Short story: “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber”

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“The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” by Ernest Hemingway

First appeared in Cosmopolitan (which apparently used to be an actual magazine with words in it—who knew?); collected here; available as a PDF here

11,237 words

Hard to explain why I love this one. The main reason, probably a bad reason, is an irony I sense behind the story’s ostensible values and heroes and morals, a shifty ambiguity that makes them more poignant to me. People will probably tell me I’m giving Hemingway too much credit. He has a reputation for machismo, and I suppose you have to be a bit naive, a bit irony deficient, to be really macho. Here’s how Frank O’Connor summarizes the piece (from The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story, but yeah I found it on Wikipedia):

Francis runs away from a lion, which is what most sensible men would do if faced by a lion, and his wife promptly cuckolds him[….] As we all know, good wives admire nothing in a husband except his capacity to deal with lions, so we can sympathize with the poor woman in her trouble. But next day Macomber, faced with a buffalo, suddenly becomes a man of superb courage, and his wife, recognizing that Cressida’s occupation’s gone and that for the future she must be a virtuous wife, blows his head off. Yet the title leaves us with the comforting assurance that the triumph is still Macomber’s, for, in spite of his sticky end, he had at last learned the only way of keeping his wife out of other men’s beds.

Which is delightful but unfair, as snark usually is. Yes, Francis’s sudden physical courage is the key change in his character. But notice the irony surrounding this courage. The safari is an expensive vacation. When the story begins, Francis is a rich, childish idiot, paying exorbitant fees for trophies he can show off to other rich idiots. He has no other reason to be here, no quest, no expedition, no challenge worthy of great courage. His guide, Wilson, is competent enough to keep him safe (except from his wife). The “native boys” who carry Francis back to camp in triumph, not knowing about his cowardice, are surely aware that he’s done nothing more noble than shoot from a distance at an aging, coughing animal, just like any of Wilson’s other rich clients. The entire experience is an artificial one. Wilson himself is so cynical that he screws all his female clients, and it’s ambiguous whether he really regards the sex as a perk of his macho job or one of its duties: “He despised [the women] when he was away from them although he liked some of them well enough at the time, but he made his living by them[.]”

One of the great pleasures of the story, for me, is seeing bits of real feeling and meaning emerge from the bullshit. Wilson is part gigolo and part hand-holder, but he’s dedicated to the hunt; he pays his respects to the (pointlessly) dying lion; he’s deeply touched by Francis’s coming of age, saying to himself: “Beggar had probably been afraid all his life. Don’t know what started it. But over now.” And it’s a real coming of age, never mind the silliness of the circumstances. When Margot finally lampshades the silliness (“Just because you’ve chased some helpless animals in a motor car you talk like heroes”), we know it’s because she feels threatened, not because her husband’s transformation is illegitimate. Francis is no hero, but he’s learned what it’s like to overcome fear, to feel free.

Some read the end of the story as condemning Margot (or women in general). It’s easy to read it this way, because Wilson’s point of view is the one that predominates for most of the story, he’s a somewhat sympathetic character, and he all but accuses her of cold-blooded murder. But I don’t think the story ultimately sides with Wilson. Reread that deliciously sadistic exchange at the very end, which finishes with these lines:

“Oh, please stop it,” she said. “Please, please stop it.”

“That’s better,” Wilson said. “Please is much better. Now I’ll stop.”

I think Wilson is being a shitheel, and I think we’re supposed to think he’s being a shitheel. We’ve seen a hint that Margot loves her husband (her tears after the lion hunt), and we know Wilson saw it, although he chooses to find her inscrutable: “What’s in her heart God knows, Wilson thought.” The narrator has told us Margot was shooting “at the buffalo” when she hit her husband, suggesting that she wasn’t aiming at him deliberately or perhaps at all. If that’s accurate, then Wilson’s comments are cruel and unfair.

And yet we know he’s not a cruel or unjust man. He’s shaken up, I think. He’s angry and being a bully because he’s been frightened. Much of the story is about people bullying each other: Margot bullies Francis, Wilson bullies his African employees, Margot tries to bully Wilson with flirtation and hints of blackmail.

I don’t think we’re supposed to turn against Margot entirely. There’s a nice bit when the three of them are discussing Francis’s sudden bravery:

“Isn’t it sort of late?” Margot said bitterly. Because she had done the best she could for many years back and the way they were together now was no one person’s fault.

“Not for me,” said Macomber.

I think we’re meant to take the narration here to be omniscient (since “no one person’s fault” doesn’t sound bitter or frightened or especially Margot-like) and accurate. It’s very clear. Till now, their marriage has consisted of a weak child bullying a weaker one. Margot does want her husband to be strong, or she used to want that, but now that he’s found some strength he has outgrown her. He might even leave her. He doesn’t need her the way he used to.

I’ve seen it suggested somewhere (all right, Wikipedia again—Carlos Baker) that Margot needs to be dominated, kept in line in some way, and that Wilson perceives this. More misogyny. Actually, I’m pretty sure the story doesn’t offer any solutions for people like Margot. She’s a weak, spiteful, childish person, and now she’s alone in the world. What good would it do if her husband whipped her into submission? Would that make her grow up, the way Francis seems to have grown up?

I should add that Hemingway himself, in “The Art of the Short Story” (included here), comes pretty close to contradicting my reading. That’s okay, though. Anything writers say about their own writing is usually wrong. For the sake of a good story, I don’t mind believing the storyteller to be wiser than he really is.

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