illustrated portrait of American author Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

Start Free Trial

Essays and Criticism

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1836

While ‘‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’’ has long been acclaimed as one of Hemingway’s most successful artistic achievements, criticism about the actual shooting of Macomber has focused primarily on whether or not it was an accident, and the implications of this for the understanding of the story and characters, especially Wilson and Mrs. Macomber. Emphasis on this question has diverted attention from the technical merits of the sequence of events Hemingway devised for Macomber’s death. This sequence not only exhibits the vivid realism, sensory evocation and viewpoint manipulation characteristic of the rest of the story, but also depends heavily for its success on Hemingway’s practicing his credo of ‘‘writing what I know about,’’ in this case big game hunting and shooting.

As they begin the final tracking of the wounded buffalo, Wilson asks Macomber, ‘‘Have you any solids left?’’ After the gunbearer produces the cartridges, Wilson gives instructions concerning the disposal of the various rifles within the party and then advises Macomber what to expect:

‘‘When a buff comes he comes with his head high and thrust straight out. The boss of the horns covers any sort of brain shot. The only shot is straight into the nose. The only other shot is into his chest or, if you’re to one side, into the neck or shoulders. After they’ve been hit once they take a lot of killing. Don’t try anything fancy. Take the easiest shot there is.’’

On several occasions Wilson is called a ‘‘professional,’’ and delivers instructions on one or another point about hunting. But here it is the wealth of particulars that reinforces our apprehension of Wilson. This is a favorite device of Hemingway: it may be Nick instructing Marjorie on the proper preparation of a bait fish, Santiago butchering a tuna or dolphin fish, or Nick making a pancake. In each case it is the accumulation of details pertinent to the task or action that convinces the reader of the character’s expertise. Thus the specific information about the type of ammunition, the disposition of the guns, the anatomy and posture of a charging buffalo, and the effective shots fixes the figure of Wilson in our minds as one who knows his craft well.

Such a presentation of a character requires a well informed author. Hemingway’s knowledge of tracking a wounded cape buffalo came partly from his own experience which he had already recorded when he wrote Wilson’s remarks. In addition, Hemingway throughout his life read a great deal about hunting in Africa, and this interest is clearly reflected in the books he owned. Particularly relevant here is a passage about the cape buffalo from a 1929 work of Denis D. Lyell that Hemingway owned in duplicate at Key West and later took to Cuba:

The story-books which show pictures of him charging with his head dipped are incorrect as he nearly always holds his nose straight out when advancing, so the brain shot is almost impossible, unless one can get the bullet up the nasal orifice, which I advise tyros not to attempt. The best spot is at the base of the throat, and solid bullets are best, as one needs ample penetration in such a solid-bodied animal.

The verbal parallels with Wilson’s advice about ammunition, posture of the buffalo, and possible targets are obvious and suggest that the hunter’s words may well have their origins in Lyell’s text as much as in Hemingway’s own experience.

In the subsequent description of the charge of the buffalo we read:

the bull coming, nose out . . . head straight out, coming in a charge boss...

(This entire section contains 1836 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

of the horns . . . shot again at the wide nostrils . . . the horns . . . on-coming head, nose out. . . .

Hemingway echoes the words and phrases he had Wilson use in the preceding passage. Repetition is, of course, a ubiquitous feature of Hemingway’s style that often serves, as in this case, to reinforce a vivid description; here, however, it also contributes verisimilitude. The reader readily accepts the truth of the omniscient narrator’s description because it recalls in detail what the expert has just said about how a buffalo charges.

At the same time the reader’s view of the action is that of the amateur hunter, Macomber. This is accomplished by the narrator’s shifting from Wilson and Macomber (‘‘they saw’’) to Macomber alone (‘‘and Macomber . . . saw’’), and then providing a succession of parts of the buffalo’s head that Macomber ‘‘could see.’’ This focus on progressively smaller details, ‘‘huge boss of horns . . . wide nostrils . . . little wicked eyes,’’ as they become seen by the shooter reifies the motion of the approaching target for the reader. Hemingway uses much the same technique, although with greater detail, in El Sordo’s shooting of the captain. Both passages end with characteristics of the approaching targets’ eyes (‘‘little wicked’’ and ‘‘pale blue . . . that don’t focus’’) only visible up close; however, in contrast to the deliberate pace of El Sordo’s noting a variety of things about the captain’s appearance as he walks toward him, here the rapidity of the oncoming buffalo is vivified by the few features of the head concentrated on by the hunter.

Such concentration is an authentic hunter’s view. Some fifteen years after writing his Macomber story, Hemingway contributed the Foreword to Francois Sommer’s book about African game hunting. In it he stressed the importance of anatomy and underscored this by likening the hunter to ‘‘a surgeon except that he will be armed with the lightning rapier of the long reaching solid instead of a scalpel.’’

