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....

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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.

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 Margot Macomber. She does not love her husband and has been unfaithful. Nevertheless, he is too rich for her to leave him. One then can interpret her scheme to kill him, becoming a rich widow in the process, as the action of a femme fatale. Hemingway, whose works frequently comment on the notion of masculinity, saw himself as a paragon of manliness through his propensity for hunting, fishing, and bull fighting. By creating characters in this image, Hemingway transfers to the page his own gender stereotypes, which many have come to view in recent years as archetypal and not very realistic.

Literary Style

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"The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" is set in the African savanna, to which Mr. and Mrs. Macomber have come on a hunting expedition, led by Robert Wilson. The hunting expedition ends in tragedy when Mr. Macomber stands his ground before a charging buffalo and is shot by his wife.

Symbolism
A great deal of symbolism contributes to the meaning of this story. The dichotomy of camp and savanna serves as a symbol of the differences that exist between Macomber and Robert Wilson. To leave the camp is to leave the world of comfort and luxury that the Macombers normally enjoy. The savanna represents Wilson's world, the wild, savage force of nature. The lion and the buffalo, representations of nature itself in all its brutal force, also come to symbolize the differences in courage and manhood that exist between Macomber and Wilson. Similarly, the guns themselves operate as symbols of manhood.

Point of View
The story is told in third-person point of view, meaning that it is related by a narrator who is not a part of the action of the story. This point of view allows the author to describe events in an objective manner. For example, Hemingway can simultaneously present Margot's insistence on her innocence and Wilson's belief that she is not innocent. It is the author's third-person narrative point of view, where the narrator does not always know what is going on in the minds of the characters he presents, that allows this ambiguity. No one but Margot Macomber can be certain of her guilt or innocence, and the narrator, who does not have access to this information, does not settle the debate.

Irony
Irony is an essential element of this story. The most obvious and striking example of irony is the title itself. Certainly, Macomber's life is "short," but is it' 'happy'' ? It is also ironic that his wife, the very person who should protect him, is the cause of his death. Furthermore, the fact that it may have been her impulse to protect Macomber which destroys him makes the climax of the story ironic. Hemingway uses irony to provide enough ambiguity in the narrative for the outcome of the story to be unclear.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1930s: Big game hunting is a popular sport for Europeans in Africa.

    1990s: Many big game animals are endangered and live in wildlife preserves. Hunting is severely restricted, and harsh penalties are imposed for poaching.

  • 1930s: Leisure travel, particularly overseas, is available primarily to the very rich, who can afford the cost as well as the time it takes to get there and back.

    1990s: Intercontinental travel is common for the middle class. Airplanes have replaced oceanliners, making the trip more affordable and much quicker.

  • 1930s: The United States endures the Great Depression. In 1936, 38 percent of families make less than $1,000 per year, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies the poverty level as $1,330.

    1997: The United States, after suffering a comparatively mild recession during the late 1980s and early 1990s, enjoys a long period of growth and economic recovery.

Media Adaptations

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  • Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” was adapted as a film in 1947 as The Macomber Affair. Produced by Award Productions and directed by Zoltan Korda, it starred Gregory Peck, Joan Bennett and Robert Preston.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Baker, Carlos. “Dangerous Game.” In his Hemingway: The Writer As Artist, 4th edition. Princeton University Press, 1972, pp. 186-191.

Baym, Nina. “Actually, I Felt Sorry For the Lion.” In New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, edited by Jackson J. Benson. Duke University Press, 1990, pp. 112-20.

Beck, Warren. “The Shorter, Happy Life of Mrs. Macomber—1955.” In Modern Fiction Studies. Vol 21, Autumn, 1975.

Hutton, Virgil. “The Short Happy Life of Macomber.” In The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: Critical Essays, edited by Jackson J. Benson. Duke University Press, 1975, pp. 239-50.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. Harper & Row, 1985.

O’Connor, Frank. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” In The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. World Publishing, 1963, pp 156-69.

Wilson, Edmund. “Hemingway: Gauge of Morale.” In The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature. Farrar, Straus, 1978.

Further Reading
Hart, James D., ed. “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” In The Oxford Companion to American Literature, 5th edition. Oxford University Press, 1983, p. 689. This volume is an excellent guide to American literature, providing detailed entries on authors, major works, major characters, and aesthetic categories.

Howell, John M., ed. Hemingway’s African Stories: The Stories, Their Sources, Their Critics. Scribner’s, 1969. This volume provides historical and biographical information surrounding the inspiration for Hemingway’s African stories, namely “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

Bibliography

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Benson, Jackson J., ed. New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.

Berman, Ronald. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and the Twenties. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Ernest Hemingway. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005.

Burgess, Anthony. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999.

Flora, Joseph M. Ernest Hemingway: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Hays, Peter L. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Continuum, 1990.

Hotchner, A. E. Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir. New ed. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1999.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. 1985. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1999.

Padura Fuentes, Leonardo. Adiós Hemingway. Translated by John King. New York: Canongate, 2005.

Reynolds, Michael. The Young Hemingway. New York: Blackwell, 1986.

Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Paris Years. New York: Blackwell, 1989.

Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Homecoming. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The 1930’s. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Final Years. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

Rovit, Earl, and Arthur Waldhorn, eds. Hemingway and Faulkner in Their Time. New York: Continuum, 2005.

Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. Hemingway: Seven Decades of Criticism. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1998.

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