The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber

by

Ernest Hemingway

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The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber: The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
At lunch in a dining tent, Francis Macomber, Robert Wilson, and Macomber’s wife, Margot, are pretending that nothing has happened. They decide to have gimlets, which they order from a “mess boy.” Macomber wonders what he should give the boy for payment, and Wilson tells him to only give him a quid (one pound), since the boys should not be spoiled; the headman, the servants’ leader, will distribute the money among the servants.
It’s immediately clear who holds the most power in this setting, a safari camp in colonized Africa. White men control the lives and financial status of African servants, whom they treat with indifference and even cruelty, refusing to compensate them properly for their labor.
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In a flashback, Macomber is carried to his tent from the hunting ground by some African servants and hunting assistants in a celebratory parade. After the parade, they congratulate him. He shakes their hands, then sits on the bed in his tent. Margot enters the tent but does not speak to her husband, and Macomber abruptly leaves the tent.
It’s clear that something has gone wrong on the hunt, though Hemingway does not yet reveal what transpired. The Macombers’ relationship is also clearly troubled. Margot, who doesn’t speak to her husband when he enters their tent (prompting him to leave, as if embarrassed by her silence), seems to hold a great deal of authority over Francis.
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Back in the present, Wilson tells Macomber that he’s got a damned fine lion. Margot looks at Wilson. She is beautiful and well-kept, and five years before had been a model in an advertisement for a beauty product she had never used, for which she earned five thousand dollars. She has been married to Francis Macomber for eleven years. 
By describing Margot and the lion in succession, Hemingway draws a parallel between the two, and thus, between the human and the natural world. Both the animal and the woman are trophies for Macomber, objects of beauty that he possesses and that give him status and power. Hemingway seems to suggest that to be a man, one must possess and dominate other individuals and one’s environment.
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Macomber agrees with Wilson; the lion was good. Margot looks at both of the men as if she has never seen them before, though only Wilson, the “white hunter,” is a stranger to her. He is a somewhat tall man with sandy hair, a mustache, sun-burned skin, cold blue eyes, and a wrinkled, smiling face. He smiles at Margot and she looks at his body, examining his shoulders, the rifle cartridges slung on his jacket, his worn-in slacks and boots, and finally, his red face again.
Wilson and Margot’s charged interactions foreshadow their later sexual encounter. Margot’s penetrating gaze suggests she is attracted to Wilson, whose worn-in clothes and weather-beaten appearance fit an ideal of rugged masculinity. That Margot regards her husband as a stranger suggests she has grown apart from him—or thinks lesser of him now, after the problem that occurred on the hunt.
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Wilson toasts to the lion, then smiles at Margot again. She does not smile back, however, and looks at her husband. Thirty-five-year-old Macomber, who is very tall with short hair and thin lips, is considered handsome. His safari clothes are the same as Wilson’s but, where Wilson’s are weather-torn, Macomber’s are clearly new. He is skilled at court games, has big-game fishing records, and has just proven himself to be a coward. Macomber also toasts to the lion and thanks Wilson for what he has done. Margot stops looking at her husband and looks back at Macomber. She says they shouldn’t talk about the lion.
In contrast to Wilson, Macomber (though fit and handsome) appears less attractive to Margot. The description of him, filtered through Margot’s gaze, is less comprehensive than that of Wilson, suggesting that Margot doesn’t find her husband as riveting a subject. Further, Macomber has shown himself to be a “coward,” though it’s not yet clear why; it has something to do with the lion, whose prolonged absence from the narrative builds intrigue. Already, though, readers understand that to Margot, Wilson is the more desirable, masculine figure, while Francis’s “cowardice” makes him uninteresting.
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After Margot’s comment, Wilson looks at her, not smiling. She smiles back at him, however, saying that it has been a strange day and that he should wear his hat even under the canvas tent, since he told her to do the same, to protect from sunburns. She adds that he has a red face, which he says is from drink. Margot counters that Francis drinks, and his face isn’t red. Macomber, joking, says his face is red today. Margot disagrees, saying it’s her face that is red today, but Wilson’s is always red. Wilson tries to get them to stop talking about it. Margot looks as if she is going to cry and decides to leave for her tent.
