Hemingway: “The Short Happy Life Of Francis Macomber” Essay, Research Paper
Ernest Hemingway was one of a group of artists in the inter-war period of the early twentieth century who was left mentally (and for Hemingway also physically) scarred by the total devastation he witnessed during and after the Great War. Gertrude Stein labeled Hemingway and his peers “a Lost Generation”, a famous phrase that only partially describes the detachment, confusion, instability, and distrust that these twenty- and thirty-somethings felt toward many of the traditional ways of life that had led to the brutal, total war which had eradicated much of the people of their age group. To cope with the feelings of meaninglessness and nothingness they had in their lives in the modern world, these artists developed personalized value systems which were reflected and transmitted through their work.
Hemingway’s personal value system has been termed “the code”, and has to do mainly with struggle and growth toward awareness as a process taught via example by a tutor figure to a student figure, the tyro. The tutor figure is what critics call the code-hero, and his stoic tutelage is usually manifested in some manner of ‘birth under fire’ to the tyro, who is often only a shell of a human, a corrupted soul, and is virtually the ‘living dead’. Through the tutor’s example, the tyro can struggle toward an awareness of nada, the term for the omnipresent void of modern life, and through confronting nada perhaps win back his life from moral and emotional bankruptcy. The tutor teaches the tyro how to cope with nada. This essay will examine Hemingway’s code and how it confronts nada as it is played out in one of his most exemplary tutor-tyro duos, Wilson and Francis in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”.
Understanding Hemingway’s common structural figures will help to illuminate the action in the story as well as the process of Wilson’s tutelage and Francis’ growth. One structure in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is that of an inner journey for Francis. As Grebstein suggests, Francis, like other Hemingway tyros, moves from innocence to suffering to awareness. 1 With awareness, at least in Francis’ case, comes action as well. The other main structure in the story is more abstract and theoretical but equally as evident as the first, namely that of an arch pattern relating to place and spheres of action. This structural pattern, which will be analyzed in conjunction with the former structure, is a progression from outside to inside to outside. 2
Francis Macomber begins the story with a skewed type of innocence that is common in Hemingway’s writing. His innocence is not so much of a lack of experience but a lack of valuable, dignified, real experience, leaving Francis with years of memories but none which he can use to improve his personal character. 3 That is to say that Francis has led a ’sheltered life’, one where he has been protected from making difficult decisions by the barriers and buffers of his wealth, his marriage and his status, which in true Hemingway fashion are all represented more or less by one unifying entity: Francis’ wife Margot.
In the story, Margot is the personification of the forces of nada. All the things Francis has cherished and which have (unbeknownst to him) made his life so meaningless thus far, are the same things which Margot and he share, and further, are the things which Francis will have to reject and de-value in order to face the wounded big game on the hunt, in order to confront fear and nada. Implicit in that statement is the assertion that Francis must reject Margot (his personal marriage to nada) in order to start to live, and conversely that by loosening her grip on him, Francis also loosens the grip of nothingness, of nada, on himself. Of course, Francis does not know any of the above early on in the story, and even for a while after the wounded lion incident; he is still in a state of unaware innocence, or na?vet?, and it will take prompting from the tutor character, Wilson, to enable Francis to struggle toward a break with Margot and more importantly, with nada.
