“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” explores a number of important themes. Francis Macomber and his wife are on a hunting expedition in Africa. Their guide is Robert Wilson. Macomber is eager to impress his wife, whom he sees as attracted to Wilson. However, Macomber is not the same kind of man Wilson is. He is not a hunter by trade or by nature, and his struggle to overcome this difference results in his death.
Courage and Cowardice
It is perhaps misleading to characterize two of the important themes of this work as “courage” and “cowardice.” Certainly, these are both major themes of the story, but Hemingway invites the reader to consider whether courage is confused with bravado, and reasonable fear with cowardice. Depending upon one’s point of view, Francis Macomber’s fear of the lion makes him a coward or it makes him a reasonable man. The story inspires an examination of whether it takes more courage to face down the lion or to walk away.
Fate and Chance
If Margot Macomber’s shooting of her husband is an accident, then a central theme of the work becomes fate or chance. The question becomes one of how accidental an accident of this kind can be. In other words, the story asks whether it is really fate or chance-considering that Margot Macomber is inexperienced with a gun and an unskilled shot.
Guilt and Innocence
Intimately connected with the theme of fate and chance is guilt and innocence. The reader must decide if Margaret Macomber shot her husband on purpose or if it was indeed an accident. If she has not shot him on purpose, then the act becomes a matter of chance or fate. If her action was intentional, however, then she is guilty of murder. The end of the story dramatizes this ambiguity; Wilson teases her about the “accident,” implying that, though she protests her innocence, he himself does not believe her.
Survival in the Wilderness
A lesser theme in the work is that of survival in the wilderness. The Macombers, wealthy urban people, would not be able to survive alone in the wilderness, so they hire a guide to help them with their hunt. Ironically, the presence of a guide does not protect Francis Macomber but compels him to assume a persona of bravado that leads him to his death. Macomber struggles with his position within the wilderness, wondering if it is more honorable to be like Wilson or to heed his instinct for self-preservation by fleeing from wounded animals.
Linked to Macomber’s idea of survival is the notion of manhood. What kind of men are Macomber and Wilson, and why does one survive while the other dies? The story examines whether masculinity is a function of courage or of appearance. If Margot favors Wilson, does that make him more masculine than Macomber? Complicating this question is the fact that Margot becomes uneasy when her husband becomes aggressive during the hunt. Macomber’s assertion of traditional bravado on the safari does not result in Margot’s increased admiration for him, though she is attracted to Wilson’s show of courage. Something else, then, must influence masculinity if Margot’s interest is seen as a barometer for that trait. Margot herself represents some conflicting ideas about femininity. Though she is described in typically feminine terms, the act of violence she commits which ends her husband’s life can be construed as a “masculine” trait.
In the characters of Robert Wilson and Francis Macomber, Hemingway presents two different versions of the conflict of man against nature. Wilson has learned to live with and even conquer nature, while Macomber has difficulty doing either and is, in the end, conquered by nature in the form of a charging buffalo whose ferocity provokes Margot’s fatal gunshot. This difference leads to another conflict, that of man against man, or Macomber versus Wilson. Macomber wants to be more like Wilson to gain Margot’s respect and admiration. Wilson, though he is hired by Macomber, is Macomber’s antagonist, ready and willing to use his virility to entice Macomber’s wife into bed. Another essential conflict in this story is exemplified by the imperfect marriage of the Macombers, in which Margot seems perpetually dissatisfied and Francis unable to live up to her expectations of him.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Ernest Hemingway, Published by Gale, 1997.