Tensions continue to build as the three bicker, and Macomber admits to being embarrassed about the situation with the lion. That Margot flirts persistently with Wilson again suggests acute dysfunction in her marriage. In his wife’s eyes, Macomber is wholly inadequate, and this inadequacy upsets and embarrasses Margot.
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After asserting that upset women are a strain that amounts to nothing, Wilson tells Macomber to forget the whole thing, though Macomber insists again that he won’t forgot what Wilson has done for him. Wilson refuses Macomber’s compliment, calling it nonsense. They continue to sit in the shade under the trees in the camp, looking at a boulder-filled stream with a forest beyond it, not speaking or looking at each other while they drink.
To Wilson, Macomber’s continued apologies make him seem self-conscious and fragile—hardly forceful and masculine like Wilson himself. The men’s silence suggests their inability to process emotions and relate to each other. Masculinity proves prohibitive, since both men are too embarrassed by Macomber’s failure to live up to its ideals to interact normally.
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While the two men sit in silence, Wilson realizes that all the servant boys know about “it” now. Speaking Swahili, he snaps at one, Macomber’s personal boy, who is looking strangely at Macomber. The boy turns away. When Macomber asks what Wilson said to the boy, Wilson responds he threatened to lash him if he didn’t “look alive.” Wilson explains that it’s illegal to whip the servants, but they could cause trouble if they complain, and they prefer whippings to fines that limit their pay. Wilson tells Macomber that we all take a beating every day, anyway, and immediately feels embarrassed. Macomber agrees, and then apologizes again for the lion business.
Macomber’s cowardice continues to prove troubling for the two men and is in fact made all the more apparent—and humiliating—by the “strange” look from the Swahili servant boy. Though inferior in status, the boy seems to understand that Macomber has acted abnormally. Furthermore, Wilson’s flippant attitude toward the violence he enacts on the servants underscores the African natives’ secondary position in this colonized world. Wilson’s breezy justification of racial violence suggests his own flawed moral reasoning.
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Macomber says to Wilson that he hopes the lion business won’t have to go any further, and Wilson asks Macomber if he is suggesting that Wilson will talk about it at the Mathaiga Club. He thinks to himself that Macomber is a “bloody coward” and a “four-letter man,” and that though he liked him before, it’s hard to judge Americans. He tells Macomber that he will not talk about him, while internally reflecting that they should proceed with the safari on a strictly “formal” basis, without any discussion of emotions. Wilson thinks to himself that, this way, he can have some quiet and read books with his meals, but still drink his clients’ whiskey.
Wilson notes his frustration with Macomber’s anxieties about the “lion business” in a series of internal monologues. Macomber’s own weakness and timidity juxtaposes with Wilson’s view of the world. Wilson seems to privilege stoicism and temerity above all else, and he feels little sympathy for the obviously distressed Macomber.
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Still embarrassed, Macomber apologizes again, and Wilson looks at Macomber’s seemingly adolescent face. Wilson tries one more time to respond to Macomber’s apology and tells him that in Africa, “no woman ever misses her lion and no white man ever bolts.” Macomber says that he bolted like a rabbit, and Wilson wonders what he can do about a man who talks like this. Wilson looks again at Macomber, who has a pleasant smile even as his eyes show when he is hurt. Macomber suggests that they can try a second hunt, for buffalo. Wilson thinks he might have been wrong about Macomber, but he can’t forget the morning, which was very bad.
At last, Hemingway reveals a few of the details involved in the “lion business.” Macomber “bolted” from the lion during an earlier hunt, thus failing to live up to the stereotype of the bold “white man” who never runs from a lion.  Macomber’s repeated apologies seem to make Wilson feel less frustrated with his client. Macomber, hapless and remorseful, seems somewhat pathetic to Wilson. Yet ultimately, Wilson can only remember Macomber’s cowardice, suggesting that Macomber’s identity is inextricably tied to his panicked actions during the hunt.
