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Themes and Construction: "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber"
EXPLORING Short Stories. 2003.
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In Americans Francis and Margot Macomber go on an African safari with a British guide, Robert Wilson, and a crew of native porters and gun-bearers. Macomber exhibits cowardice during a lion hunt. It becomes evident that Margot has long considered her husband weak and unmanly and has expressed her contempt through sexual infidelity. While hunting buffalo, Francis suddenly begins to display confidence and assertiveness. This change in his behavior makes Margot uneasy. While shooting at a charging buffalo, she kills her husband, perhaps accidentally, perhaps not.

Coming of Age

For Francis Macomber, facing the lion and the buffaloes is a test of courage, but also a test of manhood. American culture provides no clear rite of passage for males, so men like Macomber must seek out a dangerous situation in which to test their mettle—unlike the Africans who face such dangers on a regular basis. The narrator describes Francis as more boy than man. Although he is thirty-five years old, he is said to have an "American face that would stay adolescent until it became middle-aged."

After Francis fails to meet the challenge of the lion, he redeems himself the next day while hunting buffalo, and Wilson is delighted at the change in Macomber. Wilson had, according to the narrator, "seen men come of age before and it always moved him. It was not a matter of their twenty-first birthday." The trouble with American males is diagnosed by Wilson, who is British: "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." Ironically, though, Francis finally passes the test and achieves manhood just moments before his death.

Appearances and Reality

The relationship between a safari guide and his clients is dependent on a series of understandings designed to keep up appearances, regardless of the underlying reality. For example, because Wilson is a professional, he assures Francis that he will tell no one about Francis's shameful behavior during the lion hunt. "You know in Africa," he tells Macomber, "no woman ever misses her lion and no white man ever bolts," explaining the system whereby the professional hunter shoots the game himself if necessary but attributes the kill to his client. The client must go along with the fiction and not admit cowardice or failure, but Francis fails to follow this code. He insists on discussing the embarrassing incident and, worse yet, asks Wilson to keep it to himself, something Wilson would have done without being asked. Not only must a man who has behaved like a coward pretend to have been brave, but the opposite is also required—a man who has hunted bravely is supposed to pretend he was afraid. "Much more fashionable to say you're scared," Wilson tells Macomber when the American finally hunts bravely and wants to gloat about it.

Gender Roles

In standards for male and female behavior are rigid, and serious consequences accompany failure to meet those standards. Hemingway's model here is Darwinian survival of the fittest and natural selection. The strongest, most powerful man is able to dominate other males and earns the right to mate with the most desirable female, whose loyalty to him lasts only as long as the male's power. Francis begins the safari appearing to be the dominant male by virtue of his wealth and association with the beautiful Margot, although his wife 's past infidelities indicate that money alone is not sufficient to maintain that position. Manhood is further defined by an ability to face danger without flinching, and by refusing to admit fear, weakness, or failure. Only by appearing to be always in control—not only of himself, but also of his wife—can Francis earn and keep the respect of other men and the devotion of Margot. When Francis runs from the lion, his standing is diminished with all the members of the safari. He sees the contempt in the faces of Wilson and the black gun-bearers, an attitude that spreads to the kitchen help and personal servants as word of his cowardice reaches them. Boldly staring at his master, one of the servants makes clear his lack of respect for Macomber—that is, until he is reprimanded sharply by Wilson. Margot, too, is quick to take advantage of the situation and begins to bait her husband in front of Wilson.

Margot's role is that of the "trophy wife." As a beautiful woman, she rewards the most powerful man with her sexual favors, thus affirming his position not only to himself, but to other men as well. When Francis's courage fails during what Hemingway called "the moment of truth," his standing as a man plummets too, and Margot transfers her allegiance to Wilson. She kisses him on the mouth as they return from the hunt as a prelude to joining him in his tent during the night. Her infidelity is intended to humiliate her husband and to further reduce his standing as a man, so she makes no effort to hide her behavior. When Francis regains his confidence and makes it clear he will no longer tolerate her abuse, Margot becomes noticeably uneasy. When Margot shoots Francis, Wilson implies that she did so on purpose out of fear that he would divorce her, but assures her that the incident will be made to look like an accident. His accusatory stance quickly reduces her to a submissive attitude as she pleads with him to stop making his recriminatory statements.


is set in the African savanna, to which Francis and Margaret Macomber have come on a hunting expedition led by Robert Wilson. The hunting expedition ends in tragedy when Mr. Macomber is shot by his wife during a hunt.


