Commentary by Karen Bernardo
As short stories go, Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is not short at all; in fact, it’s rather long. But it takes place over a relatively brief period: the last two days of the main character’s life. Francis Macomber is an American on safari with his wife Margot. In Hemingway’s day, it was quite common for wealthy men to go to Africa on “big game hunting” expeditions; in fact, Hemingway did it himself and enjoyed the experience immensely. Novices were generally accompanied by European guides experienced in handling the rough terrain, the primitive living conditions, and the wild beasts. In this story, the guide is a ruddy-faced Englishman named Wilson, who seems to have the same amount of contempt for the bungling hunter Macomber as he does for the bitchy Margot.
As the story opens, we learn that Francis has tried to shoot a lion but failed, running from the wounded animal in fear. Although Wilson assures Francis that this was a perfectly normal reaction for a novice hunter, it is clear that neither he nor Margot think so. When Margot tells Francis that she “needs” a gimlet (an alcoholic drink but also a boring-tool), she implies that what she really needs is a manly husband. The story’s conflict is not only between Margot and Francis, or between Francis and Wilson; it is between Francis Macomber and himself. We can predict that later in the story, Francis will have another opportunity to prove his masculinity; and this time, instead of running from danger, he will pursue it.
Unfortunately for Francis, just as he gets ready to kill the charging buffalo, Margot raises her own gun and kills him. This ending is very enigmatic. It’s possible that Margot kills Francis because she feared that with his new-found confidence he would leave her; alternatively, it’s possible that Margot was actually aiming at the buffalo, because she wanted to rob Francis of the glory of the kill he so desperately needed to accomplish alone. Conceivably, she could simply have been afraid the buffalo would kill her husband, and she did not trust him to be able to kill the buffalo on his own. Essentially, it really makes no difference; had Margot hit the buffalo instead of Francis, it would have reinforced his shame, which for Hemingway is worse than being dead.
But there is one point on which Hemingway is perfectly clear: Francis Macomber was only truly alive from the moment he first shot the buffalo until the moment his wife shot him—a period of about half an hour. What ultimately killed Francis Macomber was the difference between what his wife perceived as necessary for the achievement of a masculine identity, and what Francis Macomber thought he needed to do to achieve that sense of identity within himself. Hemingway argues that Macomber’s death was not a tragedy at all, but a triumph, because he died in the act of affirming himself.
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