The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber
"The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" is a short story by Ernest Hemingway. Set in Africa, it was published in the September 1936 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine concurrently with "The Snows of Kilimanjaro". The story was eventually adapted to the screen as the Zoltan Korda film The Macomber Affair (1947).
"The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" is a third-person omniscient narrative with moments of unreliable interior monologue presented mainly through the points of view of the two leading, male characters, Francis Macomber and Robert Wilson, professional hunter and guide. Francis and his wife, Margot, are on a big-game safari in generalized Africa. Earlier, Francis had panicked when a wounded lion charged him, and Margot mocks Macomber for this act of cowardice. Wilson is critical of Macomber, presented in interior monologue, but outwardly tries to shepherd Macomber toward a more accepted "code" practiced by experienced hunters. This is Francis' thirty-five-year-old "coming of age" story.
In flashback, we experience Francis' cowardly run from his wounded and charging lion. We also learn of Margot's adultery, punctuated by sleeping with Wilson the night after Francis' cowardly run. Wilson both kills Francis' wounded lion and has sex with his unhappy wife. Macomber both hates and needs Wilson in spite of this. As Wilson puts it, this is Francis' chance to come of age, to become a man. Note: Throughout the narrative, both Francis and Wilson have repeated moments of interior monologue; internal and highly critical thoughts about each other and Margot are repeatedly expressed. Rarely is Margot given an internal monologue, and when it is allowed, it blurs with the narrator’s. Her motivations are more often narrated by Wilson, who thinks very little of her, except for her beauty, choosing a man she can control and her sexuality when she is quiet. Her spoken dialogue is often condescending and minimized by both Macomber and Wilson. Like the trophy prey they hunt, Margot's expressiveness is cast by her audibility and visuality. Margot’s characterization centers on the “femme-fatale” paradigm—the beautiful, sexual, adulterous and murdering wife. Ironic, as she is Francis’ trophy wife and married Francis for his wealth.
The next day the party hunts buffalo. Macomber and Wilson hunt together and shoot three buffalo. Two of the buffalo are killed, but the first is only wounded and retreats into the bush. Macomber now feels confident. All three drink whisky in celebration. Margot shows anger for Francis' kill and transition from fear into confidence. Wilson senses a shift in her viewpoint toward her husband: in his point of view, she now fears her husband's growing confidence. Wilson is proud of Francis and feels his job is done. He has helped Francis stand up to his adulterous wife and has helped him kill a buffalo. At no time does Wilson take responsibility for his part in the adultery. He provides a double cot in his tent in order to provide better service to women who feel a safari is not complete without sleeping with the "great white hunter"; he is merely satisfying men and women's glorification of him as "the white hunter."
The gun-bearers report that the first buffalo has not died and has gone into the tall grass. Wilson refocuses on Macomber and helps him track the wounded buffalo, paralleling the circumstances of the previous day's lion hunt. Macomber, however, is confident this time, courageous. Wilson is, again, proud.
When they find the buffalo, it charges Macomber. He stands his ground and fires at it, but his shots are too high. Wilson fires at the beast as well, but it keeps charging. At the same time, Margot fires a shot from the car, which hits Macomber in the skull and kills him, as narrated by the omniscient narrator: “… and Mrs. Macomber, in the car, had shot at the buffalo with the 6.5 Mannlicher as it seemed about to gore Macomber and had hit her husband about two inches up and a little to one side of the base of his skull …”
The essence of "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" is courage. Looking at the opposite, Mellow describes this story as “one of Hemingway’s classic studies of fear”. Macomber hears the roar of a lion and becomes unnerved because he has never “heard, as Hemingway pointedly states, the Somali proverb that says, ‘a brave man is always frightened three times by a lion’”, “A brave man is always frightened three times by a lion: when he first sees his track, when he first hears him roar, when he first confronts him”. Hemingway explains, Macomber is afraid of the lion’s roar and unnerved by his fear because “he did not know the Somali proverb.”
Wilson has courage but Macomber, who is afraid of lions, has none. When the cowardly husband, whose wife made her way from Wilson's tent hours before, finds the courage to face the charging buffalo, he forges the identity he wants: the courage to face both wild animals and his wife. Tragically, Macomber's happiness is measured in hours, and indeed even in minutes. Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker claims that Macomber loses his fear as the buffalo charges, and the loss of fear ushers Macomber into manhood, which Margot instantly kills.
Baker believes Wilson symbolizes the man free of woman (because he refuses to allow Margot to dominate him) or of fear; the man Macomber wishes to be. Wilson understands, as he blasts the lion dead, that Margot is a woman who needs to be dominated. Jeffrey Meyers considers Margot Macomber to be the villain of the story. She characterises "a predatory (rather than a passive) female who is both betrayer and murderer"; and she emphasizes the connection between "shooting and sex."
Francis Macomber has lived most of his adult life under the manipulative and domineering influence of Margot. He cannot bring himself to face her and assert his leadership in their marriage, allowing her to step all over him. The text implies that the affair with Wilson is not the first time Margot has cheated on her husband. Macomber, fleeing from the lion, is unimpressive when compared with Wilson, the seasoned hunter and safari-veteran, cool and collected in the face of danger.
The loss of Macomber’s manhood in the encounter with the lion mirrors the blow he takes when Margot blatantly cheats on him. This appears to be the last straw, pushing him over the edge. Macomber translates his fury into the intensity of the hunt. He experiences rising confidence and bravery during the hunt, as he seeks to take back the manhood he has lost, or perhaps never had.