Like Harry in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (who also comes to a realization that he must reject the woman he is with and her world in order to be real), Francis has lived a life of ease saturated by alcohol, surrounded by morally bankrupt men and especially women, and obsessed with material gains over honest experience. So, for instance, when the news of Francis’ cowardice has spread around the camp and Wilson has been forced to threaten to whip one of the servant boys for talking about Francis, Francis cannot understand why the boys would rather submit to lashings than lose their pay; Francis simply cannot comprehend that for the boys the body is expendable while their meager wages are not. 4 Francis would expect either to buy his way out of the lashings or to take the monetary loss simply because he can afford to — the threat of pain is real and frightful for Francis but the loss of mere money does not bother him in the least because he has so much money he no longer understands its value. Indeed, the safari Francis is on in the story is at first little more than a bought “African adventure”, a fashionable act of the day popularized by the mythology surrounding Theodore Roosevelt’s safaris and the tales of the great white hunters. 5 Francis goes expecting the safari, like everything else he has done so far in his existence, to be easy. He does not expect danger or the personal growth he will undergo, but merely an anecdote to put him one up at the next cocktail party. Thus, back at camp after his cowardly dash out of the tall grass away from the wounded lion Francis tries to ensure that his societal image will not be harmed by news of his cowardice leaking out. He snivels to Wilson, “I’m awfully sorry about that lion business. It doesn’t have to go any further, does it? I mean, no one will hear about it, will they?” 6 It is at this point in the story that Wilson loses all respect for Francis: “So he’s a bloody four-letter man as well as a bloody coward, he thought. I rather liked him until today.” 7
Francis’ innocence, as far as the action in the story itself, is manifested in his cowardly run from the wounded lion, an event that occurs outside in the realm of the white hunter, Wilson. Following Hemingway’s arch structure, the story next moves to an interior location, inside Francis’ mind, where he struggles to come to terms with his cowardice, his wasted life, and nada. Having lost the respect of Wilson, whatever if any remained of Margot’s, and everyone else’s in the hunting party, Francis enters a difficult, gut-wrenching period of self-assessment. This part of the story, in which Francis replays the entire wounded lion incident in his head and begins to grapple with the root causes of his cowardice and meaninglessness, is the suffering step of Francis’ personal journey. External factors like the fact that Wilson and Margot have sex only meters away from him on the night of his greatest failure only serve to illuminate for Francis how utterly devoid of meaning his traditional ways have been. Margot shows she does not care at all about Francis; indeed, she is nothing (nada) to him. Instead of consoling Francis, she sneaks out of their tent to be with Wilson, putting herself and her chance for exotic glamour first and foremost, because the women of the “international, fast, sporting set . . . did not feel they were getting their money’s worth unless they had shared the cot with the white hunter.” 8
Wilson maintains a cool detachment from the entire situation as Francis struggles to better himself through painful self-criticism. The night with Margot is nothing more than a “windfall” to Wilson, and he has no sympathy for the irritated Francis the next morning: “Why doesn’t he keep his wife where she belongs? What does he think I am, a bloody plaster saint? Let him keep her where she belongs. It’s his own fault.” 9 Wilson has already decided that the rest of the Macomber safari will be one where he is “still drinking their whisky”, or going through the motions because he has been hired even if there is nothing in it of value for him any longer. 10
It is important to note that as is the case with most of Hemingway’s tutors, as a professional Wilson has a limited realm of understanding. As Rovit argues, a tutor character’s “responses will be inevitably adequate to the challenge that he is trained to accept . . . The tyro must try to stop himself from thinking [in those same situations if he is to act as determinedly as the tutor].” 11 Thus Wilson can offer Francis plenty of sound advice on big game hunting (Wilson’s area of expertise), but in other areas his advice is detached and dismissive: “Women upset amounts to nothing. Strain on the nerves and one thing’n another.” 12 That is to say that Wilson’s tutelage will only directly apply to hunting, and Francis will have to apply the lessons to the other areas of his life in order for the lessons to have a pronounced effect on the rest of his life.
Early on in the safari Wilson tried to teach Francis the honorable way to hunt using the African concept of shauri, which best translates to “duty”. When Macomber asks why the wounded lion cannot just be left to die, Wilson answers, “For one thing, he’s certain to be suffering. For another, some one else might run onto him.” 13 Wilson explains that it is the hunting party’s shauri to go into the grass after the wounded lion, for the safety of other humans and for the well-being and dignity of the animal. When Macomber bolts from the grass, he not only shows his cowardice, he also neglects his shauri.
