“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” first published in 1936, remains noteworthy for several reasons. It is particularly well known for the debate it has generated concerning its characters and their motivations. It also is significant as an exploration of themes that appear frequently in Ernest Hemingway’s fiction and as a superior example of the art of short-story writing.
Many critics and readers have debated whether Margot Macomber kills her husband intentionally or accidentally. How one answers this question depends largely on how negatively or positively one views the story’s three primary characters. Numerous scholars have held up Margot Macomber as an example of one of Hemingway’s most hateful female characters—as a dominating woman who undermines her husband’s masculinity, and who is so threatened when he starts to become a real man that she kills him. These critics commonly hold that the change in Francis after he kills the buffalo is a positive one and that Robert Wilson is the story’s voice of morality, the person who exemplifies Hemingway’s “code” of proper conduct. Some others, however, have put forth a more sympathetic, even feminist, view of Margot, a more complicated view of Francis, and a highly negative view of Wilson. These critics usually consider Margot’s killing of her husband an obvious accident.
That “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” has generated such debate is due in great part to its complexity. On the surface, the story appears to be simple. Its action takes place over just twenty-four hours, and its pace is swift. Macomber first fails and then succeeds in hunting, grows in self-respect, but has his life ended just when it begins to be happy. But the story’s omniscient narrator reveals the thoughts and feelings of Wilson, Francis, Margot (to a lesser extent), and even the lion, and Hemingway’s carefully crafted dialogue offers further insights into each character. The sum of this is that the story is not as simple as it seems.
How one interprets the story depends greatly on one’s opinion of Wilson. The narrator discloses Wilson’s thoughts more often than those of the other characters, and many readers take Wilson to be the spokesman for Hemingway. Wilson lives an active, outdoor life in which physical courage is important—and this way of life, and this type of courage, were much admired by Hemingway, a big-game hunter himself. Wilson believes in a code of conduct in which one must not shrink from danger and must bear one’s sufferings or disappointments without complaint; this is Hemingway’s code, which comes up often in his writings. Wilson disdains the soft life lived by wealthy Americans such as Francis Macomber and dislikes women who dominate men; these factors, he thinks, have made Macomber less than a whole man. Hemingway, although he certainly counted strong, independent women among his lovers, friends, and fictional characters, appears to have believed that the proper relationship between the sexes is one in which the man has the upper hand.
Another view of Wilson, though, is either that his standards are faulty or that he does not live up to them. He and Macomber chase after the buffalo in the car rather than on foot even though it gives them an unfair advantage over the animals, and Wilson could lose his license if this infraction of hunting rules became known; but Wilson rationalizes this by saying that riding in a car over the rough terrain is more dangerous than walking or running over it. Furthermore, Wilson punishes his African aides by illegal whippings; he bullies the Macombers; and he is not troubled by the morality of affairs with married women—he sees no reason to turn down Margot’s overtures, as he believes she sleeps with him because Francis is not man enough to “keep her where she belongs.” Critic Virgil Hutton asserts in The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: Critical Essays, that Hemingway does not intend for Wilson to be considered a hero. Instead, Hutton says, Wilson is an object of satire—a symbol of British imperialism, with its arrogant assumption of the right to rule the world, and “an unwitting hypocrite who harshly judges others on the basis of various strict and false codes that he himself does not follow.”
Whatever one thinks of Wilson, the change in Francis Macomber comes when he becomes like Wilson. The question is whether this is, as Carlos Baker puts it in Hemingway: The Writer as Artist, rising toward a standard of manhood, or adopting a not very admirable set of values that depend on breaking the rules of hunting and lording it over his wife and other people. Yet another interpretation of Macomber’s metamorphosis, though, comes from scholar Warren Beck, who suggests in “The Shorter, Happy Life of Mrs. Macomber,” that Macomber is emulating what is admirable in Wilson, such as physical courage, but will reject what is not admirable, such as emotional detachment. Macomber, Beck asserts, will not try to suppress his wife, but will try to build a stronger partnership with her—something that will create a challenge to her as well. The view of Margot Macomber also depends on the extent to which one sees Wilson’s opinion of her as valid. Wilson hates her outspokenness and sarcasm, and blames her for Francis’s weakness. Perhaps, though, Wilson resents the degree to which she sees through him. Snatches of dialogue can be read as Margot’s questioning of Wilson’s values. She tells him he is “lovely” at hunting, “That is, if blowing things’ heads off is lovely.” She chides Wilson and Francis for their car-chase of the buffalo: “It seemed very unfair to me.” Her virulent verbal attacks on her husband are hard to justify, but the omniscient narrator points out that neither she nor Francis is wholly to blame for their troubled marriage: “She had done the best she could for many years back and the way they were together now was no one person’s fault.” Feminist scholar Nina Baym offers the opinion in New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway that Margot exercises no real power over Francis; like the lion, she is thought of as dangerous, but is in fact helpless because men hold the power in the world. The story’s narrator tells us that Margot is “very afraid of something” after Francis gains such confidence from killing the first buffalo; perhaps she is not afraid of Francis becoming a so-called “real man,” but afraid of him becoming the kind of man who will find it easy to oppress her. Or, if one accepts Beck’s opinion of the change in Francis, perhaps what Margot really fears is the emotional evolution necessary to maintain a solid relationship.