Civilization and the wilderness, represented in this story by the camp and the savanna, are used to symbolize two types of male behavior, one cowardly, passive, and unmanly, the other courageous, aggressive, and manly. While the camp is hardly as comfortable as the luxurious life the Macombers enjoy in America, certain conventions of civilized life are maintained. Wilson and the Macombers drink gimlets and champagne, for example, and are served meat, potatoes, and carrots on china plates. Granted, the meat that is served is eland rather than roast beef, and the drinks are only "cool," rather than frosty, but still, the dining customs of England and America have been transplanted, at least to some extent, to the middle of Africa.

Wilson acts as a bridge between the "civilized" world of the West and the wilderness of the African savanna. He knows the language and social conventions of both worlds and thus serves as a guide in more than just the literal sense. He can quote Shakespeare and advise Francis on a suitable amount of money to tip the crew as well as on the proper way to shoot a buffalo.

Too civilized a life, though, breeds weakness in males, as Wilson sees it. American men in particular have gone soft, and so Macomber must come to Africa in order to become a man's man, like Wilson. The difference between civilization and wilderness is also symbolized by the physical appearance of the two men. Wilson's clothes are loose-fitting and old, his boots are covered with dirt, and his face is "baked red," whereas Francis's clothes are clean and new, and his hair is "cropped like an oarsman." Wilson, in other words, looks like a hunter in the wild, and Francis looks like a man who plays court games at an exclusive club. The contrast between the two men is further suggested by their guns, which also serve as symbols of male power. Macomber uses a Springfield rifle, while Wilson carries a "short, ugly, shockingly big-bored .505 Gibbs," the latter obviously being the more effective of the two for stopping a charging lion.

Point of View

The story is told by a third person omniscient narrator; that is, the events are related by a narrator who is not a character, but who has access to the characters' thoughts as well as their words and deeds. However, the narrator does not necessarily reveal everything to the reader. The perspective changes throughout the story, from Margot to Wilson, to Francis, even to the lion. It is through Margot's eyes that the narrator presents the contrasting physical descriptions of Wilson and Macomber. But then the narrator discusses Margot from Wilson's perspective, including his opinion of not just the beautiful Mrs. Macomber, but of American women in general: "She's damn cruel, but they're all cruel." Next the point of view shifts to Francis as he lies in bed recalling his shame at having run from the charging lion: "But more than shame he felt cold, hollow fear in him. The fear was still there like a cold slimy hollow in all the emptiness where once his confidence had been and it made him feel sick." Finally, the narrator even gives the reader access to the thoughts of the wounded lion, who "galloped toward the high grass where he could crouch and not be seen and make them bring the crashing thing close enough so he could make a rush and get the man that held it."

But if the narrator seems to know the thoughts of all the characters—human and animal—the characters themselves are not necessarily skilled at discerning the intentions and motivations of each other. Wilson, for instance, initially thinks he has Macomber figured out: the man is simply a coward. But when Macomber proposes going after buffalo the morning after the lion incident, Wilson decides he may have been wrong. Francis, meanwhile, cannot know what the lion is feeling, according to the narrator, nor does he realize that Wilson is furious with himself because he had not noticed Francis's agitated state earlier. The reader, too, does not always have access to the intentions of the characters, as, at the story's end, the narrator withholds the information necessary to determine whether Margot shoots her husband deliberately or accidentally. Wilson is convinced that it was not an accident, but he has been wrong before, and the narrator says simply that Margot "shot at the buffalo." The reader cannot be sure and neither can the critics agree about what actually happens at the end of the story.


Irony figures prominently in the story, particularly at the end, when Mrs. Macomber apparently tries to save her husband's life, but takes it instead. Irony is also apparent in the title His life is indeed short, but whether it was happy depends upon acceptance of the narrow definition of manhood operating within the story. Francis's newfound confidence—which in Wilson's view marks his belated entry into manhood—does indeed make him very happy. In this sense, then, his very brief life as a man is a happy one.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"Themes and Construction: 'The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber'." EXPLORING Short Stories, Gale, 2003. Research in Context, Accessed 20 June 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2112500075