David has an MFA in Writing from California College of the Arts, where he worked as a writing coach. He has been published in various literary journals.
The Nature of Humankind
What is the natural state of humankind? Do we even have an essential nature? Do our social structures and institutions secure our nature or stifle it? Are all of our relationships within society, including the politics of sex and marriage, merely reflections of the most primal power struggles between hunter and prey?
The Ernest Hemingway short story ''The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber'' examines these questions within the scope of a few days in a disastrous African safari.
In the story, the wealthy Francis Macomber and his wife Margot are on safari in Africa, traveling with the aid of a seasoned hunter Robert Wilson. Earlier in the day, Francis panicked during an encounter with a wounded lion, earning himself the contempt of Margot, Wilson and the gun-bearing servants. As Francis stews over his cowardice and wounded pride, Margot mocks him and leaves their tent to sleep with Robert, which she makes no attempt to hide.
Later the group takes to hunting Cape buffalo, which Francis and Wilson shoot from their car before pursuing an injured bull into the brush. Francis, having grown in confidence, stands his ground against the charging beast and drops it with his last shot. As he does so, however, Margot has also fired a shot from the car, which kills him.
Let's take a closer look at these characters.
Francis Macomber is a man whom Hemingway succinctly tells us rather enjoys the comforts of upper-crust life and the hobbies of hunting but can't live up the image he wants to project, as we see from the line:
'He was dressed in the same sort of safari clothes that Wilson wore except that his were new, he was thirty-five years old, kept himself very fit, was good at court games, had a number of big-game fishing records, and had just shown himself, very publicly, to be a coward.'
His failure to kill a lion mirrors his dysfunctional relationship with his wife Margot, whose badgering he makes few attempts to deflect. When he finally finds his confidence in the midst of the second hunt, he is no longer threatened by her.
Margaret 'Margot' Macomber is Francis Macomber's trophy wife, who holds little respect for her husband but stays with him for his money. Their relationship is an interplay of monetary and sexual power. Hemingway describes it thusly:
'If he had been better with women she would probably have started to worry about him getting another new, beautiful wife; but she knew too much about him to worry about him either . . . They had a sound basis of union. Margot was too beautiful for Macomber to divorce her and Macomber had too much money for Margot ever to leave him.'
This dynamic changes when Margot senses that something powerful has awakened within him during their second hunt:
'You've gotten awfully brave, awfully suddenly,' his wife said contemptuously, but her contempt was not secure. She was very afraid of something.'
Hemingway does not bring us inside Margot's head during this final part of the story. While we are told that she attempted to shoot the charging buffalo to save him, we wonder if her heart disagreed with her head as to why.
Robert Wilson is the British safari guide who accompanies Macomber and his wife, often making snide observations about them along the way. Hemingway uses his viewpoint more than any other character in story, as Wilson is the closest we have to a neutral observer. He may in some ways represent Hemingway's own views on the subject, yet Wilson is hardly without prejudices of his own. He clearly disdains American women, has as much contempt for Macomber as Margot does, and instantly perceives their relationship to be one of predator and prey.
Masculinity, Courage, and Violence
As in other Hemingway stories, there is a theme of masculinity equated with violence and courage in the face of danger. Macomber's stand against the Cape buffalo arises in tandem with his courage to face Margot. He will no longer be dominated by either his wife or his own cowardice.
Civilization and Nature
The title of this story is ironic. It gives us one particular impression before the story has been read and a different one once we have finished it. Macomber's life may have been short, but it was not, as presented in this story, a happy one. What the title instead refers to instead are Macomber's final moments, in which he has finally come of age. We are told that 'Macomber felt a wild unreasonable happiness that he had never known before.' That happiness is only to be found in the wilderness, and in the face of mortal danger, suggests that stability and comfort emasculate the souls of modern men.
The story presents a rather bleak picture of marriage and the battle of the sexes. Are all relationships pragmatic compromises that can only last as long as both parties benefit? Hemingway suggests yes. Wilson, who embodies a more masculine ideal, has no use for marriage. Wilson understands that their power struggle has been embodied in one final, violent act. As soon as Macomber is born as a man, he is killed by his wife, whether she intended this outcome or not. Francis' sudden death during his finest moment summarizes the irreconcilable power conflict in his marriage, and, we uneasily suspect, between the sexes in general.
In ''The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber'', Hemingway tells a crisp, nuanced story about the belated flowering of a man's courage, and with it, his full maturation. Francis Macomber and his wife Margot are on a hunting safari adventure in Africa with tour guide Robert Wilson, who observes and points out the struggles between them.
Macomber's failure to kill a lion demonstrates not only his cowardice in hunting, but also in standing up to his wife. He eventually gains courage and realizes his masculinity in the face of a charging Cape buffalo, but this newfound, shortly lived happiness ends when his wife simultaneously shoots him in the head, aiming for the buffalo to save him from it. Though Francis Macomber has lost everything by the end, he found himself first and gained the respect of those around him. If you were alienated from your better nature before then, that is a brief happy life indeed. Themes from the story include masculinity equated with courage and violence, stability and comfort emasculate men, and the power imbalance of the sexes.
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