Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 642

“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is widely regarded as one of Hemingway’s finest pieces of short fiction. Not only has it been admired for its artistry, but it has also been praised for the insights it gives into the mind of its author. For instance, Kathleen Morgan and...

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“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is widely regarded as one of Hemingway’s finest pieces of short fiction. Not only has it been admired for its artistry, but it has also been praised for the insights it gives into the mind of its author. For instance, Kathleen Morgan and Luis A. Losada write in “Tracking the Wounded Buffalo: Authorial Knowledge and the Shooting of Francis Macomber” in The Hemingway Review that the story contains evidence of Hemingway’s hunting acumen. They point to his use of hunting jargon and his understanding of the logistics of a charging buffalo to theorize that the narrative’s ambiguities stem from a highly realistic and ballistically accurate situation. Critics more concerned with the literary aspects of the story often choose to focus on the characters of Wilson and Margot rather than Macomber. Margot, particularly, has been branded a murderer by many critics. Edmund Wilson, for example, in his 1941 essay, “Hemingway: Gauge of Morale,” writes that Macomber “saves his soul at the last minute, and then is actually shot down by his woman, who does not want him to have a soul.” However, Nina Baym, in her essay “Actually, I Felt Sorry For the Lion,” argues that readers should shift the blame for the story’s tragic events from Margot to Wilson. Baym does not think that Margot meant to kill her husband, stating instead that “Wilson killed them all. . . . [he] has hunted on behalf of his clients, and he has also hunted them, that is, they have been his prey.” In Baym’s opinion, Wilson feeds on men’s machismo and women’s vanity.

H. H. Bell, Jr. in his essay for The Explicator makes the observation that “Hemingway is inclined to view Margot Macomber throughout the entire story as something akin to a lioness. In speaking of her, he employs such words as ‘hard,’ ‘cruel,’ and ‘predatory.’” For Bell, it seems, Wilson’s presence and role in the story are highly symbolic. He writes that “the reader is permitted to see Robert Wilson as the complete hunter, as a man who lives by one code and one code only, and who applies this code to both animals and people simply because he knows no other way to live and be honest with himself and with his moral philosophy. Moreover, it is Wilson who thus adds the hunter’s code to the Hemingway code in the story and finally blends the action and the theme of the work in a way that Hemingway rarely does.” Warren Beck, in his essay “The Shorter Happy Life of Mrs. Macomber—1955,” writes that readers too frequently see Margot from Wilson’s perspective. He writes that “Wilson’s assumption that Mrs. Macomber murdered her husband has been rather generally accepted by readers.” He optimistically characterizes Margot’s final act as one in which “she wished and tried to save her husband, with that access of recognition and penitence and hope in which love can renew itself.” Finally, K. G. Johnston of The Hemingway Review provides a reasoned argument for Margot’s innocence in the death of her husband, though she is, Johnson admits, “no angel.” Johnson comments: “Mrs. Macomber, the narrator tell us, ‘had shot at the buffalo.’ . . . Commentaries have generally ignored or minimized the importance of this vital information and its source.” Whether or not Margot intended to kill her husband or acted to protect him, it is Francis Macomber who is dead and whose failure or triumph is of primary importance in the story. As Frank O’Connor ironically notes in his 1963 essay “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” “The title leaves us with the comforting assurance that the triumph is still Macomber’s, for, in spite of his sticky end, he had at last learned the only way of keeping his wife out of other men’s beds.”

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