Those who see Wilson as a heroic figure judge Margot guilty of her husband’s murder. Hemingway biographer Jeffrey Meyers, who calls Margot “the real villain” of the story, points out that Hemingway once gave an interview in which he endorsed the Margot-as-murderer interpretation. Others note that Hemingway made varied statements about the story, and that his all-knowing narrator says explicitly that Margot “had shot at the buffalo.” They also argue that if Margot wanted her husband to die, she merely could have let the buffalo kill him. Beck, who definitely considers Margot’s gunshot an attempt to save Francis, sees her as trying to raise herself morally and to atone for her infidelities and other cruelties toward him. Wilson, Beck asserts, is unable to understand Margot’s complexity—to see that she does sometimes try to be supportive of her husband, that her cruelty is a defense mechanism, or that she has been frustrated in her efforts to improve their marriage. Wilson also cannot believe, Beck says, that Margot is capable of trying to become a better person than she is.
The story also is useful for its delineation of the Hemingway code—or, in the alternate view, a satire of the code—and for its portrait of an individual going through a life-changing experience. Many of Hemingway’s stories deal with such experiences. However, even though there is much physical action in his stories, the life-changing events usually do not take the form of such action; Francis Macomber’s story is exceptional in this regard. This situation, though, also lends itself to debate. Macomber is a man from an industrialized society, accustomed to the comforts of wealth; he is placed in a situation where he must deal with the natural—some would say “primitive”—world. Does Macomber’s becoming a brave and accomplished hunter show him learning to deal with this natural world where physical courage is all that matters? Would he have been able to translate his physical courage into moral courage, and is the real tragedy of the story the fact that he was denied this opportunity? Or did he merely figure out how to use technology and wealth to destroy nature? After all, he would not be able to kill animals without his advanced weapons and the expert guidance of Wilson, who commands a large fee for his services. The peek into the lion’s thoughts gives rise to a consideration of the morality of hunting, as does the narrator’s comment that Macomber “had not thought how the lion felt.” This appears to be a call, at the very least, for the hunter to show some respect for the hunted, and perhaps Macomber’s subsequent nightmare of “the bloody-headed lion standing over him” shows him beginning to feel such respect. A hunter who respects and understands his prey could become a more skillful hunter; on the other hand, he could become a more humane individual and give up shooting animals.
The fact that one can find all these points for discussion is evidence that “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is, quite simply, a wonderfully well-written story. It is evident that Hemingway chose each word carefully, even though the same words can be interpreted in various ways. For instance, the description of Wilson’s eyes as “cold” and “flat” indicates that he is not an emotional person. Is this lack of emotion something positive, showing that Wilson has the strength to withstand life’s pains and sorrows, as one who lives up to the Hemingway code? Or is it something negative, showing that Wilson has taken the code too far and lost all compassion for his fellow human beings? Hemingway’s craft also shows in his delineation of the story’s action. The lion hunt and the buffalo hunt proceed in similar fashion; because something shocking—Francis’s act of cowardice—happens at the end of the lion hunt, the reader expects something shocking to happen at the end of the buffalo hunt. The suspense generated by this expectation keeps the reader turning pages, and even after many readings, it’s still possible to be shocked by Francis Macomber’s death, which is, memorably, shown from Francis’s point of view: “He felt a sudden white-hot, blinding flash explode inside his head and that was all he ever felt.” The story’s use of flashback is another technique that holds the reader’s interest. The opening, with the Macombers and Wilson at lunch and discussing the morning’s lion hunt, makes the reader want to know more about the hunt, as does the portrait of Macomber becoming fearful at the lion’s roar the night before. Noteworthy, too, is the vivid portrayal of each hunt; during the pursuit of the buffalo, one can almost feel the motion as Hemingway describes the Macomber car “rocking swayingly over the uneven ground, drawing up on the steady, plunging, heavy-necked, straight-moving gallop of the bull.” This also underlines the advantage the car gives the hunters over the buffalo.
All told, the story’s many nuances and complications make it subject to a variety of interpretations, which are likely to cause debate for many years to come. Moreover, it is still highly entertaining. “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is one of those stories that becomes richer with each reading.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Ernest Hemingway, Published by Gale, 1997.
Trudy Ring, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997