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Margot returns from her tent, and Wilson looks at her perfect oval face, musing that it is so perfect, you might expect her to be stupid—but she isn’t stupid, he thinks. Margot asks how he and Francis are doing, and says she has dropped the whole thing, since Francis’s trade isn’t killing lions. Rather, Mr. Wilson’s is, and he’s impressive at it.
Margot’s flirtations with Wilson highlight Macomber’s position as an undesirable, cowardly man by contrast. At the same time, Wilson’s reflections on Margot help to further diminish Macomber. Margot, though inferior according to the gender politics of the early twentieth century in which this story is set, is clearly capable of wielding influence over her husband.
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Wilson believes American women are the hardest, cruelest, most predatory, and most attractive women in the world. He is glad to have known and been educated about American women before meeting Margot, because the latter is very attractive. Margot says that she wouldn’t miss the buffalo hunt for anything. Wilson thinks that when she went off to cry, she was a hell of a fine woman—who seemed to know how things really stood. Margot returned after twenty minutes. To Wilson, American women are the damnedest.
Wilson’s misogynistic musings both uphold a common stereotype and affirm Macomber’s diminished status as a man. To Wilson, Margot is a “femme fatale” (a common stereotype for women who present as hyper-sexual and confident) who makes a mockery of her husband. She is “predatory” in a way that Macomber—the failed hunter—will never be. Additionally, Wilson again signals to his own off-kilter moral compass by implying that he has slept with his clients’ wives in the past (and that he will do so with Margot, too). He also calls Margot a “hell of a fine woman,” reminiscent of the compliment he earlier directed toward the lion (“a damned fine lion”). Clearly, for Wilson, women and animals are no more than objects of desire to be pursued and hunted down.
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In the dining tent, Margot mocks Macomber and says that she wants to see Wilson perform again, since he was lovely in the morning “blowing things’ heads off.” Macomber offers Margot some eland meat, then asks her to “let up on the bitchery.” Margot says she supposes she could, since Macomber put it “so nicely.”
Margot relentlessly mocks her husband, while he only responds tepidly and maintains politeness by offering her meat to eat. Margot, sarcastic and biting, has the last word, demonstrating her influence over Macomber, who seems helpless and meek—especially in comparison to Wilson, who is capable of “blowing things’ heads off.”
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Wilson reminds them of the lion, which Margot says she has forgotten about. Wilson wonders how a woman should act when she discovers that her husband is a coward. Though she is cruel, he reflects, all women are cruel: they govern, and he is tired of their terrorism.
Though Margot claims to have forgotten about the “lion business,” it’s clear that Macomber is forever changed in her eyes. Wilson’s declaration that all women are tyrannical further confirms his own moral shortcomings. Wilson sees people as mere categories, not as individuals with distinct personalities. Just as Wilson is unable to see Macomber as anything more than an emasculated coward, he is also unable to see Margot as anything more than a cruel “femme fatale.”
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Later in the afternoon, Wilson and Macomber go off alone to hunt some impala, leaving Margot behind. Wilson compliments Macomber’s shooting and says that he will have no trouble with the buffalo tomorrow. When Macomber admits that it’s not pleasant to have had his wife see him do something like that (referring to the lion business), Wilson says that Macomber shouldn’t think about that any more.
Macomber’s cowardice again becomes an affirmation of his failure to act with the authority befitting a husband and patriarch. Masculinity, it seems, is directly related to the power a man is capable of exerting over his wife. Macomber, humiliated, can no longer claim power over Margot, who is repelled by him and his cowardly actions—which were “not pleasant” for her to witness.
