Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Hemingway is the best-known stylist in modern American literature, and this story is an excellent example of his method. Understatement is the best term to characterize his writing. Using simple, declarative sentences, he avoids elaborate description, allowing exact physical details to suggest the settings, backgrounds, and implications of his stories. The reader is never told, for example, that Robert Wilson is British, but careful examination of his dialogue reveals his origins. Similarly, in the opening passages of the story, only the words “pretending that nothing had happened” alert the reader to anything out of the ordinary, yet by the time the reader learns that Macomber had been a coward, it comes as no surprise. Through slight intonations of dialogue and description, Hemingway has “shown” its effects before he “tells” about Macomber’s failure.

Hemingway rarely uses symbols overtly, yet subtly they are embedded in the story. Wilson’s admiration of the beasts he hunts, usually expressed in such terse lines as “damned fine lion” or “hell of a good bull,” suggest that these animals embody the qualities that he, and Hemingway, admire most: courage, strength, honesty, and grace under pressure. Ritual is important, too, in Hemingway’s work, and is most emphasized in the hunt itself, which brings out the best in man and animal. In other ways as well, small rituals bring order into the story and structure life into a meaningful whole.

Finally, attention should be paid to Wilson’s speech when he says, “Doesn’t do to talk too much about all this. Talk the whole thing away. No pleasure in anything if you mouth it up too much.” Hemingway shares this basic distrust of language, especially abstract language, so he allows as nearly as possible the action of the story to speak for itself. In “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” his technique succeeds in heightening the power of the story.