This transformation is highlighted by various symbols. The story opens with Macomber's offering the group “lime juice or lemon squash". But at the end of the buffalo hunt, he and Wilson toast their success in whiskey. Macomber has progressed from a timid rabbit drinking juice, to a hunter, downing more masculine hard liquor.
Hemingway also employs animals to carry the symbolism of "The Short Happy Life". Macomber is referenced as a rabbit several times, and one of his kills is described as one of “the big cowy things that jump like hares". His conquests are gentle animals, easily frightened. In contrast, Margot is described as “predatory", like a lion. The comparison to Macomber’s cowardice during the hunt is clear: Macomber the rabbit runs from his wife, a lion. The gaining of courage involves Macomber's feeling hot rage, an experience associated with the lion. Finally, Macomber lies dead, mirroring the posture of the buffalo he has shot. Wilson compliments the dead creature as a “hell of a good bull", implying that Macomber is finally worthy of respect by right of the beast he has conquered.
Margot is disturbed by Macomber’s suddenly gained confidence and assertion of his manhood, feeling her position of dominance threatened. His exhilaration after the buffalo hunt unnerves her. But with Macomber’s transition from boy to man comes death. Hemingway offers his perspective on happiness here: however brief, even a moment of confident happiness is enough to make one’s life worthwhile.
It is no coincidence that Margot is the one who kills him. There is an unresolved debate as to whether she murdered Macomber or accidentally killed him. If she purposefully shoots him, she has preserved her dominance in the relationship and ensures that she will keep his wealth (presumably the only reason they married in the first place).
If the shot is accidental, the moment actually becomes quite tender, as well as tragic. She has just observed her husband become a man, and even though she fears how their relationship will change, she is suddenly invigorated with energy to start afresh. Margot picks up the gun to defend her husband, trying to save him in the face of danger. For once in their lives, husband and wife are both on the same side, shooting at the same bull. It is tragically ironic, of course, as she kills the man she is trying to save, but such is Hemingway’s commentary on life. The good things we gain are the sweetest, and the most short-lived.
A third interpretation of Margot’s shot is that she is trying to regain dominance over her husband by killing the bull herself. If this is the case, she wins back her power, but ironically, she destroys the thing she is trying to control. The bullet accomplishes exactly what she was trying to avoid.
"The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" has been acclaimed as one of Hemingway's most successful artistic achievements. This is largely due to the ambiguous complexity of its characters and their motivations, and the debate this ambiguity has generated. In the estimation of critic Kenneth G. Johnston, "the prevailing critical view is that she deliberately—or at best, 'accidentally on purpose'—murdered him", but there are many, including Johnston himself, who hold the opposite view.
Hemingway scholar Carlos Baker calls Margot Macomber "easily the most unscrupulous of Hemingway's fictional females"; a woman "who is really and literally deadly" and who "covets her husband's money but values even more her power over him." Literary critic and early mentor to Hemingway Edmund Wilson observed bluntly, “The men in …these African stories are married to American bitches of the most soul-destroying sort.” Other authors who hold similar views regarding Margot include Philip Young, Leslie A. Fiedler and Frank O'Connor (see below).
A related point that has been widely debated is whether Hemingway intended the reader to view Robert Wilson as a heroic figure, embodying Hemingway's ideal of the courageous, hyper-masculine male. Critics who argue for Margot's innocence are especially likely to question this positive view of Wilson. It is through Wilson's words that Margot's intentions are questioned, notably when he asks after the shooting "Why didn't you poison him? That's what they do in England." If Wilson is intended to be the story's voice of morality, then this implied accusation is damning. But if Wilson is a less-perfect character himself, then his judgment of Margot is suspect. Some critics have noted that Wilson chases down the buffalo in a car, violating the law and perhaps also Hemingway's code of fairness in hunting. Kenneth G. Johnston argues that Wilson "has much to gain by making Mrs. Macomber believe that the death of her husband could be construed as murder," since he could lose his license if Margot accurately described Wilson's use of the car in the buffalo hunt.
In The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story, author and literary critic Frank O'Connor, though generally an admirer of Hemingway, gives one of the most colorful and uncharitable summations of "The Short Happy Life":
Francis runs away from a lion, which is what most sensible men would do if faced by a lion, and his wife promptly cuckolds him with the English manager of their big-game hunting expedition. As we all know, good wives admire nothing in a husband except his capacity to deal with lions, so we can sympathize with the poor woman in her trouble. But next day Macomber, faced with a buffalo, suddenly becomes a man of superb courage, and his wife, recognizing that[...] for the future she must be a virtuous wife, blows his head off. [...] To say that the psychology of this story is childish would be to waste good words. As farce it ranks with Ten Nights in a Bar Room or any other Victorian morality you can think of. Clearly, it is not the working out of a personal problem that for the vast majority of men and women has no validity whatever.
- Hart, James D.; Phillip W. Leininger. The Oxford Companion to American Literature. Encyclopedia.com: Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2010-01-15.
- p. 446,447Mellow, James. R. Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences. Boston: Da Capo, 1993.
- Peter Unseth and Georgi Kapchits. 2017. Hemingway’s Somali Proverb Confirmed. ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews 30(4):253-254.
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- Catalano, Susan M. "Henpecked to heroism: placing Rip Van Winkle and Francis Macomber in the American renegade tradition." The Hemingway Review 17.2 (1998): 111+. 3 December 2011.
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