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Later, at night, Macomber lies on his cot, ashamed. His fear has replaced his confidence and makes him feel sick, as he remembers the night before when he heard the lion roar for the first time. In a flashback to that night, Macomber awakens to the roar and finds himself in a state of total panic. With Margot beside him asleep, there is no one to see that he is afraid, nor to be afraid with him.
The fear that the lion’s roar provokes in Macomber makes him feel weak, passive, and alone. The lion reminds him how tenuous his masculine identity is; beasts bigger and more powerful than he exist, spotlighting his own insignificance and fragility. Here, Hemingway also shifts backward in time to the previous night. This is the starting point for the story of the lion hunt, which will put the first part of the story into context. By shifting backward and forward in time, and by revealing few details at the start of the story, Hemingway demonstrates literary techniques common to modernist short stories: namely, narrative fragmentation and temporal shifts.
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The morning after, the lion roars again during breakfast, and Macomber frets that the animal is close to their camp. Wilson says that he hopes it’s a shootable cat, and instructs Macomber to hit it in the shoulders, aiming for bone. The first shot is very important, he continues, since it is the one that counts. Wilson says you shouldn’t shoot a lion unless it’s close enough that you can make sure to kill it.
Wilson emphasizes to Macomber that lions must be shot carefully: brute force alone cannot quell a powerful lion. Human technology, it seems, is only effective against nature if used properly and strategically. Wilson’s comments suggest that the natural world is just as powerful as human weaponry, and that it is thus worthy of respect and care.
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Margot enters to have breakfast, and the lion roars again. Margot asks Macomber if something’s wrong, and Macomber admits that it’s the “damned roaring,” which has been going on all night. Margot wishes he had woken her up so she could have heard it too. When Macomber admits that he’s nervous to kill the animal, Margot asks him if he’s afraid; he says that he isn’t—just nervous. The lion roars one more time, more powerfully now, and Macomber says he hates the noise. To Margot, however, it’s impressive.
That Margot finds the lion’s roar impressive demonstrates the lion’s status as a symbol of fearless masculinity. Whereas the lion is powerful and desirable, Macomber is “nervous” and frightened. However, Macomber tells Margot that he isn’t afraid, determined to show his wife he isn’t the emasculated wreck she believes him to be. 
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Wilson gathers Margot and Macomber for the hunt, and they climb into their motor car and move up the river. Macomber’s hand trembles as he opens his rifle and sees his metal-cased bullets. He looks at Wilson next to his wife in the rear seat of the car, grinning with excitement. Wilson points out that vultures are circling in the distance, indicating that the lion has just left beyond his prey, and that it should be appearing soon. The group spots the lion, standing in the morning breeze, huge and silhouetted on the rise of a bank. Macomber steps out of the car to approach it.
Though Macomber insists he isn’t afraid to hunt the lion, his trembling hands give him away. He feels anxious about confronting the animal, while Wilson—the epitome of rugged masculinity—grins with excitement. Additionally, the lion’s initial appearance confirms its impressive power: “huge and silhouetted,” it rivals the motor car in size and force.
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The lion, looking majestic, watches an object approaching but is not afraid. He sees a “man figure” emerge from the object, then feels the slam of a bullet in his flank, and another in his lower ribs. He runs toward the high grass in front of him to crouch there and hide so that he can “make a rush” and get the man that is holding the “crashing thing” that is injuring him.
Hemingway switches to the lion’s perspective, describing Macomber’s approach as the lion would observe it, given his own limited knowledge of the human world. (He views Macomber as a “man figure” and Macomber’s rifle as a “crashing thing.”) By depicting the lion’s consciousness—and moving smoothly from Macomber’s perspective to the lion’s—Hemingway seems to suggest that both men and animals are capable of complex thought and emotion, and that therefore, men and nature are intrinsically connected.
