of his life and the feelings of regret that accompany all of these thoughts. These feelings of regret are where Ernest Hemingway becomes prevalent in Harry.

The reader discovers that a long time ago, Harry was a prominent writer who married rich and continued to remarry richer. This led to him becoming comfortable in life and forgoing his passion to live a life of luxury as opposed to one of work. Part of Harry’s excuse for not writing is that “he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well” (1984). This was a philosophy that Hemingway employed through much of his career, even with “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” which he wrote upon returning from an African safari where he had visited Mount Kilimanjaro. Most of Hemingway’s fiction derives from his own personal experience. Harry also follows this philosophy, but the difference is that his comfortable lifestyle affords him to put off writing what he has experienced. Harry then uses this as an excuse to hate his wife, blaming her for his lack of drive because of her monetary status, before coming to the conclusion that it was his own actions that had ceased his writing career. Hemingway beautifully describes Harry’s situation in this passage:

He had destroyed his talent 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, by hook and by crook… What was his talent anyway? It was a talent all right but instead of using it, he had traded on it. It was never what he had done, but always what he could do. And he had chosen to make his living with something else instead of a pen or a pencil. (Hemingway)

This passage delivers all of Hemingway’s fears of losing his talent to complacency. Though complacency isn’t the only fear of Hemingway’s that is written in Harry.

In addition to complacency, as a writer, Hemingway was afraid of death. He was afraid of his own inner Harry and the prospect of using his fame to coast through life, not telling the stories he intended to tell, and eventually running out of time. Part of this was due to an incident that occurred during his African safari, where he contracted amoebic dysentery, which caused him to be flown out to Nairobi and landed him in the hospital for nearly a month. Amoebic dysentery is a parasitic infection that attacks the large intestine, causing stomach bleeding, debilitating cramps, cysts, bloody diarrhea, and can spread through the intestinal wall into the liver, lungs, and brain. A theme found in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” that matches treatment for amoebic dysentery is that it is highly recommended for patients to refrain from alcoholic beverages. Harry is constantly requesting to have drinks, while his wife Helen reminds him that he shouldn’t drink because “it said in Black’s to avoid all alcohol.” Hemingway himself was known to be a heavy drinker, so the times where Harry is requesting a drink are all projections of times when Hemingway was also requesting drinks while recovering from his illness. So now we have both Harry and Hemingway on African safaris, both being eaten alive by their respective infections, with the only difference being that Hemingway makes it out of his alive, whereas Harry dies in his camp, leaving all of his stories untold.

Many of Harry’s stories also reflect experiences of Ernest Hemingway. As Gloria Dussinger writes, “the similarity of Harry's memories in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” to those of Hemingway in A Movable Feast reveals the autobiographical intensity of this short story” (Dussinger). What she is alluding to are the flashbacks that Harry goes through during the story (flashbacks in the story are written in italics). The first flashback notes a number of places that Harry had been, including sections between Greece and Turkey that Hemingway had covered during the border wars in 1922. It also recalls Harry going to ski resorts that Hemingway frequented in Austria. In the third flashback, Harry recalls doing a lot of his writing in the same hotel where Paul Verlaine died. Hemingway had actually rented and worked in the exact same room where Paul Verlaine died. Another part of Harry where Hemingway shines through is in the original version of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Harry also has a flashback of an exceptionally gory scene during World War One, when he encounters a man so fatally injured that he is begging for Harry to kill him. Hemingway was an ambulance driver in World War One, so he undoubtedly encountered many gruesome scenes such as this one. At one point, Harry (Hemingway) makes a mention of F. Scott Fitzgerald, where Harry is recalling a conversation the two of them had. Fitzgerald’s name was edited out of the text at the request of Hemingway’s editor.

Even though Hemingway edited Fitzgerald out of his story, Fitzgerald put enough of himself in Tender is the Night to make up for it. In Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald pours his soul out in two characters, Abe North and Albert McKisco. Abe North represents everything that Fitzgerald believes he has become, whereas Albert McKisco represents everything Fitzgerald wishes he could be.

In Tender is the Night, Abe North is a composer, but at the same time, he is a representation of Fitzgerald looking in the mirror. North at one time in his career was a very successful composer, until eventually the success got to his head. He began going down a path of partying and drinking, until he had completely lost his talent for composing. Everything he had made after a certain point had been a failure, though he strove to complete another masterpiece. Fitzgerald believed this was how his life was going. In Darrel Mansell’s article, “Self-Disdain in Tender is the Night,” he says, “After a brilliant and precocious start, like Fitzgerald's, Abe North has composed nothing for years. His achievement is now considered fragmentary, suggestive and surpassed” (Mansell). While in America, Fitzgerald was a popular writer, completing a number of great works, but now his life was consumed by drinking and partying. His achievements were becoming surpassed by other writers around him. Tender is the Night itself went unfinished for nine years, and even after his death, it still wasn’t completely finished. Fitzgerald believed his lifestyle had led him to dwindle away into the failure that was Abe North and that his prospects for finishing his next masterpiece (Tender is the Night) had all but vanished.

Albert McKisco on the other hand was Abe North’s opposite, and everything Fitzgerald wished he could become. McKisco starts out the novel as a brooding, unsuccessful writer, until he survives a duel (with pistols) against a seasoned war veteran. Afterwards, McKisco gains a semblance of self-confidence and actually turns his career around, becoming a very successful and prominent writer. F. Scott Fitzgerald had often complained about the fact that he had never seen battle. McKisco’s only encounter with war was the duel, but it transforms his career. The successfulness of McKisco’s new career is also something that Fitzgerald craved, being in the midst of a nine year hiatus of completing a novel. In Tender is the Night, McKisco churns out novel after novel, all of which becoming instant classics. This is something that Fitzgerald himself seems utterly incapable of doing.

The modernist works “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway and Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald are not just works written for the reader’s enjoyment. They are both therapeutic exercises with which the authors use to explore their fears surrounding their careers as authors. Both Hemingway and Fitzgerald were afraid that their careers would become complacent and dwindle away, so both used characters who were artists that exhibited those qualities. This technique makes the works more personal and invites the reader even further into the minds of two of America’s most prolific writers, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Works Cited

Dussinger, Gloria R. "'The Snows of Kilimanjaro': Harry's Second Chance." Studies in Short Fiction 5.1 (Fall 1967): 54-59. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 25. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997. Literature Resource Center. Web. Apr 15. 2011.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Tender Is the Night. New York: Scribner, 2003.

Hemingway, Ernest, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Nina Baym. 7th ed. New York: Norton, 2007.

Mansell, Darrel. "Self-disdain in Tender Is the Night." The Midwest Quarterly 45.3 (2004): 2 27+. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. April 15. 2011.


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    • Scosgrove profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Tampa, Florida

      Yikes... Tough decision. You could honestly flip a coin for me on either Fitz or Hemingway, so I'd say read both and decide for yourself! "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is more of a short story, so reading both wouldn't be too tasking.

      I'd recommend anything from either author though.

    • i scribble profile image

      i scribble 

      7 years ago

      Interesting. Maybe it will motivate me to read one or both of these novels. Which do you like best?


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