Style and Technique

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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.

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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.

Historical Context

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Stereotypes of the 1930s
Though Hemingway does not specify when “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” takes place, it can be assumed to be contemporary of the era in which the story was written, the mid-1930s. In the midst of the Great Depression the fact that the Macombers can afford to take a luxury vacation takes on great significance. It hints that they are far removed from the realities of their day, which include poverty, economic instability, and general misery. In a time in which one quarter of all men were unemployed, gender roles took on great significance. A man without a job often questioned his masculinity, particularly if he was not able to care for his wife and children. Though the Macombers are childless and need not worry about where their next meal is coming from, this fixation on masculinity is still evident in Macomber’s character. In an era before modern feminism took hold, the ideas of what constituted a real man or a real woman were often those based on tradition. Men were brave, couragous, and chivalric. Women, in turn, were feminine, refined, and deferential to men.

One notable exception to this stereotype of feminity in the 1930s is the idea of the “femme fatale,” a woman who schemes her way to riches and fame no matter what it takes. Her dangerousness stems from the fact that though her appearance is outwardly feminine, her instincts are often very masculine. Often romanticized, this woman can be found in many books and films of the era, especially the pulp fiction novels of Cornell Woolrich, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler, whose detective novels often featured beautiful and conniving women who tempted the likes of detectives Sam Spade and Philip Marlow. Writing more mainstream literature, Hemingway also utilized this feminine stereotype, particularly in the character of...

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Critical Essays


Teaching Guide