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At the same time that the lion is watching him approach, Macomber is walking toward the beast. Macomber’s hands are shaking, and his legs are stiff in the thighs. He raises his rifle toward the lion and fires, then fires again, and sees the lion head into the grass. He feels sick and finds Wilson, Margot, and the gun-bearers, who look very grave. Macomber, Wilson, and the assistants head out to find the injured lion, and when Macomber asks why they can’t send beaters instead, Wilson tells him that it’s a “touch murderous”—attacking a wounded lion might cause him to charge. Wilson offers to go to the lion himself, and Macomber says he would like to come with him—though he wonders why they can’t just leave the lion behind. Wilson explains that the lion is suffering, and that someone else might run into him.
Wilson argues that it is necessary to treat the lion with respect. Beating it to death would be “murderous” and unnecessarily cruel (and would put the hunters in the danger by provoking the lion’s anger). Though Wilson regards the Macombers as mere stereotypes, unworthy of his empathy, he displays clear empathy for the lion, suggesting that he finds the natural world more honorable than the human world. Wilson feels remorse and guilt for nature, but not toward other people.
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Macomber and Wilson sit under a tree smoking and prepare to find the lion. Macomber does not know that Wilson is furious with himself because he failed to notice how fearful Macomber was earlier, and because he wishes he had sent Macomber back to Margot. Macomber takes his big rifle from Wilson, who orders him to stay five yards behind him to the right as they approach the lion. Macomber takes a drink of water from the canteen of an older gun-bearer, whom he notices is afraid too.
Macomber’s fearfulness continues to exacerbate tensions on the hunt, since Wilson begins to think of Macomber’s anxiety as a liability. Yet the “older gun-bearer” assisting with the hunt is also fearful of the lion. Clearly, Macomber’s “cowardice” is not a personal failure but a common side effect of hunting, and a common experience for men on safari. Masculine “courage” is only an ideal, or a construct; even experienced hunters feel fear.
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The lion is thirty-five yards ahead of them into the grass. He is sick because of the wound in his lungs, and in a lot of pain, which comes as he breathes. He is concentrating all of his pain, sickness, and hatred into a rush, preparing to charge at the men who are entering the grass. He hears their voices, makes a coughing grunt, and charges.
Hemingway shifts back to the lion’s perspective, depicting with painstaking detail the courage and power the lion demonstrates in the last few moments of his life. Again, Hemingway humanizes animals— showing that they, too, can experience emotions and use reason and observation to act.
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Wilson, Macomber, and the gun-bearers enter the grass, listening closely, rifles cocked. Macomber hears the lion’s grunt, sees its body swishing in the grass, and begins to run wildly toward the stream, away from the lion. He hears Wilson shooting, and sees the lion wounded behind him, crawling toward Wilson in the grass. Its head, mutilated, slides forward, and Macomber finds himself standing alone in a clearing, with Wilson and the guides looking back at him scornfully. The lion is dead. Wilson asks him if he wants to take any pictures, and Macomber says he doesn’t. Wilson says that it’s a hell of fine a lion.
Hemingway finally reveals the event that triggers the entire narrative: Macomber’s panicked flight from the lion, which proves his cowardice, confirmed by the “scornful” expressions of Wilson and the guides.
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Later, when Wilson and Macomber return to the car, Margot does not look at her husband as he sits beside her in the back seat. When he reaches over to take her hand, she moves it away. She has been able to witness the entire event from the car, and while they are sitting there, she reaches forward and kisses Wilson on the mouth. Wilson blushes. Margot calls him “the beautiful red-faced Robert Wilson” and looks away across the stream to where the lion lies, the guides skinning his body. The guides bring the lion carcass into the car, and no one says anything as they head back to the camp.
Margot’s passionate response to Wilson contrasts with the coldness she demonstrates toward Macomber. Whereas Wilson is desirable, a “true man”—a hero of the hunt, able to exercise force over nature—Macomber is fearful, passive, and an embarrassment to his wife. 
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Macomber does not know what the lion felt as it started heading toward them, nor what kept him coming despite the bullets in his body. Wilson seems to understand something about it, though, which he expresses by saying, “Damned fine lion.”
Wilson is connected to the natural world in a way that Macomber is not. While Macomber finds nature bizarre and terrifying, Wilson, seems to identify with the lion, whose power and temerity impress him.
