Ernest Hemingway Essays and Criticism

Essays and Criticism

(Short Stories for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 1836 words.)