That said, there are numerous incidents where Wilson is baffled by Francis’ relative resolve to keep trying, and they are crucial to understanding the underlying tutor-tyro relationship in the story. For instance, back at camp after Francis has asked Wilson to keep the lion incident a secret, Francis optimistically says, “Maybe I can fix it up on the buffalo. We’re after them next, aren’t we?” 14 At this, Wilson questions the grounds for his loss of respect for Macomber and is momentarily “all for Macomber again.” Yet Wilson cannot forget the morning and so he returns to disrespect for Francis, though he does quietly warn Francis that his wife is approaching: “Here comes the Memsahib.” 15 This line is used twice in the story, in situations where Wilson and Francis are intimately discussing the hunt and where Wilson feels a woman’s presence is problematic and unnecessary: prior to the lion hunt when the tutor and tyro discuss the proper range to take a lion at 16, and in the aftermath of Francis’ cowardice as they attempt to patch up their badly slipping relationship. 17 Even though he does not respect Francis at the latter point, Wilson realizes that it will not help matters any if Margot is let in on the relationship’s secret confidances.
Therefore, late in the afternoon after the lion hunt, Wilson and Francis go out together without Margot to hunt a herd of impala, animals that Francis is with good reason less fearful of. This small sequence is another crucial tutor-tyro moment, as Wilson nurtures the wounded ego of Francis. After Francis fells a ram “with a very creditable shot” Wilson compliments Francis’ shooting and states, “You shoot like that and you’ll have no trouble.” Francis again displays his willingness to make up for his cowardice with the lion, asking if there will be buffalo the next day and stating, “I’d like to clear away that lion business.” 18 Although he still very much resents Macomber’s lack of backbone earlier in the day, Wilson offers kind words to his shaky tyro: “I wouldn’t think about that any more. Any one could be upset by his first lion. That’s all over.” 19 Neither of the characters fully believe the sentiment, but Wilson shows some compassion or empathy in deciding to say anything at all.
Soon thereafter through his internal suffering Francis arrives at the conclusion that the only way he will reclaim his life from nada is to prove himself on the hunt. The morning of the buffalo hunt (the morning after the lion incident and Margot’s latest affair), Francis finds that, “of all the many men that he had hated, he hated Robert Wilson the most.” 20 The “hatred” Francis feels toward Wilson is not really hatred, but rather a type of jealousy and envy. Wilson, after all, was not afraid of the wounded lion and carried on his shauri without cowardice. Wilson, too, reaped the rewards of the hunt, in Margot’s “affection”, which is the hard physical turning point for Francis; after Margot has proven her meaninglessness to Francis, he has no choice but to go on in the abysmal grasp of Margot or to make an effort to change everything about himself. Francis sees in Wilson what he would like to become, a man who can control the outcome of events that should be beyond his control, a man who acts to ensure that he is not a victim, a man in charge of his own life. The morning after the lion incident Wilson is everything Francis, through the course of his suffering self-assessment that night, has decided to become. Thus it is no surprise that Francis is eager to go out the next morning and prove to everyone, including himself, that he is a changed man: “You’re sure you [Wilson] wouldn’t like to stay in camp with her yourself and let me go out and hunt the buffalo?” 21 His eagerness is foolish but it serves his purpose: Francis displays his brash new attitude, rejects Margot’s attempts to calm him (i.e., to control him) and issues a challenge to Wilson, in essence implying, “I’m not afraid to go after the big game. You just try and keep up with (the new) me.”
At this point Francis’ emotions are very complex. In his intensified state, eager to prove himself, he would surely be mauled out on the plain: too much testosterone, too little training and tact. Again it must be noted that Francis’ “hatred” is tinged with heavy envy and resentment of Wilson. Francis is so simultaneously ashamed (of his cowardice’s resonance both in camp and in his head) and invigorated (by his self-induced growth and eagerness to act upon the fruit of his suffering) that outwardly he acts infuriated, telling Margot, “I hate the red-faced swine. I loathe the sight of [Wilson]” while on the inside somewhere he knows he will need Wilson’s guidance and hunting expertise. 22 Thus, when Wilson pulls up in the car to go out after the buffalo, Francis is forthright, self-assured, and positively with Wilson 23:
“Going shooting?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Macomber, standing up. “Yes.”(italics added).