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Nor does Macomber know how Margot feels about him now—but he does know that she is through with him. Margot has been through with Macomber before, but because he is so wealthy, he knows she won’t leave him—it is one of the few things he really knows about, apart from motorcycles, cars, books, games, dogs, and hanging onto his money. He knows that Margot is not as beautiful as she had once been, and, as such, she has missed the chance to leave him. He, however, is also not good enough with women to get another new, beautiful wife. Their marriage is comparatively happy, though tabloids in the U.S. often report that they are “on the verge” of divorce. But they always make up, because Margot is too beautiful for Macomber to leave, and Macomber too rich for Margot to leave.
In the patriarchal world that the Macombers inhabit, Margot is ultimately powerless. Though Wilson refers to her as a “predator,” cruel and domineering, she cannot leave her husband, who provides her with wealth, stability, and status. Thus, even as Hemingway upholds conventions of patriarchy and traditional masculinity in the story—namely, by focusing on Macomber’s cowardice as an emasculating trait—he also suggests that these standards are intensely limiting for women.
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Later that night after the lion hunt, Macomber wakes up suddenly, realizing that he has been dreaming about a bloody-headed lion. He also realizes that Margot is not next to him in their tent, and he sees her crawl back into bed two hours later. When he asks her where she’s been, she says she was out for a breath of air. Macomber doesn’t believe her and calls her a bitch. She calls him a coward and asks if they can stop talking. He angrily reminds her that she promised there wasn’t “going to be any of that” on the trip, but she says that the trip was spoiled yesterday anyway.
Macomber’s cowardice is not only emasculating because it proves that he is neither bold nor powerful, like his foil Wilson, but also because it transforms him into a cuckold, or the husband of an adulteress. As a coward, he is sexually undesirable.
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The next morning at breakfast, Macomber regards Wilson with hatred. Wilson realizes that Macomber must have seen Margot sneak back into his tent at night, and that he knows they have slept together, but he faults Macomber for not keeping his wife where she belongs.
Wilson’s lack of ethics and muddled morals lead him to believe that Macomber is at fault Margot’s indiscretions. Yet Wilson routinely sleeps with his clients’ wives during hunting expeditions.
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Macomber, Margot, and Wilson bicker about having Margot stay in the camp while they hunt buffalo. Margot threatens to leave Macomber, but he tells her that she won’t, and expresses hatred for Wilson, whom he calls a “red-faced swine.”
Hemingway again signals to Margot’s inferiority within the world of the hunt—and the world of the narrative more generally. As a woman, she is forbidden from the safari, where she is seen as a distraction, and though she has humiliated Macomber by sleeping with Wilson, she is still under Macomber’s control. Margot cannot leave her husband without sacrificing her own well-being.
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Next, Macomber, Margot, and Wilson head off on the hunt together. Macomber and Margot are not speaking, and Wilson reflects that women are a nuisance on safari. Wilson puts the Macombers out of his mind and begins to think about the buffalo instead.
Once again, Wilson displays coldness and indifference to the individuals around him. Wilson seems to find their problems uninteresting and unnecessarily complicated, and he refuses to acknowledge his own culpability in creating these problems. Instead, Wilson prefers to concern himself with the natural world.
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Wilson does not want to hunt buffalo with Macomber—or to hunt with him at all anymore—but he pities Macomber and resolves to have nothing more to do with Margot. He uses a double size cot on safari in case any of his clients’ wives want to sleep with him, since he views the affairs as financial gains (though he despises the women when they are not having sex). He thinks about Margot, who is smiling at him, and how pleasant it had been to see her the night before.
Wilson feels no remorse about sleeping with Margot, though he does admit that his actions have complicated the hunt. Still, his own attraction to Margot—and his view that his affairs with clients’ wives are financial gains—prove more powerful than his feelings of pity for Macomber.
