While on safari in Africa with Robert Wilson, a professional hunter and guide, Francis Macomber shows cowardice in the face of a charging lion. The story opens at noon as Macomber, his wife, and Robert Wilson are having a drink before lunch. The atmosphere is tense, though Wilson and the African porters try to act as if everything were normal. Macomber is very upset because of his earlier behavior, while Margot, his wife, ranges in her reaction from tears to merciless criticism. As Macomber tries to apologize for his failure, Wilson becomes increasingly impatient, not so much because of the events of the morning but because Macomber insists on talking about them. The final insult to Wilson comes when Macomber asks for reassurance that he will not talk about the incident when they return to civilization. Just as he has decided to break any social contact with Macomber for the remainder of the safari, the latter apologizes in such forthright terms for not understanding the custom of not talking about failures that Wilson cannot simply dismiss him. As their conversation ends, Wilson suggests that Macomber might make up his failure with the lion when they hunt buffalo the next morning.
That night, Macomber is haunted by memories of the lion hunt as he relives it in his mind. After having listened to the lion roar and cough all night, Macomber is unnerved the next morning, even before they start out for the hunt. Not knowing, as an old Somali proverb says, that “a brave man is always frightened” when he sees a lion’s track, hears him roar, or confronts him, Macomber loses confidence in himself. When they go after the lion, Macomber is nervous to the point of being reluctant to leave the car in which they are traveling to take his shot. Ordered out by Wilson because it is unsporting to shoot from the vehicle, Macomber shoots badly, wounding the animal, which retreats into the bush.
Macomber does not want to pursue the lion into the dangerous bush, and even suggests that they simply leave him. Wilson, the professional, is shocked at this suggestion, but he does tell Macomber that he need not go in after the wounded animal if he does not wish to do so. Macomber, though frightened, does want to go, so together they enter the tall grass. Hearing them coming, the lion charges. “They had just moved into the grass when Macomber heard the blood-choked coughing grunt, and saw the swishing rush in the grass. The next thing he knew he was running; running wildly, in panic in the open, running toward the stream.” Wilson kills the lion, and Macomber senses the contempt of the hunter and the gun bearers. Most contemptuous is Margot Macomber, who witnessed the entire scene from her place in the car. As they await the gun bearers, who are skinning the lion, Macomber attempts to take her hand, but she draws it away. Then, “while they sat there his wife had reached forward and put her hand on Wilson’s shoulder. He turned and she had leaned forward over the low seat and kissed him on the mouth.”
Macomber believes that his wife is through with him, but in a short sketch of their marriage, Hemingway points out that these two are inextricably bonded. Macomber is so very wealthy that his wife will never leave him. Though she is still very beautiful, Margot “was not a great enough beauty any more . . . to be able to leave him and better herself and she knew it and he knew it.”...
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She knows that he is not successful with other women, so she does not worry about him leaving her either. “All in all they were known as a comparatively happily married couple, one of those whose disruption is often rumored but never occurs.” On the night of the lion hunt, Macomber awakens and realizes that Margot has left their tent to sleep with Robert Wilson. He confronts her on her return, insisting that she had promised not to be unfaithful if they made this trip. She blames him, saying that he spoiled the trip by the lion episode.
After an awkward breakfast the following morning, they go in search of buffalo. Three bulls are discovered and chase is given in the car. As the buffalo are overtaken, Macomber seems to lose his fear. He shoots well and drops all three bulls with only minor help from Wilson. However, as they are celebrating their luck, a gun bearer brings news that the first of the three bulls that they shot has got up and made its way into the bush. “Then it’s going to be just like the lion,” Margot says, but Wilson answers, “It’s not going to be a damned bit like the lion.” Macomber “expected the feeling he had had about the lion to come back but it did not. For the first time in his life he really felt wholly without fear.” Macomber is transformed by this experience, and it is a different man who follows Wilson into the bush after the buffalo.
Macomber is eager to go in after the bull, even urging Wilson to action before he is ready. As they wait, Macomber tells Wilson, “You know, I don’t think I’d ever be afraid of anything again,” and proposes that they might go after another lion because, “after all, what can they do to you?”“That’s it,” said Wilson, “Worst one can do is kill you. How does it go? Shakespeare. Damned good. See if I can remember. Oh, damned good. Used to quote it to myself at one time. Let’s see. ’By my troth, I care not; a man can die but once; we owe God a death and let it go which way it will he that dies this year is quit for the next.’ Damned fine, eh?”
He was very embarrassed, having brought out this thing he had lived by, but he had seen men come of age before and it always moved him. It was not a matter of their twenty-first birthday.
As Wilson and Macomber move into the bush, the bull charges. Macomber and Wilson both shoot, and Macomber can see fragments fly as his bullets bounce harmlessly on the boss of the large horns. He stands his ground in the face of the charge, calmly firing until “he felt a sudden white-hot, blinding flash explode inside his head and that was all he ever felt.” Margot Macomber had shot at the buffalo to protect her husband, and the bullet had struck him in the head.
The ending of the story is only slightly ambiguous. Though Wilson reiterates several times that the shooting was accidental, the reader comes away with little doubt that Margot has shot her husband deliberately. “That was a pretty thing to do,” he says to her, then adds, “he would have left you too.” The story ends as Margot begs Wilson to stop his accusations.