Hemingway's The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber

Instructor: David Mitchell

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.

In this lesson, you will learn a brief overview of the plot, characters, and central themes in Ernest Hemingway's short story 'The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber'.

Introduction

What is the natural state of mankind? 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.

Ernest Hemingway on safari, circa 1934
Ernest Hemingway on Safari, circa 1934.

Plot Summary

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 Wilson, which she makes no attempt to hide. Later the group takes to hunting Cape buffalo, which Macomber and Wilson shoot from their car before pursuing an injured bull into the brush. Macomber, 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.

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:

'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.

Themes

Masculinity, Courage, and Violence

As in other Hemingway stories, the onset of masculinity is 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.

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