For the conclusion of the story and of Francis’ personal journey, the point where Francis reaches awareness, the action is once again outside, thus completing the structural arch. At first Wilson is weary of hunting buffalo with Francis, but once the buffalo are spotted Wilson sees a kindred spirit in Francis. As the tutor and tyro become partners racing across the plain after the three water buffaloes, Wilson remains a stern tutor and Francis continues to resent Wilson’s relative perfection 24:
[Francis] was raising his rifle when Wilson shouted, “Not from the car, you fool!” and he had no fear, only hatred of Wilson . . .
After the buffalo have been downed, the change in Francis, his newfound awareness and self-control, are somewhat apparent to everyone. Macomber feels “a drunken elation” and “In his life he had never felt so good.” 25 Margot, realizing she is losing her grip on Francis, tries to de-value the experience, saying, “It seemed very unfair to me . . . chasing those big helpless things in a motor car.” 26 Wilson commends Francis: “I was just mopping up a little. You shot damn well.” Suddenly, Francis has no hatred of Wilson, that anger replaced by a type of camaraderie: “Let’s all have a drink.” 27
Of course, nada is not this easy to shake. As they celebrate, news arrives that the first bull, ironically the only one Macomber took single-handedly, has only been wounded and has escaped into the bush. Hemingway skillfully sets the stage for a test of Francis’ growth. Margot, who has not grown, says, “Then it’s going to be just like the lion.” 28 Showing his newfound respect for Francis, Wilson snaps, “It’s not going to be a damned bit like the lion.” and turning to Francis asks, “Would you like another drink, Macomber?”. 29 Precisely at this point, Francis feels the change in himself 30:
He expected the feeling he had had about the lion to come back but it did not. For the first time in his life he really felt wholly without fear. Instead of fear he had a feeling of definite elation.
Francis wastes no time in telling Wilson and Margot of his newfound lack of fear, saying, “I don’t think I’d ever be afraid of anything again. Something happened in me after we first saw the buff and started after him. Like a dam bursting. It was pure excitement.” After a few lines Francis says, “I feel absolutely different.” and a moment later he expresses his utter confidence: “You know, I’d like to try another lion. I’m not really afraid of them now. After all, what can they do to you?” 31 Wilson is so impressed with Francis’ change that he recites a Shakespeare quotation which has served as a motto for him, something Wilson never would have revealed about himself had he not found a kindred spirit in Francis. Hemingway gives a half page of Wilson’s thoughts on the growth and change of Macomber, of which these lines are key excerpts 32:
Beggar had probably been afraid all his life. Don’t know what started it. But over now. Hadn’t had time to be afraid with the buff. That and being angry too . . . 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.
Meanwhile, throughout Francis’ ecstatic celebration of his newfound control of his life, and as Wilson admires Francis’ impressive hunting action, Margot is icily quiet, only expressing her disgust at the hunt. She too has seen the change in Francis, and it worries her, for she is losing control of him: “Her contempt was not secure. She was very afraid of something.” 33 In an essential passage, the frightened Margot confronts Francis about his sudden bravery: “Isn’t it too late?” she asks. He responds, “Not for me”, expressing that only now in the last few moments has he had any control in the entirety of his life. 34
Just as Harry in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” decides to pick up his pen and write again in order to combat the surrounding nada, Francis picks up his gun and decides to act upon the awareness he has gained during his personal journey from sheltered innocence through self-assessing suffering to a singular confrontation with nada. It is part of Francis’ shauri as a hunter to finish what he has started with the buffalo; Wilson taught him that with the lion but it took the painful realizations Francis had overnight and the stoic encouragement of Wilson to make Francis willing to fulfill his shauri. There is one final moment of tutelage just prior to the point where Wilson and the new Francis, the Francis ready to act with dignity, head into the bush. This moment follows the pattern of all the previous occurrences of sincere tutelage in that it takes place away from Margot, away from nada. Wilson offers some advice on what to expect from the wounded bull and bluntly states how difficult it will be to bring the bull down. Compared with his cowardice at the lion incident, it is obvious from Francis’ reaction that he is not the same person he once was 35:
Macomber felt his heart pounding and his mouth was dry again, but it was excitement, not fear.
