Above, we’ve posted five answers to one of the reading comprehension questions on this past weekend’s quiz in our highest-level secondary school classes. In those lessons, we’ve been working our way through some of the most significant works in The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition. The question which we recently asked our students, included in the image atop this post, concerns a detail in one of Hemingway’s most celebrated short stories, The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
Hemingway is not without his flaws but he remains among America’s greatest writers and one of the messages of this story, that we each bear the responsibility for the choices that we make, is well worth taking to heart. Sprawled on his cot, waiting to die, Harry muses:
He had destroyed his talent himself. Why should he blame this woman because she kept him well? 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?
Though our personal circumstances may differ, by and large, the same goes for each of us and, while there are probably many ways to lead an unfulfilled life, one of the most pernicious self-defeating tricks that we play on ourselves has got to be this one. What’s worse than kidding ourselves into thinking that we’re pursuing one possible future whilst making decisions that lead us to another, especially when it’s one which we would never have consciously chosen?
In Harry’s case, he was a writer who had stopped writing but continued to trade on his past achievements. Years had passed pleasantly enough with no one, it seems, calling Harry’s attention to the fact that he hadn’t written anything in a good long while. By the time that we encounter Harry in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, he has awoken to the gulf separating a writer’s life from the life that he has actually been living and he’s begun trying to get himself back on track. Though Harry’s life concludes prematurely and his attempt to right himself is thwarted, he can be viewed as fortunate in that he was able, on his deathbed, to achieve the clarity necessary to take ownership of and responsibility for the life that he had lived.
As to the answer to the quiz question, if you’ve read The Snows of Kilimanjaro, then you may recall that Harry’s gangrene began in a scratch that he sustained to the skin on his right knee. That makes answers #1 and #5 the most obviously correct and, alas, answer #4 incorrect. According to answers #2 and #3, Harry suffered his soon-to-be-fatal booboo on his right shin, but that was close enough that we gave credit to both students.