Critical Essay

Submitted By jofimar
Words: 6670
Pages: 27

J e n n i f e R

R i d d l e

h a R d i n g


“he haD neveR wRiTTen a woRD oF ThaT”: RegReT anD coUnTeRFacTUals in hemingway’s “The snows oF KilimanJaRo”
Washington and Jefferson College

ERNEST HEMINGWAY IS KNOWN—AT TIMES EvEN PARODIED— FOR SHORT STORIES that rely heavily on dialogue interspersed with clipped narrative reports offering little evaluation or interpretation. This style is prominent in some of his best-known stories, such as “The Killers,” “A Clean, WellLighted Place,” and “Hills Like White Elephants.”1 How surprising, then, that “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” has joined these others as one of his most anthologized stories, appearing, for example, in The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Longer, divided into several distinct sections, and focalizing the main character’s thoughts and judgments quite extensively, “Snows” stands apart from many of Hemingway’s other stories. In fact, because it uses so many fragments with varied narrative techniques, “Snows” is an unusual short story not just for Hemingway but for the genre as a whole. Reading “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” requires integrating all of its fragments into a coherent narrative experience.2 The fact that several fragments represent not what did happen but what didn’t—are counterfactual with respect to the main narrative—further complicates this formidable task. Counterfactuals are mini-narratives describing events that “might have been” realized, but which are viewed as unrealized from the perspective of the characters and/or the narrator.3 Ontologically, these embedded counterfactual stories are not on the same level as the main narrative (Dannenberg 45-64). But emotionally and thematically, they resonate as much and perhaps more than the main narrative, and certainly contribute to its global meaning. In this paper, I will argue that the analysis of “counterfactuals” as a thematic element provides a means to identify coherence and unity in a seemingly fragmented text. The central theme of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” I believe,
The hemingway Review, vol. 30, no. 2, spRing 2011 Copyright © 2011 The Ernest Hemingway Foundation. Published by the University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho.


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is the exploration of unrealized alternatives and the coincident judgments of these alternatives by characters, narrator, and implied author. The explorations of “what might have been”—which appear in some form in every section of “Snows”—unite the story’s fragments and provide the key to its total thematic effect, inviting the reader to participate in the process of judgment. WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN: BRIEF THEORETICAL GROUNDING Examination of the counterfactual as a linguistic form has a long history in the study of language, and the consideration of “counterfactual thinking” has more recently emerged as an important area of research in social and cognitive psychology. The “counterfactual” has traditionally been defined in technical terms as a conditional sentence with a false antecedent (see Lewis). I use the term as it has commonly been used by psychologists, to refer to narratives of unrealized alternatives, or what-might-have-been scenarios (Roese and Olson 1). It is important to keep in mind, though, that a counterfactual scenario has both a linguistic and cognitive dimension, a fact that has been investigated at length by cognitive linguists including Dancygier and Sweetser, Fillmore, Fauconnier and Fauconnier in partnership with Turner. As described by Gilles Fauconnier in his book Mental Spaces, speakers typically introduce the counterfactual into discourse by using a specific set of grammatical and lexical forms to indicate that a scenario is counterfactual and not actual; these forms include negatives, modal verbs, and conditional sentences (111-116). The counterfactual scenario departs in some specific and meaningful way from events viewed as actual by the speaker.