The iconic American novelist Ernst Hemingway’s understated short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” was first published in the September 1936 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. It is an eye-opening account set in Africa where two men- Francis Macomber and Robert Wilson along with Macomber’s wife Margot indulge in the big game of hunting. With human tendencies and situations mirroring the fate of the hunted animals, the narrative centralizes overcoming one’s fear as well as an exposition of ambiguities in relationships.
The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber | Summary
Francis Macomber and his wife Margot Macomber hire a professional hunter Robert Wilson for their hunting expedition in the deep forests of Africa. The story opens with a lunch setting where the three humans prepare to eat and avoid conversing about the recent lion hunt. In the flashback, the narrator narrates the hunt in extensive detail highlighting Macomber’s cowardice as he runs away from the wounded lion. He compromises his masculinity and it becomes a show for everyone. His wife who is waiting in their car looks at him in contempt and instead showers her affection on Wilson for his bravery. The embarrassment Macomber feels after this episode splits him. His wife’s daring promiscuity puts their relationship and his manliness in danger. Margot is a beautiful woman and Francis is a rich man. Thus, the basis of their marriage puts both of them on an equal footing but Macomber is unable to prevent his wife’s adultery. The following day, a new Macomber comes to life with an eagerness to hunt the bull. His enthusiastic, brave, and confident display compensates for his previous day’s humiliation. This change however is not welcoming to his wife who views it as a bolt from the blue. However, Wilson encourages Macomber and they move ahead with their plan to kill the bulls. Macomber shoots thrice and is successful in killing two bulls but he merely injures the first one. To not repeat the incident with the lion, he resorts to hunting down the bull and finishing it off. As they look for it, the bull suddenly attacks them and the high gunshots fail to stop it. Margot decides to shoot the bull from her car and her bullet hits Macomber’s head while Wilson kills the bull. Towards the end, Macomber and the bull both lay dead and the intention behind Margot’s immediate act buries in suspense.
The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber | Analysis
At the plot level, the story is straightforward in its comprehensibility but complex in perception. Hemingway’s simplistic writing which is often sarcastic and commentary in nature leaves his readers to interpret things in their own way, in this case, the death of Francis Macomber. By exposing bitter truths of life concerning relationships, sexuality, power, and death, the narrative becomes a powerful evocation of the realization that the best moments in life are always short-lived and so one should experience them in full zeal. Never wait for tomorrow as life is meant to be full of ups and downs where “we all take a beating every day, you know, one way or another.”
The third-person omniscient narrator occupies lesser space in the narrative’s structure as a thrust on the psychology of the characters comes to the fore through various internal monologues. All three characters- Francis Macomber, Margot Macomber, and Robert Wilson reflect on each other’s personality that does not find a voice. It stays inside them. For instance, Wilson’s remarks about Margot’s sudden behavioral change after Macomber’s failure at the lion hunt are as “…when she went off to cry, she seemed a hell of a fine woman. She seemed to understand, to realize, to be hurt for him and for herself, and to know how things really stood. She is away for twenty minutes and now she is back simply enameled in that American female cruelty. They are the damnedest women.” His opinion about Margot however does not affect his discretion to sleep with her. The white man’s two-fold aim to assist the hunters and please their wives credits him with the robust masculinity that Macomber is rid of.
The implicit metaphor of hunting in its comparison to the sexual act is unmissable. Francis Macomber fails to perform at the lion hunt which ascribes him a status of a coward and a fool. He resolves to achieve courage and overcome his fear of wild animals by becoming an eager participant in the bull hunt. But this accomplishment is a momentary affair as he is not only unable to kill the bull at the end, but also becomes a target of his own wife. Fate decides to bring him and the bull on the same page as they both lie down in a pool of blood and their execution owes no crime. Macomber’s life reduces to that of a dead animal which also happens to mirror his debasing treatment by his wife.
Margot is a beautiful woman and she is proud of this fact. The narrator explicitly reveals the nature of their marriage as having “…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.” The climactic shooting by Margot draws attention to her vague intentions. Her mournful cries fail to convince the readers of her complete pure intentions. One can articulate Macomber’s personality change threatening Margot’s amorous engagements. She’s able to dominate him due to his low confidence and poor masculine behavior. Here, masculinity can be an innuendo for his sexual capacity. As a beautiful young woman, Margot’s carnal pleasures need fulfillment. But her husband’s cowardice and poor performance at hunting rip him off his masculinity which also suggests a hint towards his ‘poor performance’ at fulfilling his wife’s desires. A comparison between Macomber’s rifle and a phallus should support this line of argument. Since Macomber is unable to aim the gun at its target, he fails to kill the lion as well as the first bull. Similarly, his wife’s adoration of other men, in this case sleeping with Wilson is an instance of her infidelity as well as her husband’s possible impotency.
