Different sorts of moral codes conflict and create tension in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” specifically visible in the character of Wilson. Though Wilson emphasizes the importance of limiting the hunted animals’ suffering, this firm esteem for the natural world counters his own lack of respect for other human beings within the world of the hunt—and for the social and legal regulations that organize human life. Wilson’s ambiguous and often outright contradictory morality demonstrates that man is often in conflict with his own world and misled by his own faulty inner reasoning. It also suggests that a moral code constantly shifted to accommodate the situation is not really morality at all.
First, Wilson feels no remorse about sleeping with Margot (or with the wives of past clients), despite the conflicts and tensions that follow from his indiscretions. Wilson’s attitude toward adultery is solely self-centered. He keeps a “double size cot on safari to accommodate any windfalls he might receive,” or to cater to women attracted to the glamor of sleeping with “the white hunter,” thus earning their respect and money. Wilson “made his living by [women], and their standards were his standards as long as they were hiring him”: motivated by his own economic interests and disregarding societal boundaries, Wilson replicates his clients’ own immoral behavior without guilt—only viewing the women as a “nuisance” and wondering vaguely about Macomber’s desire for revenge (“‘Hope the silly beggar doesn’t take a notion to blow the back of my head off,’ Wilson thought to himself”).
This emotionless behavior contrasts significantly with the high standards he upholds about killing animals and disrupting the natural world they inhabit: “he had his own standards about the killing,” Hemingway writes, adding that Wilson’s clients “could live up to them or get some one else to hunt them.” Wilson repeatedly refers to animals as “fine,” admirable creatures (“Hell of a fine lion,” “hell of a good bull”) who must be hunted according to careful rules and rituals. “Don’t shoot unless it’s close enough so you can make sure,” Wilson instructs Macomber as he faces the lion, encouraging his client to shoot the animal only if he can kill it instantly. To shoot merely to injure would be “murderous,” cruel, and would prolong the creature’s suffering. Furthermore, though Macomber cannot comprehend the lion’s courage—which drives the animal forward toward his hunters, even after Macomber’s first shot—Wilson knows “something about it,” suggesting that Wilson identifies with and highly values the natural world.
Wilson’s feelings toward the human world, however, are hardly similar. He openly and guiltlessly admits to having the Swahili servants whipped, though this is illegal and ethically wrong. As with his participation in adultery, which he justifies as economically advantageous, Wilson justifies his violence by claiming that the natives “prefer” lashes to being fined. “Which would you rather do? Take a good birching or lose your pay?” he asks Macomber, adding, “We all take a beating every day, you know, one way or another.” Wilson’s confused moral compass—at odds with social and legal regulations, and weakly justified—leads him to equate the brutality that colonized people face to the brutality of the white man’s “every day” life. This flawed comparison only serves to emphasize the fact that Wilson cannot understand humans and human suffering in the same way that he understands animals and their suffering.
Even Wilson’s notion of sportsmanship, part of his “high standards” for hunting, is subject to equivocation, as when he informs the Macombers that he is not supposed to be using a car during the buffalo hunt. According to Wilson, chasing animals from cars is illegal, but he quickly explains to the Macombers that it is both “sporting” and more dangerous—and thus more courageous and admirable—to pursue prey from their vehicle; “Seemed sporting enough to me,” he says, “Taking more chance driving that way across the plain full of holes and one thing and another than hunting on foot.” Once again, Wilson’s hurried self-defense draws attention to the fact that he does not value the law in the same way that he values the hunt and the animals he stalks. Wilson is playing fast and loose with his own reputation. He knows that he could lose his license for using cars while hunting, and that Margot, who disapproves of the act, could run him out of business by reporting him to the other hunters. Yet once more his own self-interest and perverse logic overruns social and legal pressures. Man, Hemingway suggests, is always in thrall to his own stubborn beliefs, however wrong they may be. Wilson’s breezy justifications for his immoral, unethical, and illegal actions, then, suggest a fundamental discord between man’s moral reasoning and social and legal regulations—a discord made brutally clear by the suspect politics of the safari.
Guilt and Morality ThemeTracker
Guilt and Morality Quotes in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber
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? They can't know that much at the age they marry, he thought. He was grateful that he had gone through his education on American women before now because this was a very attractive one.
He, Robert Wilson, carried a double size cot on safari to accommodate any windfalls he might receive. He had hunted for a certain clientele, the international, fast, sporting set, where the women did not feel they were getting their money's worth unless they had shared that cot with the white hunter. He despised them when he was away from them although he liked some of them well enough at the time, but he made his living by them; and their standards were his standards as long as they were hiring him.