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Wilson stops the car and spots the buffalo, moving at a gallop across the prairie in the distance. As the car speeds toward them, Macomber watches the animals get bigger and bigger until he can see clearly their huge bodies, the dust in their hides, and their horns and muzzles. He has no fear, only hatred of Wilson, and he stumbles out of the car and shoots at the bulls.
Macomber has reached a turning point. Angry and humiliated, he resolves to become the man of action that Wilson is—and to hunt with courage. His hatred for Wilson, mingled with his jealousy of the “white hunter,” compels him to shoot at the buffalo without fear.
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Moving quickly, Macomber hits one bull and misses another, which Wilson kills. Wilson tells Macomber that he’s shooting well, and they get back onto the car and start moving toward the last bull. Both of them shoot at it, and though at first their bullets seem to have no effect, eventually the bull staggers and falls down onto its knees. Wilson compliments Macomber’s shooting again, and Macomber quickly finishes off the last bull, which was only injured, not yet dead. Macomber thinks that he has never felt so good in all his life.
Macomber and Wilson are shooting in tandem, taking down bulls both separately and together. They are no longer foils but men united by fearlessness.
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When they return to the car for a drink, Margot is sitting there white-faced. She says Macomber is marvelous, and all of them drink whiskey from a flask. Margot says she didn’t know you could chase buffalo from cars, and Wilson explains that while you wouldn’t ordinarily do so (and that it is illegal), it seemed sporting enough to him: he says that you take more chances driving across the rough African terrain than hunting by foot. Margot says that it seems more unfair to the animals to her, and Wilson says that he could lose his license if they heard about in Nairobi. Macomber, smiling, says that Margot has something on Wilson now.
Once again, Wilson’s perverse moral reasoning leads him to believe that hunting by car, though illegal, is more righteous and impressive than hunting by foot, since it is more dangerous, and thus, more courageous (and masculine). Wilson is unconcerned with the law: his own beliefs about masculinity and power drive him.
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A gun-bearer approaches and informs Macomber and Wilson that the first bull was only wounded: he got up and went into a bush. Margot says that it’s going to be like the lion again, but Wilson disagrees. Wilson, Macomber, and Margot go look at the second buffalo, dead in the grass, and Macomber asks eagerly if they can go after the wounded bull. Wilson, surprised, thinks that Macomber is a strange one—he’s become a “ruddy fire eater.”
On this hunt, as on the first hunt, an animal has been injured and must be approached and killed. Yet Macomber’s attitude has been completely transformed. Macomber is reborn as a “fire eater”: a true man, capable of acting without fear, according to traditional standards for masculinity.
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Heading back to the car, Macomber feels a happiness he had never known before. He says he thinks he will never be afraid of anything again, and that he feels absolutely different. Margot, though, says she hated the chase. She looks at her husband strangely. Macomber says he wants to try another lion, and Wilson reflects that American men stay little boys for a long time—but that he likes Macomber now and thinks that this means “the end of cuckoldry” for him. Wilson thinks Macomber’s fear is gone now. He’s seen this sort of thing in the war. Macomber is now a man; something else has grown in the place of fear, and women know it, too. Margot sees a change in Macomber, but no change in Wilson.
Margot is threatened by Macomber’s transformation, which has restored power to him—power that he can exert over Margot, threatening her independence. Additionally, Wilson once again perceives Macomber as a type, regarding him a typical “American man” who has undergone a delayed adolescence. Even though Macomber has begun to act like Wilson, summoning ferocity and confidence, Wilson still thinks of him as a stereotype, again demonstrating his own apathy toward other individuals.
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Macomber asks if Wilson has a feeling of happiness about what’s going to happen, and Wilson tells him that it doesn’t do to talk much about that. Margot says that the two of them are “talking rot,” and mocks Macomber contemptuously, saying that he’s gotten “awfully brave, awfully suddenly.” Macomber agrees.