In the story’s conclusion, Francis stands his ground firing as the bull charges him, only to be shot with an elephant gun from behind by Margot, who watches from the car (an interior, safe location where she risks nothing). Wilson finishes the shauri which Francis and he had been partners on and then, standing over Macomber’s ripped apart head and body, coldly attacks Margot’s malicious destruction of her husband: “Why didn’t you just poison him? That’s what they do in England.” 36
“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” offers a dim hope for the cause of self-betterment through the exercise of free will. Francis does attain the awareness he strives for, but at the cost of wasting his entire (adult) life in the realm of nada before realizing, through exposure to raw fear and danger, that he has no courage — not enough to stand up to a wounded lion, nor his wife, nor his own decrepit moral values of money and Societal standing. Wilson helps Francis along the journey by providing a quiet but compelling example of a man who has faced fear, faced nada, and overcome them. In the end, though, the forces of determinism win out over Francis. If Francis is victorious, in many ways he is a phyrric victor. He stands firing, happy and exhilarated, in an ultimate act of free will and courage as the bull charges him, only to be shot in the back (literally) by his wife, the representation of all that he has come to reject, the representation of nada. Hemingway’s message is quite clear: it is a hellish struggle to make something of yourself in the modern world, and there are few things you can trust, and you can never count on anything good lasting very long, and if you find something worth holding on to you had better hold tightly because the rest of the world will try like hell to ruin it for you, and the odds are in their favor. After Margot shoots Francis even Wilson’s biting, sarcastic attacks on her ultimately ring hollow in comparison to the overwhelming sensation the reader gets that all of Francis’ suffering, indeed his entire life, was almost completely for naught. Hemingway’s perfect little title reveals the only part of Francis Macomber’s life that really counted or mattered: those short, happy moments of the buffalo hunt. Everything else was nada.
(page numbers without an author are from the text of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”)
1Grebstein, p. 16
2Grebstein, pp. 5-7
3p. 21. Francis lies alone in bed the night after the lion incident consoling himself by thinling of what he knows:
His wife had been through with him before but it never lasted. He was very wealthy, and he would be much wealthier, and he knew she would not leave him ever now. That was one of the few things that he really knew. He knew about that, about motor cycles — that was the earliest — about motor cars, about duck-shooting, about fishing, trout, salmon and big sea, about sex in books, many books, too many books, about all court games, about dogs, not much about horses, about hanging on to his money, about most of the other things his world dealt in, and about his wife not leaving him.
(italics added). All of these things mean nothing to Francis on the safari; none of them give him any basis for courage.
5p. 22. As proof of the “canned experience” nature of the safari, a Societal magazine in New York had the following to report on the Macomber’s trip:
They were adding more than a spice of adventure to their much envied and ever-enduring Romance by a Safari in what was known as Darkest Africa . . .
9p. 26; p. 23 respectively
11Rovit, p. 60
18previous three quotations in essay text, pp. 10-11
31previous three quotations in essay text, p. 32
Grebstein, Sheldon Norman. “The Structure of Hemingway’s Short Stories”. in Hemingway’s Craft. Southern Illinois University Press. Carbondale and Edwardsville.
Hemingway, Ernest. “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”. in The Short Stories. Scribner/Simon & Schuster, New York. 1995.
Rovit, Earl. “Of Tutors and Tyros.” in Ernest Hemingway. Twayne Publishers, Inc. New York.
Bruccoli, Matthew J. Conversations with Ernest Hemingway. University Press of Mississippi. Jackson and London. 1986.
Hoffman, Steven K. “‘Nada’ and the Clean, Well-Lighted Place: The Unity of Hemingway’s Short Fiction.” in Essays in Literature 6, no. 1. Spring, 1979.
Waldhorn, Arthur. “Style”. in A Reader’s Guide to Ernest Hemingway.