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

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2051

‘‘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...

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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.

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 because Francis is not man enough to ‘‘keep her where she belongs.’’ Critic Virgil Hutton asserts in The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: Critical Essays, that Hemingway does not intend for Wilson to be considered a hero. Instead, Hutton says, Wilson is an object of satire—a symbol of British imperialism, with its arrogant assumption of the right to rule the world, and ‘‘an unwitting hypocrite who harshly judges others on the basis of various strict and false codes that he himself does not follow.’’

Whatever one thinks of Wilson, the change in Francis Macomber comes when he becomes like Wilson. The question is whether this is, as Carlos Baker puts it in Hemingway: The Writer as Artist, rising toward a standard of manhood, or adopting a not very admirable set of values that depend on breaking the rules of hunting and lording it over his wife and other people. Yet another interpretation of Macomber’s metamorphosis, though, comes from scholar Warren Beck, who suggests in ‘‘The Shorter, Happy Life of Mrs. Macomber,’’ that Macomber is emulating what is admirable in Wilson, such as physical courage, but will reject what is not admirable, such as emotional detachment. Macomber, Beck asserts, will not try to suppress his wife, but will try to build a stronger partnership with her—something that will create a challenge to her as well. The view of Margot Macomber also depends on the extent to which one sees Wilson’s opinion of her as valid. Wilson hates her outspokenness and sarcasm, and blames her for Francis’s weakness. Perhaps, though, Wilson resents the degree to which she sees through him. Snatches of dialogue can be read as Margot’s questioning of Wilson’s values. She tells him he is ‘‘lovely’’ at hunting, ‘‘That is, if blowing things’ heads off is lovely.’’ She chides Wilson and Francis for their car-chase of the buffalo: ‘‘It seemed very unfair to me.’’ Her virulent verbal attacks on her husband are hard to justify, but the omniscient narrator points out that neither she nor Francis is wholly to blame for their troubled marriage: ‘‘She had done the best she could for many years back and the way they were together now was no one person’s fault.’’ Feminist scholar Nina Baym offers the opinion in New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway that Margot exercises no real power over Francis; like the lion, she is thought of as dangerous, but is in fact helpless because men hold the power in the world. The story’s narrator tells us that Margot is ‘‘very afraid of something’’ after Francis gains such confidence from killing the first buffalo; perhaps she is not afraid of Francis becoming a so-called ‘‘real man,’’ but afraid of him becoming the kind of man who will find it easy to oppress her. Or, if one accepts Beck’s opinion of the change in Francis, perhaps what Margot really fears is the emotional evolution necessary to maintain a solid relationship.

Those who see Wilson as a heroic figure judge Margot guilty of her husband’s murder. Hemingway biographer Jeffrey Meyers, who calls Margot ‘‘the real villain’’ of the story, points out that Hemingway once gave an interview in which he endorsed the Margot-as-murderer interpretation. Others note that Hemingway made varied statements about the story, and that his all-knowing narrator says explicitly that Margot ‘‘had shot at the buffalo.’’ They also argue that if Margot wanted her husband to die, she merely could have let the buffalo kill him. Beck, who definitely considers Margot’s gunshot an attempt to save Francis, sees her as trying to raise herself morally and to atone for her infidelities and other cruelties toward him. Wilson, Beck asserts, is unable to understand Margot’s complexity—to see that she does sometimes try to be supportive of her husband, that her cruelty is a defense mechanism, or that she has been frustrated in her efforts to improve their marriage. Wilson also cannot believe, Beck says, that Margot is capable of trying to become a better person than she is.

The story also is useful for its delineation of the Hemingway code—or, in the alternate view, a satire of the code—and for its portrait of an individual going through a life-changing experience. Many of Hemingway’s stories deal with such experiences. However, even though there is much physical action in his stories, the life-changing events usually do not take the form of such action; Francis Macomber’s story is exceptional in this regard. This situation, though, also lends itself to debate. Macomber is a man from an industrialized society, accustomed to the comforts of wealth; he is placed in a situation where he must deal with the natural—some would say ‘‘primitive’’—world. Does Macomber’s becoming a brave and accomplished hunter show him learning to deal with this natural world where physical courage is all that matters? Would he have been able to translate his physical courage into moral courage, and is the real tragedy of the story the fact that he was denied this opportunity? Or did he merely figure out how to use technology and wealth to destroy nature? After all, he would not be able to kill animals without his advanced weapons and the expert guidance of Wilson, who commands a large fee for his services. The peek into the lion’s thoughts gives rise to a consideration of the morality of hunting, as does the narrator’s comment that Macomber ‘‘had not thought how the lion felt.’’ This appears to be a call, at the very least, for the hunter to show some respect for the hunted, and perhaps Macomber’s subsequent nightmare of ‘‘the bloody-headed lion standing over him’’ shows him beginning to feel such respect. A hunter who respects and understands his prey could become a more skillful hunter; on the other hand, he could become a more humane individual and give up shooting animals.

