The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber
Ernest Hemingway (Cosmopolitan, 1936.)
Reviewed by Ken Bailey
The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, a short story by Ernest Hemingway set in Africa, was originally published in the September 1936 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, the same edition that ran another of Hemingway’s acclaimed short stories, The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Many consider The Short Happy Life… to be among Hemingway’s most successful artistic achievements. Whether you subscribe to that notion or not, and many don’t, it’s unquestionably an entertaining and deceptive read.
At face value it’s a tidy little tale of a man and his wife on safari, guided by a professional hunter. It opens with the trio returning from a morning’s hunt that saw a lion killed. Macomber initially wounded the lion. When the lion charges as they follow it up, Macomber turns tail and runs, leaving it to Robert Wilson, the PH, to sort out. This cowardly reaction is on full display for Macomber’s wife, Margot, to see. Her reaction is one of derision and revulsion for her husband, and she responds, in part, by slipping in to Wilson’s tent that night for a dalliance that she makes little effort to conceal from her husband.
Wilson, meanwhile, outwardly tries to downplay Macomber’s timidity while actually losing all respect for him. The following day they’re hunting buffalo. They come across three good bulls and drop them all. As they’re approaching one of the downed bulls, a tracker tells them that one of the other two has risen and slipped off into the brush. Another follow up is required, but this time Macomber is determined to show he has the nerves to do it right. And he does, standing up to the buffalo as it charges. His shots are a tad high, however, and at one point Margot, back in the truck, takes a shot, ostensibly to help kill the bull. Her shot, however, hits Macomber “two inches up and a little to one side of the base of his skull.” There ends the short happy life of Francis Macomber.
A simple tale, to be sure, but Hemingway leaves us with many unanswered questions. Foremost among them is whether Macomber was murdered by his wife or whether she shot him accidentally while trying to protect him from the charging buffalo. Love-hate emotions abound here, and the characters are all quite complex.
Margot is a predatory, dominant wife who demeans Francis, in large part, because she can. She would happily divorce him, but fears she couldn’t find another man as wealthy as Francis. Like all predators, she preys on the weak, but you get the sense that down deep she loves Francis, or would, if only he would “man up.” At her worst she cuckolds her husband as a way to show her revulsion for his cowardly actions while lion hunting. At her best, she finds newfound respect for him when he faces down the charging buffalo. Or does she? The reader must decide for themselves.
For his part, Francis loves Margot, while concurrently despising how she treats him. He would probably divorce her, but fears he’d never find another woman as attractive as Margot, who’s a former model. He acknowledges his own timidity, but the lion incident and the subsequent loss of respect from his wife, his PH and the safari staff seems to light a fire under him and he wants to redeem himself, to become the man he wants to be. Hence his eagerness to get after the wounded buffalo.
Wilson, meanwhile, a competent, respected PH wavers greatly in his admiration of Francis. He goes from being an admirer of Francis’ to viewing him with little esteem after the lion hunt, but also feels a little sorry for how he’s treated by Margot. Of course, he’s got a little cad in him, too. He sleeps in a double cot in camp just to be able to take advantage of opportunities like the one Margot presented, and he’s not totally above bending and breaking the rules as we learn on the buffalo hunt. In fact, he leverages his potential witness statement about the shooting of Francis to protect himself against Margot’s comments regarding the illegal nature of the hunt.
The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber is an easy read in one sitting. But, as perhaps few do better than Hemingway, you’ll be thinking about it long after you’ve turned the last page. Most good African hunting literature is non-fiction, but this is one piece of fiction that everyone who appreciates the safari experience should read.