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Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber sample essay

The three characters in Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber form a triangle in which the relationships are not clear from the beginning. The plot of the short story is not very complicated: during a safari, the rich and handsome Francis Macomber proves to be a coward when he runs off scared while hunting the lion he had wounded. In fact, the attribute of ‘coward’ is given to him, indirectly, by his wife Margot and by Wilson, the hunter who accompanies them on the expedition.

The whole story thus revolves around the killing of the lion, an act which seems to be the ultimate proof of manhood, and, which constitutes therefore a great attraction to women. The setting and the context of the story- the safari in the wilderness of Africa- seem to determine also the plot: Hemingway chooses for his characters two Americans with a great wealth and social stand, who are supposed to be very civilized, and exposes in fact their instinctual behavior, which seems to have kept its wild nature.

Francis Macomber and Robert Wilson ‘fight’, by proving their courage in the hunt, for the ‘female’ who will instinctually choose the stronger of the two. The fact that the behavior of wild animals and that of humans have a common pattern is emphasized by Hemingway careful notation of the lion’s ‘feelings’ while he is being hunted by the two men. Thus, a clear connection is established between men and the wild animals:

“Macomber had not thought how the lion felt as he got out of the car. He only knew his hands were shaking and as he walked away from the car it was almost impossible for him to make his legs move.”(Hemingway, 8)

Thus, after Macomber’s failure in the hunt of the lion, Margot kisses the ‘winner’, Wilson, and completely ignores her husband, and her behavior seems to be the exact pattern of the creatures in the wilderness. Furthermore, the very night after Macomber’s defeat, she goes to bed with Wilson, without even trying to dissimulate in front of her husband. The courage to kill and to face death is taken here as the main criteria for manhood: “Fear gone like an operation. Something else grew in its place. Main thing a man had. Made him into a man. Women knew it too. No bloody fear.”(Hemingway, 12)

The marriage between Francis and Margot had been nothing more than a profitable business affair, him having the money and she the beauty. As it is hinted, these interests are the only things that kept them together still. Both of them seem to be sure these ties are strong enough to secure against a break-up. However, after having found out about his wife’s betrayal, Macomber’s instinctive nature seems to be awakened: he discovers the exhilaration that the hunt and the killings produce in him, and his fear is completely gone. Still, Margot is not pleased by her husband’s success, as one would expect.

She rather feels threatened, and tries to hide it by resuming her contemptuous attitude towards him: “’You’ve gotten awfully brave, awfully suddenly,’ his wife said contemptuously, but her contempt was not secure. She was very afraid of something.”(Hemingway, 11) Thus, Margot ‘rewards’ the braveness of her husband by killing him while he was fighting the bull, apparently trying to aim at the beast. However, it is obvious that she kills him intentionally, first of all, because of her strange behavior before the murder, and also because of the logic of events.

As Hemingway hints, ‘she was afraid of something’ and it can plainly be seen that that something was the fact that Macomber might leave her for her betrayal, now that he found his self-assurance and his manliness again. This is exactly what Wilson alludes at after the ‘accident’: “’That was a pretty thing to do,’ he said in a toneless voice. ‘He would have left you too.’”(Hemingway, 14)

She thus kills her husband to ward off the danger of having him leave her. This is proven by her strong emotions during the bull hunt, in which Macomber finally shows his braveness: her face is white with fear and probably contrasting feelings. At first she seems to congratulate again the winner, this time her husband:

“’In the car Macomber’s wife sat very white-faced. ‘You were marvelous, darling,’ she said to Macomber. ‘What a ride.’”(Hemingway, 13) Nonetheless, her admiration soon turns into the fear that her husband will desert her: “Her face was white and she looked ill.” Again, the fact that Margot kills her husband on purpose coheres with the rest of her instinctive behavior: although the main reason of the killing seems to be his fortune or her social stand which she might lose, it may be that her murder is again instinctive, in the sense that she is afraid of losing the now desirable man, because of his courage. She prefers shooting him, again cohering with the hunt.

Her ‘hysterical’ crying over the dead body of her husband do not manage to convince us of her innocence or her pain at the loss: she rather mourns him either because she needs to act in front of the other hunters, or because she has to give up the hero she had been looking for. The way in which she changes her mind after Macomber’s success, and she says that their hunting is by no means a heroic act, clearly demonstrates that she feels trapped, again manifesting her instinctual nature. At the end of the story, she herself is defeated by Wilson, who plainly lets her see that he knows the truth, and seems to enjoy the feeling of being able to submit her to his will, and have her beg: “That’s better, ‘Wilson said. ‘Please is much better. Now I’ll stop.’(Hemingway, 14)

The meanings of Hemingway’s story are thus very complex, as he analyzes the instinctual relationships between men and women, and other instincts, such as that of killing and hunting or of possessing and dominating.

Works Cited:

Hemingway, Ernest. The Complete Short Stories. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1998

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