Many literary classics you encounter too early in life, often as a class assignment in college or even high school. With almost no life experience, you can’t fully grasp their deeper meanings. Nothing prevents you from rereading them much later, however, and a masterful work should be revisited again and again.
I don’t know how secure Hemingway is in the contemporary canon, but if you’re over 35-years-old, say, you’re likely to have read, if only sloppily, his “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Let’s reexamine this story.
A high-society American couple, Francis and Margot Macomber, went to Africa to experience big game hunting. There, they’re guided by Robert Wilson, an Englishman.
The story begins with all three having lunch after killing their first lion. The mood is tense and subdued, however. Something is wrong. Even after it’s spelled out, on page four, that Francis has just “shown himself, very publicly, to be a coward,” we still don’t know what happened.
So we’re dealing with its aftermath, which includes Margot seeing Francis and Wilson in new lights.
Throughout the story, much is made of Wilson’s ruddy complexion. Margot noticed this with pleasure whenever she looked at him, and flirting with the man, remarked about this repeatedly, to the point where Wilson had to protest, “I say, you wouldn’t like to drop my beauty as a topic, would you?”
Unlike her husband, Wilson was a white man with big brown hands and a very red face, and one who could calmly handle savage dangers. At home in Africa and speaking Swahili, Wilson was a white man of color.
Taking a dig at her husband, Margot purred to Wilson, “And I want so to see you perform again. You were lovely this morning. That is if blowing things’ heads off is lovely.”
What’s wrong with Francis Macomber? Nothing, really. No worse than you or me, he’s likely a few grades better.
Hemingway, “Francis Macomber was very tall, very well built if you did not mind that length of bone, dark, his hair cropped like an oarsman, rather thin-lipped, and was considered handsome.” He’s not weather beaten, though, like Wilson. Francis had an “American face that would stay adolescent until it became middle-aged.”
More, “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. He knew about that, about motor cycles—that was 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.”
Though a renowned beauty, Margot was no longer young, and Francis was simply too rich.
Civilized and domesticated, Francis Macomber was simply out of his elements in the African bush. The night before the lion hunt, he heard the lion roaring somewhere nearby and was terrified. In the morning, this fear increased because it was almost time to confront this lion.
“What’s the matter, Francis?” his wife asked him.
“Nothing,” Macomber said.
“Yes, there is,” she said.
“What are you upset about?”
“Nothing,” he said.
“Tell me,” she looked at him. “Don’t you feel well?”
“It’s that damned roaring,” he said.
“It’s been going on all night, you know.”
“Why didn’t you wake me,” she said. “I’d love to have heard it.”
“I’ve got to kill the damned thing,” Macomber said, miserably.
“Well, that’s what you’re out here for, isn’t it?”
“Yes. But I’m nervous. Hearing the thing roar gets on my nerves.”
“Well then, as Wilson said, kill him and stop his roaring.”
“Yes, darling,” said Francis Macomber. “It sounds easy, doesn’t it?”
“You’re not afraid, are you?”
“Of course not. But I’m nervous from hearing him roar all night.”
Terrified, he’s reduced to a boy seeking reassurance and encouragement from his mom. He’d rather be somewhere much safer, it’s clear.
They went out to look for the lion. Finding him easily, it was time for Francis to shoot, except he didn’t want to get out. Ridiculously, he wanted to target the beast from inside the car, but Wilson said no to that. It’s just not done.
Out, Francis’ hands shook and his legs could barely move, but he managed to get into position, aimed and fired, yet nothing happened. He had forgotten to move the safety over. Finally ready, Francis fired three shots, with two hitting the lion, but not in optimal places. Infuriated, the hurt lion disappeared into some high grass to await his revenge.
Neither Wilson nor the black gun bearers were happy with this outcome. Now, they had to wait for the beast to weaken before pouncing on his hiding place to finish him off.
Dreading this, Francis absurdly suggested they set the grass on fire, send some boys in to flush the lion out, or just leave. Shamelessly, Francis even told Wilson out right, “I don’t want to go in there.” So don’t, Wilson replied, “That’s what I’m hired for, you know. That’s why I’m so expensive.”
This was no real option, however, because Margot was right there, just across the stream. Slinking back to her would crush Francis, but what ended up happening was even worse.
Hemingway, “Kongoni, the old gun-bearer, in the lead watching the blood spoor, Wilson watching the grass for any movement, his big gun ready, the second gun-bearer looking ahead and listening, Macomber close to Wilson, his rifle cocked, they had just moved into the grass when Macomber heard the blood-choked coughing grunt, and saw the swishing rush in the grass. The next thing he knew he was running; running wildly, in panic in the open, running toward the stream.”
Going back, Margot refused to look at Francis or even hold his hand. Instead, she leaned over the front seat to kiss Wilson on the lips, while cooing about “The beautiful red-faced Mr. Robert Wilson.”
Worse, Margot slipped into Wilson’s tent that very night. She craved more of his performance. Waking up at 3 in the morning to find his wife’s cot empty, Francis waited for her to return. Just as with the lion, Francis shrank from another challenge to his manhood. No confrontation, please.