So Wilson specifies the ‘‘chest . . . neck . . . shoulders’’ as possible targets, but it is the nose shot he emphasizes. During the shooting at the charging buffalo three separate references focus attention on the physical feature most significant for both hunters, the nose, their target. Then the narrator says Wilson ‘‘ducked to one side to get in a shoulder shot,’’ while Macomber ‘‘shot for the nose’’ to the end. Thus by repeatedly describing their targets anatomically, Hemingway creates an account that accurately depicts the way the big game hunter, the ‘‘surgeon’’ with the ‘‘solid instead of a scalpel,’’ attacks his quarry.

Macomber also meets a hunter’s death. A contemporary professional notes that all too many hunters have succumbed to bystanders shooting at animals attacking them. One famous incident provides a partial parallel to Macomber’s death. In 1920 two amateur hunters named Colquhoun and Hunter were following a couple of cape buffalo they had wounded.

As Hunter melted from sight into the bush beyond the clearing, Colquhoun realized that somehow they had walked almost smack into the middle of the herd. As it dawned on him, he saw a charging bull bearing down on Hunter through the patches of bush. Before he could react there was the tearing crash of a shot. The native carrying Hunter’s extra rifle fired, missing the buffalo but driving a bullet through Hunter’s lower back, breaking the farmer’s spine.

Thus although Philip Percival said that he did not know of any client who had shot her husband as Mrs. Macomber did, there is nothing uncommon about the general contour of events that Hemingway invented; moreover, it is the informed details meticulously provided that render the shooting of Macomber especially credible.

One such particular is that Mrs. Macomber shot her husband with a 6.5 Mannlicher. As Davidson notes, this is a light gun not suited for shooting buffalo. It is appropriate, therefore, that the Mannlicher is ordered left behind in the car ‘‘with the Memsahib’’ by Wilson. Thus its presence there for the denouement is in accord with standard hunting practice.

Another particular is the surgical precision of the narrator’s description of where Macomber was shot: ‘‘about two inches up and a little to one side of the base of his skull.’’ Such graphic description is a hallmark of Hemingway’s pictorial prose, but here it also rivets the reader’s attention on Macomber’s head, and his head is the detail most significant for the shooting.

One of Hemingway’s most perceptive critics, Carlos Baker, observes that Macomber was kneeling when he was shot. This is not stated in the text, nor does Baker explain his observation. Wilson is described as ‘‘kneeling,’’ and one might assume that Macomber, the amateur, would be likely to imitate the professional; however, Hemingway has not left Macomber’s position to conjecture.

As the buffalo closed in, the narrator says Macomber was ‘‘aiming carefully’’ and ‘‘his rifle’’ was ‘‘almost level with the on-coming head.’’ (Because one aims a rifle carefully by sighting along the barrel, it becomes apparent that Macomber’s head is at about the same height as the buffalo’s. A mature bull cape buffalo stands up to five feet at its apogee, the shoulder, and the center of its large head is approximately four feet above the ground. That the buffalo is a mature bull is stated by Wilson, and also indicated by his noting the spread of the horns: ‘‘A good fifty inches or better. Better.’’ Most important here is that Macomber’s great physical stature has been emphasized in the story. The narrator calls our attention to it three times, beginning with ‘‘very tall.’’ Thus the detail about the level of his rifle makes it clear that Macomber was not standing. In addition, as Hemingway had described in Green Hills of Africa, there are three positions other than standing that a big game hunter may assume, kneeling, sitting and prone. The latter two obviously will not be assumed by a hunter facing a charging buffalo. Thus the writer who knew what he was writing about succeeds in letting the reader know, without saying so, that Macomber was kneeling.

The final important detail the narrator supplies concerns the distance of Macomber from the buffalo when he was shot. We are told that Mrs. Macomber shot when the buffalo ‘‘seemed about to gore Macomber,’’ and then we learn:

Francis Macomber lay now, face down, not two yards from where the buffalo lay on his side.

Macomber’s head, then, was not only level with the buffalo’s, but also not very far from it. Thus that Macomber was shot in the head when his wife ‘‘shot at the buffalo’’ is realistic. This applies whether one believes that the shooting was an accident, or that Mrs. Macomber’s aim was deflected by a subconscious motive. In the former case, the margin for error is small; in the latter, the deflection need only be slight. In either case, it is Hemingway’s detailed and informed narrative reflecting his own knowledge that establishes the credibility of the death he invented for Macomber. As he himself said:

Invention is the finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen.

Source: Kathleen Morgan and Luis A. Losada, ‘‘Tracking the Wounded Buffalo: Authorial Knowledge and the Shooting of Francis Macomber,’’ in The Hemingway Review, Vol. XI, No. 1, Fall, 1991, pp. 25-8.


Ernest Hemingway American Literature Analysis


Hemingway, Ernest (Literary Masters)