The fact that one can find all these points for discussion is evidence that ‘‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’’ is, quite simply, a wonderfully well-written story. It is evident that Hemingway chose each word carefully, even though the same words can be interpreted in various ways. For instance, the description of Wilson’s eyes as ‘‘cold’’ and ‘‘flat’’ indicates that he is not an emotional person. Is this lack of emotion something positive, showing that Wilson has the strength to withstand life’s pains and sorrows, as one who lives up to the Hemingway code? Or is it something negative, showing that Wilson has taken the code too far and lost all compassion for his fellow human beings? Hemingway’s craft also shows in his delineation of the story’s action. The lion hunt and the buffalo hunt proceed in similar fashion; because something shocking—Francis’s act of cowardice—happens at the end of the lion hunt, the reader expects something shocking to happen at the end of the buffalo hunt. The suspense generated by this expectation keeps the reader turning pages, and even after many readings, it’s still possible to be shocked by Francis Macomber’s death, which is, memorably, shown from Francis’s point of view: ‘‘He felt a sudden white-hot, blinding flash explode inside his head and that was all he ever felt.’’ The story’s use of flashback is another technique that holds the reader’s interest. The opening, with the Macombers and Wilson at lunch and discussing the morning’s lion hunt, makes the reader want to know more about the hunt, as does the portrait of Macomber becoming fearful at the lion’s roar the night before. Noteworthy, too, is the vivid portrayal of each hunt; during the pursuit of the buffalo, one can almost feel the motion as Hemingway describes the Macomber car ‘‘rocking swayingly over the uneven ground, drawing up on the steady, plunging, heavy-necked, straight-moving gallop of the bull.’’ This also underlines the advantage the car gives the hunters over the buffalo.

All told, the story’s many nuances and complications make it subject to a variety of interpretations, which are likely to cause debate for many years to come. Moreover, it is still highly entertaining. ‘‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’’ is one of those stories that becomes richer with each reading.

Source: Trudy Ring, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997. Ring is an editor, journalist, and frequent writer on literary subjects.

In Defense of the Unhappy Margot Macomber

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1593

Margot Macomber deserves her day in court of appeals. She so aroused the emotions and prejudices of her critics that, in a manner of speaking, they rushed her to trial, before the smoke and dust had settled, in a ‘‘drumhead court’’ on the field of battle. Without a thorough examination of the evidence, or of the motives of her chief accuser, they found her guilty as charged—guilty, or, at the very least, not innocent, of the murder of her husband, Francis Macomber.

Margot, of course, is no angel. And she is guilty—of infidelity; and of accepting the adolescent touchstone of manhood—standing firm before an onrushing wounded lion or buffalo—so heartily embraced by the white hunter, her husband, and Hemingway himself. She is attracted to men of courage and command.

Francis Macomber’s lack of command and, thus, of manliness is revealed in the opening scene of ‘‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.’’ The inglorious lion hunt is over. It is lunch time now, and Macomber offers his wife and the white hunter, Robert Wilson, a choice of lime juice or lemon squash (lemonade). But both, first Wilson, and then Margot, reject his drink suggestions and choose gimlets instead. ‘‘I suppose it’s the thing to do,’’ Macomber agreed. ‘‘Tell him to make three gimlets.’’ However, even before Macomber’s capitulation, ‘‘the mess boy had started them already.’’ Clearly, Wilson’s is the commanding voice.

Macomber will achieve both courage and command by story’s end. But in the early and middle stages of the story, he literally takes a back seat to Wilson. On the morning of the lion hunt, Macomber sits in the front seat of the car beside the driver. On the return trip, however, after his public display of cowardice, he sits in the back, while Wilson, who stood his ground before the charge of the wounded lion, sits in the front, in the seat of authority. Later, en route to the buffalo hunt, Macomber is again seen sitting in the back. But after his ‘‘coming of age,’’ he and Wilson are pictured as hanging onto the sides of the car, like equals. Macomber even commands his wife to shut up during the interlude in the buffalo hunt.