Macomber is giddy about his newfound fearlessness, which unsettles the stoic Wilson. Wilson’s own vision of fearless masculinity involves an absence of emotion, not effusive “happiness.” At the same time, Margot’s attempts to mock Macomber fall short. Instead of reacting to her contemptuous remarks with embarrassment, Macomber agrees with her: he is unruffled by her cruelty.
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Finally, Macomber and Wilson plan to shoot the final buffalo. Wilson tells Macomber that when the buffalo comes, he should aim for the nose, or the chest, neck, or shoulders. He also tells him not to try anything fancy and to take the easiest shot there is. They decide to get started, and Macomber feels his heart beating fast with excitement, not fear.
Macomber continues to feel fearless, even as Wilson reminds him that killing powerful animals is no easy task. Macomber must aim at them with care and precision, since guns on their own are not powerful enough to dominate creatures of this size and might.
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Macomber, Wilson, and a gun-bearer get out of the car. The gun-bearer says to Wilson in Swahili that the buffalo is dead in an island of brushy trees in front of them, but as Wilson begins to congratulate Macomber, the bull emerges, charging toward them. Macomber fires once, then shoots again, aiming carefully for the nose. Suddenly, though, he feels a flash explode inside his head.
The bull charges, taking Macomber and the other hunters by surprise. But even as he follows Wilson’s suggestions, aiming for the buffalo’s nose, Macomber is fatally struck (by a bullet, as will soon be made clear). For all of his fearlessness and careful shooting, Macomber’s transformation into a “man of action,” a ferocious hunter, has been for naught. Like the bull, he is utterly dominated, rendered powerless.
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At the same time that Macomber is shooting the bull, Wilson has ducked to the side to get a shoulder shot, and Margot, from the car, shoots toward the group—hitting her husband “two inches up and a little to one side” at the base of his skull. When he aimed for the bull, Macomber hit the buffalo’s horns, chipping them. Now both Macomber and the buffalo are lying dead on the ground, separated by two yards.
It is not clear whether Margot consciously aimed to kill Macomber. If she did, she may have acted to protect her own independence and assert authority over her transformed husband. If not, she may have been attempting to participate in the hunt by killing the buffalo and proving herself as powerful as the men, despite her femininity. In any event, Macomber’s body is now as motionless and lifeless as the buffalo’s: in death, humans and animals are united.
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Margot is crying hysterically over Macomber’s body, and Wilson tells her not to turn her husband over. He puts a handkerchief over Macomber’s head. Wilson regards the buffalo lying on its side as a “hell of a good bull.”
To Wilson, Macomber’s lifeless body is not as majestic as the buffalo, which Wilson views as a “hell of a good bull,” impressed by its stature even in death. Wilson still sees an inherent value in nature that he does not see in humans. Moreover, Wilson does not feel guilty about Macomber’s death, though he may have contributed to it by provoking Macomber’s transformation—which may have triggered Margot’s violent response.
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Wilson returns to Margot and admonishes her. He says that he knows it was an accident, but that he will help with the “unpleasantness” to come by having photographs taken for the inquest and providing testimony from the gun-bearers and the driver: she will be “perfectly all right.” Margot tells him to stop, but he continues to admonish her, asking her why she didn’t just poison Macomber, since “that’s what they do in England.” Margot begs Wilson to stop again, and he says that he’s through now, though he is a “little angry”; he was beginning to like Macomber. Finally, Margot asks Wilson to “please stop it,” and he tells her that “that’s better,” and he will stop.
Though Macomber’s death suggests that masculine courage might ultimately be useless in the face of violence, the end of the story affirms male power. Wilson sees Margot as a murderess who has destroyed a good man, and he realizes that her fate rests in his hands since he is the only one who can testify to her innocence. However, Wilson’s fate simultaneously rests in Margot’s hands, since she observed him use a car on the hunt, and thus could turn him over to authorities for breaking the law. Hemingway ends the story on an uncomfortable, ambiguous note, leaving it up to readers to decide whether Margot actually killed her husband—and to wonder which of the characters holds the most power over the other.
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