Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Hemingway is the best-known stylist in modern American literature, and this story is an excellent example of his method. Understatement is the best term to characterize his writing. Using simple, declarative sentences, he avoids elaborate description, allowing exact physical details to suggest the settings, backgrounds, and implications of his stories. The reader is never told, for example, that Robert Wilson is British, but careful examination of his dialogue reveals his origins. Similarly, in the opening passages of the story, only the words “pretending that nothing had happened” alert the reader to anything out of the ordinary, yet by the time the reader learns that Macomber had been a coward, it comes as no surprise. Through slight intonations of dialogue and description, Hemingway has “shown” its effects before he “tells” about Macomber’s failure.
Hemingway rarely uses symbols overtly, yet subtly they are embedded in the story. Wilson’s admiration of the beasts he hunts, usually expressed in such terse lines as “damned fine lion” or “hell of a good bull,” suggest that these animals embody the qualities that he, and Hemingway, admire most: courage, strength, honesty, and grace under pressure. Ritual is important, too, in Hemingway’s work, and is most emphasized in the hunt itself, which brings out the best in man and animal. In other ways as well, small rituals bring order into the story and structure life into a meaningful...
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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 mid-1930s. 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, couragous, 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...
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"The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" is set in the African savanna, to which Mr. and Mrs. Macomber have come on a hunting expedition, led by Robert Wilson. The hunting expedition ends in tragedy when Mr. Macomber stands his ground before a charging buffalo and is shot by his wife.
A great deal of symbolism contributes to the meaning of this story. The dichotomy of camp and savanna serves as a symbol of the differences that exist between Macomber and Robert Wilson. To leave the camp is to leave the world of comfort and luxury that the Macombers normally enjoy. The savanna represents Wilson's world, the wild, savage force of nature. The lion and the buffalo, representations of nature itself in all its brutal force, also come to symbolize the differences in courage and manhood that exist between Macomber and Wilson. Similarly, the guns themselves operate as symbols of manhood.
Point of View
The story is told in third-person point of view, meaning that it is related by a narrator who is not a part of the action of the story. This point of view allows the author to describe events in an objective manner. For example, Hemingway can simultaneously present Margot's insistence on her innocence and Wilson's belief that she is not innocent. It is the author's third-person narrative point of view, where the narrator does not always know what is going on in the minds of the characters he...
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Compare and Contrast
1930s: Big game hunting is a popular sport for Europeans in Africa.
1990s: Many big game animals are endangered and live in wildlife preserves. Hunting is severely restricted, and harsh penalties are imposed for poaching.
1930s: Leisure travel, particularly overseas, is available primarily to the very rich, who can afford the cost as well as the time it takes to get there and back.
1990s: Intercontinental travel is common for the middle class. Airplanes have replaced oceanliners, making the trip more affordable and much quicker.
1930s: The United States endures the Great Depression. In 1936, 38 percent of families make less than $1,000 per year, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies the poverty level as $1,330.
1997: The United States, after suffering a comparatively mild recession during the late 1980s and early 1990s, enjoys a long period of growth and economic recovery.
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Topics for Further Study
- Do you think Margot shot her husband on purpose? Could she have meant to do it, yet still done it by accident? Think of a time when you or someone you know did something “accidentally on purpose.”
- In “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” what does it mean to be “masculine"? What does it mean to be “feminine”? Have these concepts changed since the era in which the story was written?
- What kind of people were able to go on hunting expeditions like this in the 1930s? How might some of these factors impacted Wilson’s perception of the Macombers?
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- Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” was adapted as a film in 1947 as The Macomber Affair. Produced by Award Productions and directed by Zoltan Korda, it starred Gregory Peck, Joan Bennett and Robert Preston.
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What Do I Read Next?
- Hemingway’s 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises, like “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” provides an examination of male-female relationships.
- Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants” also explores a dysfunctional relationship between a man and a woman.
- “The Bear” by William Faulkner written in the 1930s, is another hunting story that deals with the theme of nature. It takes place in the American South and outlines the complicated family roots of hero Ike McCaslin.
- The “macho” tradition is given a new and interesting twist in Robert Bly’s book Iron John, which spawned the men’s movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s, encouraging men to bond together and return to their “masculine” roots.
- One of Hemingway’s predecessors Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage (1895), a Civil War novel that has come to be known as a classic representation of the kind of masculine courage that many of Hemingway’s works exemplify.
- For a gender studies exploration of Hemingway’s fiction, see Hemingway’s Gender: Rereading the Hemingway Text, published by Yale University Press in 1994.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Baker, Carlos. “Dangerous Game.” In his Hemingway: The Writer As Artist, 4th edition. Princeton University Press, 1972, pp. 186-191.
Baym, Nina. “Actually, I Felt Sorry For the Lion.” In New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, edited by Jackson J. Benson. Duke University Press, 1990, pp. 112-20.
Beck, Warren. “The Shorter, Happy Life of Mrs. Macomber—1955.” In Modern Fiction Studies. Vol 21, Autumn, 1975.
Hutton, Virgil. “The Short Happy Life of Macomber.” In The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: Critical Essays, edited by Jackson J. Benson. Duke University Press, 1975, pp. 239-50.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. Harper & Row, 1985.
O’Connor, Frank. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” In The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. World Publishing, 1963, pp 156-69.
Wilson, Edmund. “Hemingway: Gauge of Morale.” In The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature. Farrar, Straus, 1978.
Hart, James D., ed. “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” In The Oxford Companion to American Literature, 5th edition. Oxford University Press, 1983, p. 689. This volume is an excellent guide to American literature, providing detailed entries on authors, major works, major characters, and...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Benson, Jackson J., ed. New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.
Berman, Ronald. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and the Twenties. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Ernest Hemingway. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005.
Burgess, Anthony. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999.
Flora, Joseph M. Ernest Hemingway: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
Hays, Peter L. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Continuum, 1990.
Hotchner, A. E. Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir. New ed. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1999.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. 1985. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1999.
Padura Fuentes, Leonardo. Adiós Hemingway. Translated by John King. New York: Canongate, 2005.
Reynolds, Michael. The Young Hemingway. New York: Blackwell, 1986.
Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Paris Years. New York: Blackwell, 1989.
Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Homecoming. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.
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