The narrator is omniscient, a point of view rarely employed by Hemingway in his short fiction. The all-seeing, all-knowing narrator even shares with us the thoughts and the vision of the wounded lion. An awareness of the omniscience of the narrator is crucial to the discussion of Margot Macomber’s intentions and motivations in the fatal scene. Mrs. Macomber, the narrator tells us, ‘‘had shot at the buffalo with the 6.5 Mannlicher as it seemed about to gore Macomber and had hit her husband about two inches up and a little to one side of the base of the skull’’ (italics mine). Yet commentaries have generally ignored or minimized the importance of this vital information and its source. Mrs. Macomber’s action is seldom seen as an attempt to save her husband’s life. Rather, the prevailing critical view is that she deliberately—or at best, ‘‘accidentally on purpose’’—murdered him.

Carlos Baker refers to Margot Macomber as ‘‘easily the most unscrupulous of Hemingway’s fictional females,’’ and he characterizes her as ‘‘the horrible example’’ of the deadly female, someone ‘‘who is really and literally deadly.’’ He speaks of Wilson as ‘‘the judge who presides, after the murder, over the further fortunes of Margot Macomber.’’ Joseph DeFalco stops short of accusing Margot of cold-blooded murder: ‘‘When Macomber finally achieves his manhood by demonstrating his courage, his wife recognizes the change as an omen of her own demise and ‘accidentally’ shoots him.’’ Philip Young both acknowledges and circumvents the story’s omniscient narrator with his Freudian view of the situation:

When [Macomber] attains this manhood he regains the ithyphallic authority he had lost and his wife, now panicky herself in her new role, must destroy him literally. When he becomes a man, and she can no longer rule him in the Lawrencian sense, she sends a bullet to the base of his skull.

The climax of the story has come, and Macomber’s wife, recognizing the hero’s new life as a man, cannot tolerate a long denouement. When her husband goes in after the wounded buffalo she—ostensibly and ‘‘intentionally’’ aiming for the beast in order to save Francis—kills him. Aiming at the buffalo, as Hemingway specified, she shot her husband ‘‘by mistake on purpose,’’ as wise children put it—or, for adults, in a monumental ‘‘Freudian slip.’’ When Wilson accuses her of murder she does not deny it.

Leslie A. Fiedler, however, does not pull his Freudian punches; he accuses Mrs. Macomber of murder and sheds new light on her motivation—and on Hemingway’s as well:

When Hemingway’s bitches are Americans, they are hopeless and unmitigated bitches; symbols of Home and Mother as remembered by the boy who could never forgive Mama for having wantonly destroyed Papa’s Indian collection! Mrs. Macomber, who, in ‘‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,’’ kills her husband for having alienated the affections of the guide with whom she is having one of her spiteful little affairs, is a prime example of the type.

Wilson’s role in shaping our response to the fatal scene should not be overlooked. It is Wilson who firmly plants the murder motive in the reader’s mind. His own motivation for doing so warrants examination. At first Wilson appears to accept the fact that Macomber’s death is accidental: he orders one of the gun bearers to fetch the other ‘‘that he may witness the manner of the accident.’’ And, apparently without irony, he tells the tearful widow, ‘‘Of course it was an accident. . . . I know that.’’ But moments later, immediately after he mentions Nairobi, he accuses her of murder: ‘‘Why didn’t you poison him? That’s what they do in England.’’ Nairobi, it appears, is the trigger word that reminds him of his own need for a defense, and for some leverage on this woman, who soon will be called upon to testify at the inquest there. By word and action, Wilson has left himself vulnerable. He had confessed to Mrs. Macomber earlier that their car-chase of the buffalo was illegal and had asked her not to mention it to anyone.

‘‘What would happen if they heard about it in Nairobi?’’

‘‘I’d lose my license for one thing. Other unpleasantnesses,’’ Wilson said, taking a drink from the flask. ‘‘I’d be out of business.’’

‘‘Really?’’ ‘‘Yes, really.’’

‘‘Well,’’ said Macomber, and he smiled for the first time all day ‘‘Now she has something on you.’’

Wilson has much to gain by making Mrs. Macomber believe that the death of her husband could be construed as murder. He is counting on this woman, whom he earlier characterized as ‘‘not stupid,’’ to
recognize that each could put the other ‘‘out of business’’ by his or her testimony at the inquest. The murder accusation may be seen as his bid for their mutual silence on certain incriminating matters.