Unlike Macomber, Wilson’s illegitimate relationship with Margot somehow fits the conventional gender stereotype around relationships where a man holds the dominating stance. He will never succumb to Margot’s pride over her beauty and he subordinates her position when she finally requests him to not utter about her intentions regarding the shooting: “Oh, please stop it,” she said. “Please stop it.” Wilson agrees at her request: “Please is much better. Now I’ll stop.” He wants her to beg and keep this accident a secret. Interestingly, here we can also observe how Wilson is using this accidental shooting at his on edge. Earlier, Margot points toward the illegality of chasing the animals using a vehicle and also beating the gunmen for failing in their duties that can strip Wilson of his license. To assume Wilson taking advantage of Macomber’s death at the hands of Margot to protect his little off-the-law activity is reasonable.
Such implicit reading of the text calls into attention Hemingway’s “iceberg theory” that professes literature’s inextinguishable capacity of holding multiple perspectives to a story and always having more to what is visible to the naked eye. By not providing clarity on Margot’s intention for shooting at her husband in the end, the author culminates his story on a mysterious note.
The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber | Characters
He is a rich American man who goes on a hunting expedition with his wife in Africa and hires an English professional hunter to assist him. His fear overshadows his hunting spirit when he wounds a lion and escapes from the site to let the hunter kill the lion at last. His cowardice awards him disgrace from his wife and silent contempt from fellow guns men. However, he resorts to killing a bull the next day to achieve his respect back and his brave sporting spirit amazes Wilson and threatens Margot who otherwise intimidates him. But an accidental shooting by his wife kills him and his victory over his fear is a short-lived celebration.
She is Francis’ beautiful wife whose promiscuity threatens her husband. Her feelings of disgust are explicit when she drops her husband’s hand off her in the car after his failure at killing the lion and instead kisses Wilson, their hunter. She challenges the gender roles while transcending them to be an adulterous woman. Though she claims to have made certain adjustments in the past to accommodate her husband, the vagueness of such information hints at her possible lack of sexual gratification. Towards the end, she kills her husband and the author leaves it to the readers’ discretion to interpret it as an accident or a murder.
He is an expensive professional hunter from England whom only rich men hire to guide their safaris. Wilson is everything that Macomber fails to be. He is brave, strong, and masculine enough to please women and take charge of things. Emotions do not weaken him as seen in his guilt less sleeping with Macomber’s wife. To be of service to anyone possible is his motto for earning money and a reputable position in his field. His ambitions also drive him to conduct some illegal activities which he tries to cover up by implicating blackmailing Margot about killing her own husband. The story reflects his worldview in the binaries of black and white and he fails to understand the nuances of a relationship and the emotions associated with it.
The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber | Themes
The story straight away dives into a man’s fear that results in his failure to hunt down a lion. As a human, it is natural to be fearful of animals. But its display is indirectly proportional to a man’s masculinity as conceived popularly. Francis Macomber heads to a hunting safari out of a sporting spirit. His gunshot wounds a lion which is considered more threatening than an unwounded one. Naturally, the lion’s sudden approach threatens him and he runs to save his life. But this turns into a matter of honor. Wilson and Margot feel contempt at this show of cowardice with the former not reproaching it on his face and the latter publicly rebuking him. Macomber decides to prove his masculinity by overcoming his fear and killing a bull the next day. He surprisingly kills two bulls but leaves one injured, mirroring the previous day’s episode. But to avoid the same fate, he ventures to kill the bull only to be killed in the end by his own wife. So it is his fear which protects him in the previous event and the lack of it now takes away his life, though accidentally. To associate fear with a constructed notion such as masculinity is not a fair practice because humans are afraid of one thing or another and it should not belittle them in any way.
The story delineates characters that follow, transcend as well as digress from the prescribed gender norms in society. Robert Wilson is a brave hunter whose physical prowess also lends him the attention of women. He is successful in killing wild animals without any pinch of fear. His aim to grow financially sound aligns with the goals of most men in general. Power and masculinity drive him which reflects in his silent contempt of Francis’ cowardice and his one-night engagement with Margot.
Margot Macomber’s pride in her beauty intimidates her husband and gives her a license to sexual freedom. As a woman, she doesn’t hesitate to sleep with other men just to gratify her desires. She dominates Francis in every way possible that represents the unconventionality of their marriage.
Francis Macomber as a character assumes to move away from his traditional role as a man. He not only fails to tackle a lion owing to his fear but is also unable to save the sanctity of his marriage. He becomes an object of disgust in the camp and his end through a presumable accidental shooting by his wife hints at elimination of a man who cannot follow the dictates of masculinity.