“Where have you been?”
“I just went out to get a breath of air.”
“You did, like hell.”
“What do you want me to say, darling?”
“Where have you been?”
“Out to get a breath of air.”
“That’s a new name for it. You are a bitch.”
“Well, you’re a coward.”
At breakfast, Francis only alluded to what had happened. Brushing it off, Wilson even warned the humiliated man to not “talk rot.”
On this second day, they hunted buffaloes. Performing marvelously, Francis started to redeem himself. He did so well, in fact, he seemed transformed.
Hemingway, “Look at the beggar now, Wilson thought. It’s that some of them stay little boys so long, Wilson thought. Sometimes all their lives. Their figures stay boyish when they’re fifty. The great American boy-men. Damned strange people. But he liked this Macomber now. Damned strange fellow. Probably meant the end of cuckoldry too. Well, that would be a damned good thing. Damned good thing. 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.”
Having Margot screwed by Wilson had helped to turn Francis into a man, so it was like a gift, the cuckoldry.
You would think this sea change cheered Margot, but she hated it, and said so, repeatedly. She was also worried about something she couldn’t quite define.
Hemingway gives us a clue. Earlier, Wilson had reflected on American women, “They are, he thought, the hardest in the world; the hardest, the cruelest, the most predatory and the most attractive and their men have softened or gone to pieces nervously as they have hardened. Or is it that they pick men they can handle?”
More of Wilson on American women, “How should a woman act when she discovers her husband is a bloody coward? She’s damn cruel but they’re all cruel. They govern, of course, and to govern one has to be cruel sometimes. Still, I’ve seen enough of their damn terrorism.”
(In 650 pages of Hemingway short fiction, the word “terrorism” only appears twice. Once in the context of the Spanish Civil War, and here, to describe American women’s treatment of their men.)
The beauty of fiction is that you can have any character say or think absolutely anything, at least in theory, so this assessment is Wilson’s, not Hemingway’s, though it comes from the author’s mind, of course.
This story was published in 1936. If this was true then, let’s say, then what about now? Have American men softened even further as their women hardened even more?
The central theme of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is the inability of the civilized man to deal with savage situations. Faced with the primal threat of an enraged lion, Francis simply bolted. How many of us would have done the same?
All the savagery Francis discovered in Africa was initiated by him, of course, when he shot at wild animals. A thrill seeker, he brought violence, so was met by a violence that overwhelmed him.
Wilson, though, was both civilized and savage, and that’s why Margot was so turned on, “Mr. Wilson is really very impressive killing anything. You do kill anything, don’t you?”
The barbaric baffles us. Walking along, we just don’t expect to be sucker punched, usually by someone much younger, from behind. We have a hard time understanding such enraged cowardice.
I had a white friend, now deceased, who told me about an incidence in his youth. He was out walking with his girlfriend when a black man approached them and snarled, “I want to fuck her!”
What would you have done? Forced to respond spontaneously, my friend merely shrugged, “Well, you have to ask her.”
More tragically, his young daughter would later be killed by her black boyfriend. The fatherless high school drop-out bashed her skull repeatedly with a hammer.
Even before the murder, there were signs of his violence, including a brick thrown through her windshield, but my friend did not forcefully intervene. As an adult, she was entitled to her choices, he reasoned.
A world-class academic, my friend was far removed from such mindless savagery. After his daughter had been killed, he suffered daily, and blamed himself, but not in ways you’d think. He should have adopted the black boyfriend, perhaps, brought him into the family and showered him with love, he told me. Everything would have been all right, then.
“He would have killed you too!” I responded.
Of course, the most intense savagery is war. It’s so incomprehensibly horrific, one’s first instinct is to flee. Soon as the shooting and shelling start, there’s a massive refugee crisis, but soldiers can’t run. Every society, then, must steel a good portion of its men for this potential savagery. Boys must harden into men.
Many today find such thinking offensive. Thankfully, the US military also rejects such a reactionary, binerial mindset. This fighting force won’t just give its sissies an option to become fake women, but gladly pay for the castration. Suddenly dickless, they’ll charge!
The buffalo hunt was going along splendidly, but like lions, wounded buffaloes also charged. A massive bull they assumed dead suddenly emerged from the bush. Newly brave and calm, Francis stood his ground to fire at this angry animal, barreling down on him. All his shots were a bit high, however, so merely splintered the huge boss of the buffalo’s horns. As Francis was about to be gored, his wife fired from the car.
Deed done, Margot sobbed hysterically over her dead husband. Kneeling beside her, Wilson had no doubts about what had happened. Hemingway:
“That was a pretty thing to do,” he said in a toneless voice. “He would have left you too.”
“Stop it,” she said.
“Of course it’s an accident,” he said. “I know that.”
“Stop it,” she said.
We can assume that, freed of Francis, Margot would quickly find another soft, pliant, easily cowed man, one she could easily control. There were so many then.
There are countless more now. Mushy, with man tits, we slouch in the dark to devour savagery on our screens.