The cross-examination of Wilson’s motives and the testimony of the unimpeachable narrator constitute a solid defense of Mrs. Macomber against the charge of murder. But there is a considerable body of circumstantial evidence, too, that strengthens her case. She is moved to tears by her husband’s cowardly disgrace and by his death. Heretofore, he has not been man enough to command her fidelity; the kiss that she bestows on Wilson after the lion episode and her sharing his double cot that night are her tribute to a man of courage. When her husband comes of age, though she is visibly frightened by the change, she pays him tribute, too, with a small but revealing gesture: she hands the whisky flask to Macomber, not to Wilson, during the lull in the buffalo hunt. (Macomber, one recalls, drank water during the lion-hunt interlude, but now he takes a man’s drink.) But Margot’s greatest tribute to her husband—and the most telling piece of circumstantial evidence—is her risking the shot at the wounded buffalo. From her vantage point it appears that the charging beast will gore her husband to death. As it turns out, the buffalo is felled ‘‘not two yards’’ from Macomber’s body. If she wanted Macomber killed, inaction would seem the wisest and safest course. But instead she risks all—marriage, money, reputation, freedom—by firing to save her husband, who has finally become the sort of man she has been desperately seeking all along.

Margot, whose name means ‘‘pearl,’’ has paid a great price for her belated show of fidelity. Because of her desperate decision, she stands judged, by many a reader and critic, a murderess. Even her creator feeds the dark suspicions: ‘‘This is a simple story in a way,’’ writes Hemingway in his essay ‘‘The Art of the Short Story’’ ‘‘because the woman, who I knew very well in real life but then invented out of, to make the woman for this story, is a bitch for the full course and doesn’t change.’’ Be that as it may. But a careful examination of the story’s evidence leads one to this considered verdict: in the final stages of the buffalo hunt, Margot Macomber is ‘‘guilty’’ only of trying to save her husband’s life.

Source: K. G. Johnston, ‘‘In Defense of the Unhappy Margot Macomber,’’ in The Hemingway Review, Vol. II, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp 44-7.

Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 723

Ernest Hemingway’s story ‘‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’’ is often taught in both high school and college classrooms because it is a good story, one that appeals at one and the same time to the Hemingway scholar as well as to youth in general. As widely read and as widely taught as it is, though, it is often misunderstood and misinterpreted by both teachers and students alike with regard to Robert Wilson’s treatment of Margot Macomber at the very end of the story.

As Hemingway sees it, one very important aspect of the code of the professional hunter is that he must be willing to go into any cover, however unpleasant the experience may be, in order to pursue and kill a wounded animal. He must do this for two reasons. First, he must do it in order to put the creature out of his misery; and second, and more important, he must do it in order to prevent an unsuspecting party from stumbling upon him and being mauled or perhaps killed as a result.

With all of the foregoing in mind, the reader’s attention is called to the fact that Hemingway is inclined to view Margot Macomber throughout the entire story as something akin to a lioness. In speaking of her, he early employs such words as ‘‘hard,’’ ‘‘cruel,’’ and ‘‘predatory.’’ He even says at one point that she is ‘‘simply enamelled with that American female cruelty.’’ The reader must also remind himself that along with the prospect of losing control of her husband—and even of losing him entirely—when he achieves his manhood in the buffalo hunt, Margot receives a deep wound, psychological though it may be. Knowing that Macomber will leave her, and likewise knowing that her looks are no longer good enough to get another husband as rich as he, she, not entirely without malice and not entirely without forethought, shot and killed him while trying to make it appear that she was shooting at the buffalo in order to protect and to save her husband! She is, at this point, if the reader please, a wounded lioness in the brush. She is a lioness who has killed one man, and in her frame of mind is very dangerous to other men. Wilson perceives this, and, professional hunter that he is, he treats her the same way he would treat any other wounded lioness. In other words, he applies the code of the professional hunter on the human level. He approaches her and ‘‘kills’’ her by killing her spirit; by breaking down her overbearing pride; by shattering her unlimited confidence; and by changing her from a woman who is in control of the situation to a woman who is so humbled that she pleads for mercy. She is rendered quite harmless, and the section of the brush which she occupies now and in the future is and will be safe for others to travel through. There will be no more men's lives ruined as Macomber’s was—at least not by her.

Wilson accomplishes all this with words alone—with what may be said to be five verbal shots at the very end of the story. As he forces Margot to face the fact that she has done a dastardly thing, she imperiously and repeatedly orders him to stop treating her thus; however, Wilson continues to bore in on her over and over again until she no longer orders him to stop but pleads with him to stop, saying, ‘‘Oh, please stop it. Please, please stop it.’’

To this the hunter replies, ‘‘That’s better. Please is much better. Now I’ll stop.’’

Thus 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.

Source: H. H. Bell, Jr., “Hemingway’s ‘The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber,’” in Explicator, Vol. 32, No. 9, May, 1974, item 78.

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