Interpreting ‘‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’’

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‘‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,’’ first published in 1936, remains noteworthy for several reasons. It is particularly well known for the debate it has generated concerning its characters and their motivations. It also is significant as an exploration of themes that appear frequently in Ernest Hemingway’s fiction and as a superior example of the art of short-story writing.

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Many critics and readers have debated whether Margot Macomber kills her husband intentionally or accidentally. How one answers this question depends largely on how negatively or positively one views the story’s three primary characters. Numerous scholars have held up Margot Macomber as an example of one of Hemingway’s most hateful female characters—as a dominating woman who undermines her husband’s masculinity, and who is so threatened when he starts to become a real man that she kills him. These critics commonly hold that the change in Francis after he kills the buffalo is a positive one and that Robert Wilson is the story’s voice of morality, the person who exemplifies Hemingway’s ‘‘code’’ of proper conduct. Some others, however, have put forth a more sympathetic, even feminist, view of Margot, a more complicated view of Francis, and a highly negative view of Wilson. These critics usually consider Margot’s killing of her husband an obvious accident.

That ‘‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’’ has generated such debate is due in great part to its complexity. On the surface, the story appears to be simple. Its action takes place over just twenty-four hours, and its pace is swift. Macomber first fails and then succeeds in hunting, grows in self-respect, but has his life ended just when it begins to be happy. But the story’s omniscient narrator reveals the thoughts and feelings of Wilson, Francis, Margot (to a lesser extent), and even the lion, and Hemingway’s carefully crafted dialogue offers further insights into each character. The sum of this is that the story is not as simple as it seems.

How one interprets the story depends greatly on one’s opinion of Wilson. The narrator discloses Wilson’s thoughts more often than those of the other characters, and many readers take Wilson to be the spokesman for Hemingway. Wilson lives an active, outdoor life in which physical courage is important—and this way of life, and this type of courage, were much admired by Hemingway, a big-game hunter himself. Wilson believes in a code of conduct in which one must not shrink from danger and must bear one’s sufferings or disappointments without complaint; this is Hemingway’s code, which comes up often in his writings. Wilson disdains the soft life lived by wealthy Americans such as Francis Macomber and dislikes women who dominate men; these factors, he thinks, have made Macomber less than a whole man. Hemingway, although he certainly counted strong, independent women among his lovers, friends, and fictional characters, appears to have believed that the proper relationship between the sexes is one in which the man has the upper hand.

Another view of Wilson, though, is either that his standards are faulty or that he does not live up to them. He and Macomber chase after the buffalo in the car rather than on foot even though it gives them an unfair advantage over the animals, and Wilson could lose his license if this infraction of hunting rules became known; but Wilson rationalizes this by saying that riding in a car over the rough terrain is more dangerous than walking or running over it. Furthermore, Wilson punishes his African aides by illegal whippings; he bullies the Macombers; and he is not troubled by the morality of affairs with married women—he sees no reason to turn down Margot’s overtures, as he believes she sleeps with him...

(The entire section contains 4367 words.)

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