The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber

The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Ernest Hemingway's The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park, a suburb outside of Chicago, where he was raised in a wealthy, educated family and harbored dreams of becoming a journalist. In 1918, shortly after the start of World War I, Hemingway traveled to Italy to become a volunteer ambulance driver, joining a cohort of American artists—including E. E. Cummings, John Dos Passos, and Gertrude Stein—who identified with the Allied Powers’ cause but, for reasons of gender or age, could not participate in combat. Hemingway was wounded by mortar fire after bringing goods to Italian soldiers at the front line and returned home to Michigan thereafter, using his experiences with shell shock as a basis for one of his most famous characters, the soldier Nick Adams—a wounded soldier who finds solitude in the Michigan countryside after war in the short story “Big Two-Hearted River.” Hemingway returned to Europe and settled in Paris with his first wife Hadley in 1921, eager to start over in a city famous for its communities of expatriate artists. After years in Paris, where he enjoyed celebrity among the expatriates, and the publication of his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway went on to Key West, Wyoming, and the Caribbean. An avid boxer and hunter, Hemingway also spent time in East Africa, where he undertook a 10-week safari—one that inspired both “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” which he published in 1936, and his 1935 nonfiction work Green Hills of Africa. Hemingway visited Kenya and hunted in the Serengeti, eventually contracting dysentery. (His subsequent evacuation by plane featured in his 1936 story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” also about a couple on safari in Africa.) After stints in Spain, where he was a journalist during the Spanish Civil War, and Paris, where he witnessed the city’s liberation from Nazi control, Hemingway took up residence in Cuba. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1952 for his novel The Sun Also Rises, then returned to Africa, where he nearly died in two plane crashes near Uganda. Injuries he sustained from these accidents, coupled with rampant alcoholism, exacerbated the depression he had suffered from for much of his life. Hemingway received the Noble Prize in Literature in 1954 and retired to Idaho, where he died in 1961 by suicide.
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Historical Context of The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber

Between 1870 and 1900, in a period known as the “Scramble for Africa,” Africa was divvied up among several European countries: Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Germany, France, and Great Britain. As colonialization reached its peak in the early twentieth century, so did Europe’s economic exploitation of the continent’s resources and its people’s valuable labor. “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” written in 1936, represents an empire close to collapse. After two world wars and the formation of the Atlantic Charter in 1941, in which U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt called for self-determination for the British colonies, decolonization began to take shape. Influential national leaders demanded an end to imperial control, at times turning Western ideals of Enlightenment and self-governance against the colonialists. Big-game hunting and safaris in Africa, which Hemingway explores in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” developed concurrently with and because of colonialism. In the late 1850s, Richard Francis Burton, a British explorer and writer, popularized the Swahili term “safari,” meaning “journey,” kickstarting a tourism craze. Prompted by writers like Burton, European travelers voyaged to Africa for a taste of the “exotic” (a term later criticized in the discourse of post-colonial theory, which studies the lasting effects of colonial exploitation and imperialism). The safari and hunting industries reaped profit for European empire at the expense of both the African landscape and its people, manipulated for cheap labor—essential servitude—to serve the white hunters and tourists. To this day, traditional safari garb remains a symbol of colonial power and subjugation, especially pith helmets (usually white, cloth-covered helmets worn by European travelers and imperial military).

Other Books Related to The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber

Both Hemingway’s 1935 memoir Green Hills of Africa and his 1936 short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” use Africa, and African safari expeditions, as a backdrop for narrative action. Like “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” Green Hills of Africa probes relationships between white and native hunters, while much of the action of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” takes place away from the safari—where the protagonist Harry, Hemingway’s alter-ego, is dying of gangrene and dreaming of his life before the expedition. Later, Hemingway returned to the African safari genre with True at First Light, published posthumously in 1999, a blend of memoir and fiction that describes Hemingway and his fourth wife Mary’s experiences in the Kenyan highlands in the mid-twentieth century. Yet Hemingway was far from the only modern Anglophone author to consider Africa and big-game hunting (as in the hunting of Africa’s largest animals, including lions, elephants, buffalo, leopards, and rhinoceroses). British writer Evelyn Waugh described travels in Tanzania and present-day Zimbabwe and Zambia in his 1960 travelogue A Tourist in Africa. The English novelist Graham Greene published In Search of a Character: Two African Journals in 1961, recounting events on his journey to the Belgian Congo and Sierra Leone. Even before the twentieth century, French author Jules Verne used African exploration as the main conceit for his adventure novel Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863). The first English adventure novel set in Africa was King Solomon’s Mines, by H. Rider Haggard, best remembered for his contributions to the Lost World genre, a literary subgenre referring to works in which forgotten, ancient worlds are rediscovered and explored. King Solomon’s Mines foregrounds the experiences of a white hunter and explorer, Allan Quatermain. Haggard’s novel was criticized for its colonialist—and highly offensive—depictions of African characters, who are portrayed as primitive and uncivilized (not unlike the silent African figures in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”).
Key Facts about The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber
  • Full Title: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”
  • When Written: 1933
  • Where Written: East Africa/Key West
  • When Published: 1936
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Short story
  • Setting: Generalized Africa, 1930s
  • Climax: Francis Macomber encounters and attempts to kill the buffalo
  • Antagonist: Margot Macomber
  • Point of View: The story’s focalizing presence is a third person omniscient narrator. Hemingway also includes internal monologue from both Francis Macomber and the hunter Robert Wilson. Little to no internal monologue is provided for either Margot Macomber or the Swahili-speaking servants and guides.

Extra Credit for The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber

A family affair. In the early 1950s, Patrick Hemingway, Hemingway’s son with his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer, moved to Tanganyika, Tanzania, to run a safari expedition company, where he—like Robert Wilson—worked as a white hunter.

Hollywood connection. The short story served as the basis for a 1947 movie called The Macomber Affair, starring Gregory Peck as Wilson, silent movie star Joan Bennett as Margot Macomber, and Robert Preston as Francis Macomber. The Macomber Affair (later retitled The Great White Hunter) combined aspects of both “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and the true story of John Henry Patterson, a writer and superintendent of game reserves in the East Africa Protectorate whose male hunting partner died during an expedition (though Patterson was never charged for his murder, and the death may have been a suicide).