By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ is a popular Ernest Hemingway story with a decidedly atypical un-Hemingwayesque protagonist. First published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1936, ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ is about a married American couple on safari in Africa with their English guide. The husband has a failure of nerve when faced with a lion during one of their hunts, and his wife loses respect for him.
Hemingway’s story doesn’t have the quintessential Hemingway hero at the centre: Francis Macomber is a weaker, more introspective figure than many of Hemingway’s male protagonists. Before we dig down into an analysis of the story, here’s a reminder of the plot, which includes a lengthy flashback.
‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’: plot summary
The story is set in Africa, where a married couple, Francis and Margaret (Margot) Macomber, are on safari, accompanied by Robert Wilson, an English professional hunter acting as their guide. The couple are preparing for lunch, and discuss their morning’s hunting with Wilson. It emerges that during the morning’s hunt, Francis panicked when he was stalking a lion and ran away. His wife mocks him for his cowardice.
In the afternoon, Francis goes hunting again, with Wilson accompanying him. He shoots and kills an impala, but it’s clear that he’s still ashamed of running from the lion earlier. That night, he lies in bed and thinks back to the lion hunt, with a substantial portion of the story being devoted to a long flashback in which he remembers the event in detail.
We learn that hearing the lion roar the night before had made Francis nervous even before they set off on the morning’s hunt, and he had admitted as much over breakfast, questioning Wilson about how best to kill a lion. When they had spotted a lion while driving around in their car, they had stopped and approached it. Francis had shot the animal, which had run away, but he was reluctant to kill it. When they approached the lion, with Wilson offering to shoot it, the lion charged them and Francis had run away, leaving Wilson to kill the lion.
On their way back to the car, Margot had kissed Wilson, and Francis believes he has lost his wife’s respect and admiration. However, we are led to believe that Margot is too beautiful for Francis to give her up, and Francis is too rich for Margot to leave him. They have been married for eleven years and their marriage has endured other tests before this.
We return to Francis Macomber lying awake, the flashback of the previous morning’s events over. He falls asleep, but has a nightmare about the lion, and then realises his wife is not asleep beside him. She returns a couple of hours later, having been with Wilson. At breakfast the next morning, Wilson can tell that Francis knows what has happened, but he doesn’t show any remorse.
After breakfast, the three of them go out to hunt buffalo. Francis is so filled with rage towards Wilson that he forgets all of his fear, charging after the buffalo and killing the biggest one that crosses their path. He also kills another which Wilson has brought down but only wounded. Buoyed by his success, Francis starts to behave differently, and Margot is unnerved by this.
They pursue the other buffalo that got away, wounded. As the buffalo charges towards Francis, he prepares to shoot it, but Margot shoots him in the head, killing him. There is some ambiguity surrounding whether she was trying to save her husband (she was aiming for the charging buffalo attacking her husband, but hit him instead) or whether, as Wilson believes, she deliberately aimed her shot at Francis all along.
Wilson comforts the sobbing Margot, reassuring her that people will chalk up her husband’s death to an accident, though he tells her that he believes she meant to kill him.
‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’: analysis
Despite the clearness of his prose, many critics have argued that Hemingway ends ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ on an ambiguous note, leaving us to make up our own minds about whether Margot deliberately shot her husband or if she was genuinely trying to save him from a charging bull buffalo.
There is a third option, of course, which is that she was consciously aiming for the buffalo but a part of her subconscious wanted to kill Francis, so she could be rid of him, inherit his fortune, and have relationships with men like Wilson, free from guilt or secrecy.
Of course, one objection to the argument that Margot deliberately shoots at her husband with the intention of ridding him from her life is the fact that, if she wanted him dead, she could simply have stood by and let the buffalo do the honours for her. It is, after all, charging straight for him.
Weighed against this argument is the observation that Francis has recently proved his mettle and, as it were, recovered his manhood since the incident of cowardice involving the lion. If he defends himself against the buffalo and survives, Margot is stuck with him. We might argue that she saw her chance to kill him ‘innocently’ and took it.
Of course, in killing her husband, he is also robbed of the chance of knowing whether he could ‘take’ the buffalo: whether he, or it, would have emerged victorious from their showdown.
Certainly, her character is not exactly a sympathetic one in the rest of the story. She loses her respect for her husband when he runs from the lion, and supposedly goes to bed with another man as a result of this. There’s an implication that she’s only (or at least largely) with her husband at all because of his money.
And she seems confused and worried by his sudden regaining of his courage and manhood at the end of the story. How we should ‘read’ Margot has perplexed and divided critics ever since ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ was first published.
If she does deliberately choose to kill her husband, what is Margot’s motivation? It’s clear that she has lost respect for him following his behaviour in front of the lion, but at the end of the story he appears to have regained his courage. Does she feel threatened by this? Perhaps, after bedding Wilson, she cannot bear to think of her husband as anything but a coward. She actually wants him to be like that, because she can feel superior to him: indeed, more ‘manly’ than he is.
Alternatively, it’s possible that she feared, not being stuck with Francis, but the opposite: that now he has recovered his courage, he will not be content to remain with her and will seek to divorce her and take his wealth elsewhere.
She does not seem to be overly enamoured of Wilson, either, criticising his obsession with blowing the heads off things and turning her sarcasm on him. She is prepared to sleep with him, but she seems to be as critical of him as she is of her husband. In many ways, Hemingway’s story presents two very different and contrasting versions of manhood, but implies that both are insufficient in themselves. Wilson is the man of action but lacks heart, while Francis lacks the hardened resolve which she detects in their English guide.
Courage and cowardice are central, mutually complementary themes in ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’. The story is framed by Francis’ initial failure of nerve, although Hemingway chooses to begin the story in the aftermath of this event, and then reveal what happened to us only later, during a flashback.
This means that we cannot judge what happened ourselves, at least initially, and first have to get to know the personalities of Francis and Margot as the dynamic of their marriage is slowly revealed to us.