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Conflict And Ambiguity In

“The Short Happy Life Of Francis Macomber” Essay, Research Paper

I recently read Earnest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” This is a story about a thirty-five year old man, Francis Macomber who is on an African safari hunt with his wife, Margot. Led by his guide, Robert Wilson, Macomber tries to display his manhood by killing dangerous creatures. This in fact has the exact opposite effect when he humiliates himself by running from a wounded lion. Samuel Shaw stated in Earnest Hemingway, “?this is about much more than a hunting yarn, although it is that, too. It is a story that examines that elemental bases of the male-female relationship and the sources of human freedom and dependence” (82). The situation is complicated when Margot sleeps with Wilson and Macomber knows about it. Macomber has another chance to prove himself when they go into an island of trees to shoot a wounded buffalo. This time he stands his ground and shoots repeatedly as the buffalo charges forward. Seeing the whole situation from the car Margot shoots at the last instant, and in a brilliant ending by Hemmingway, misses and hits Macomber right in the back of the head, leaving the reader to wonder, “Did she mean to hit him?” Prevalent in this story is Hemmingway’s use of the literary conventions conflict and ambiguity.

Conflict is described by James H. Pickering as, “The struggle or encounter within the plot of two opposing forces that serves to create reader interest and suspense” (1169). This is found all throughout this story. (1169) Macomber faces both internal and external conflict. The author displays conflict between Macomber and his wife:

He was very wealthy, and 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? His wife had been a great beauty and she was still a great beauty in Africa, but she was not a great enough beauty any more at home to be able to leave him and better herself and she knew it and he knew it. She had missed the chance to leave him and he knew it. If he had been better with women she would probably have started to worry about him getting another new, beautiful wife; but she knew too much about him to worry about him either. (18)

This conflict becomes an external one when Margot sleeps with Wilson and Macomber is awake when she returns, and they begin to fight:

“Where have you been?”

“Out to get a fresh breath of air.”

“That’s a new name for it. You are a bitch.”

“Well you’re a coward.”

“There wasn’t going to be any of that. You promised there wouldn’t be.”

“Well there is now.” She said sweetly. (19)

The conflict lies deeper then just with his wife; there is also conflict between Macomber and Wilson. Wilson is a man’s man. He provides a direct contrast to Macomber. On the surface he understands women and is not afraid of wild animals, but deeper he has earned all of his possessions and success in life. He has worked hard for his living, and earned respect, something that Macomber lacks, even from his wife. When Macomber shoots the wounded buffalo he has overcome his fear, and for a moment shares a mutual respect with Wilson. As Richard Lehan said it in Hemingway In Our Time, “[Macomber]? intuits the falsity of his past values and rejects the corrupting influence of civilization for the primitive vitality of the big-game hunt with its life-and-death consequences” (204) The confidence that filled him, propelled him in action, and may have also been enough to even make him leave his unfaithful wife. The reader never knows for sure though, since Margot kills him with one fatal bullet.

Ambiguity is defined by Pickering as, “A word phrase, event, or situation that may be understood or interpreted in two or more ways, each valid in the immediate context?” (1168). The ending leaves the reader wondering if the conflict between Margot and Macomber was such that it drove her to murder him, or if he had finally become the man she wanted and in a desperate attempt to save him Margot puts an end to his life by mistake. Both possibilities are validated threw effective use of plot and motive leading up to the end of the story. I like this well crafted use of ambiguity at the end of Hemingway’s story.


Lehan, Richard. Hemingway In Our Time. Oregon State University Press, 1974.

Pickering, James H. Fiction 100 : An Anthology of Short Stories. 4th Ed. New York :

Macmillan Publishing CO, 1985.

Shaw, Samuel. Earnest Hemingway. New York : Frederick Ungar Publishing Co, 1973