Stereotypes of the 1930s
Though Hemingway does not specify when “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” takes place, it can be assumed to be contemporary of the era in which the story was written, the mid1930s. In the midst of the Great Depression, the fact that the Macombers can afford to take a luxury vacation takes on great significance. It hints that they are far removed from the realities of their day, which include poverty, economic instability, and general misery. In a time in which one quarter of all men were unemployed, gender roles took on great significance. A man without a job often questioned his masculinity, particularly if he was not able to care for his wife and children. Though the Macombers are childless and need not worry about where their next meal is coming from, this fixation on masculinity is still evident in Macomber’s character. In an era before modern feminism took hold, the ideas of what constituted a real man or a real woman were often those based on tradition. Men were brave, courageous, and chivalric. Women, in turn, were feminine, refined, and deferential to men.
One notable exception to this stereotype of feminity in the 1930s is the idea of the “femme fatale,” a woman who schemes her way to riches and fame no matter what it takes. Her dangerousness stems from the fact that though her appearance is outwardly feminine, her instincts are often very masculine. Often romanticized, this woman can be found in many books and films of the era, especially the pulp fiction novels of Cornell Woolrich, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler, whose detective novels often featured beautiful and conniving women who tempted the likes of detectives Sam Spade and Philip Marlow. Writing more mainstream literature, Hemingway also utilized this feminine stereotype, particularly in the character of Margot Macomber. She does not love her husband and has been unfaithful. Nevertheless, he is too rich for her to leave him. One then can interpret her scheme to kill him, becoming a rich widow in the process, as the action of a femme fatale. Hemingway, whose works frequently comment on the notion of masculinity, saw himself as a paragon of manliness through his propensity for hunting, fishing, and bullfighting. By creating characters in this image, Hemingway transfers to the page his own gender stereotypes, which many have come to view in recent years as archetypal and not very realistic.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Ernest Hemingway, Published by Gale, 1997.