Harry, the protagonist of the story, is a writer. As he lies near death on a cot in the African wilds, his thoughts go back to his life experiences. Hemingway skillfully develops Harry’s character by use of his cutting words to his wife, his memories of other women and other times, his attitude towards death, and his ceaseless drinking even when he knows it is harmful.
Since Hemingway based this character on himself, he made Harry very realistic, drawing on his own professional resume to establish a journalistic background for Harry. The main character’s wife was loosely based on Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline. In the story, Harry feels that he has been bought by his wife’s money, and it is a feeling he can barely tolerate.
Harry never calls Helen by her name, and it is only near the end of the story, during the plane trip episode in his mind, when she is named. Otherwise, he refers only to her as “she.”
Helen is one of Hemingway’s more developed women Characters; he gave her a rounded background. She had been devoted to her first husband who died just as their two children had grown and left home, leaving her quite alone and needing to build a new life. She turned to drink, horses, and books. Then she took lovers. When one of her children was killed in a plane crash, she was devastated and scared. She no longer wanted lovers; she wanted a solid relationship, and she found Harry. She admired his books and thought his life exciting. She had started a new life with him, and in turn, he had lost his old life.
There are many minor Characters in this story. At the African camp are the servants, and one is mentioned by name; Molo is called several times to prepare the ever present whisky-soda. Near the end of the story, the pilot Compton flies Harry off toward Mount Kilimanjaro. Other Characters are briefly mentioned in the flashbacks that take place in the many locations where Harry has lived.
Hemingway’s hero, when faced with death, looks back on his life and tries to make sense of it. He sees a talent destroyed by not using it, by drinking too much, and by laziness caused by too much money. Most of all, he is filled with regret-some regret for being selfish in his dealings with others, but mostly regret that he will not be able to write all the stories he thought he had time to relegate to a later day. He had put away the most important parts of his life, waiting for another time to put the emotions and thoughts on paper, and now it is too late.
The theme of facing death with courage and “grace under pressure,” Hemingway’s code of living, is dealt with from the beginning of the story when Harry admits that death is painless. He has lived in fear of death all his life, even been obsessed with it, and now that he is faced with it, he finds he is too tired to fight it. He accepts it. Still, he wished he had written about the things that had affected his life: the joy of skiing, the emotional upheaval of the first true love, the unquestionable loyalty to an old soldier. He has learned too late that every day counts and that tomorrow might not come; every day should be lived to the fullest.