A hotly-pursued African lion in “The Short Life of Francis Macomber,” one of Hemingway’s most famous and controversial works, roars “in a deep-chested moaning, suddenly guttural,” unsettling his would-be hunter, Francis Macomber. Macomber’s subsequent, panicked flight from the animal causes his hunting party—which includes his bitter wife Margot and leader Robert Wilson—to deem him a coward. Only upon later successfully standing his ground against a charging buffalo is Macomber able to reassert his manhood—to transform himself, in Wilson’s words, from one of the “great American boy-men” into “a man.” In specifically linking masculinity to courage and dominance, Hemingway suggests that only by exerting power over both the natural world and women does one truly become a man. However, even as the story presents this stereotypical (and what modern readers would certainly deem sexist) vision of gender—a common trope in Hemingway’s works—the tale’s tragic ending undermines the validity of such a narrow conception of manhood.
Hemingway initially presents Francis Macomber as a sort of man-child, evidenced by both his failure to prove himself in the African savannah and to stand up to his apparently domineering wife. After fleeing from the charging lion, Macomber must be carried back to his tent—further underscoring his lack of “manly” self-reliance. Macomber’s boyishness is made all the more pathetic for its contrast with Wilson’s stoic masculinity. Wilson is the archetypal self-made man, rugged and disinterested. He is repeatedly referred to as “the white hunter,” a moniker that suggests dominance over the world around him. His cool demeanor and expertise contrasts with the nervous Macomber, whose inelegant, panicked shooting leads to his fateful encounter with the lion in the first place by wounding rather than killing it. In the purview of the story, Macomber comes across as a pathetic figure, at fault for his own misfortune because he fails to boldly assert his dominance.
Francis’s lack of masculine virality is further reflected by his wife Margot, who displays distinct disdain for her husband following—and, it’s implied, before—his “cowardly” retreat from the lion. Real men, at least in the confines of Hemingway’s story, control the women in their lives—making Margot’s taunting behavior all the more emasculating. Though seemingly hypersexual and cruel, however, it’s important to note that Margot may not be as villainous and domineering as Wilson and Macomber believe her to be—not least because she receives far less dimension and description as a character than do Wilson and Macomber, both of whose internal monologues dominate the story. For all of Margot’s lurid and unabashed flirtations with Wilson, Macomber knows that his wife is “not a great enough beauty any more […] to be able to leave him and better herself.” Without Macomber, Margot is powerless, possibly destitute. Yet she persistently flirts with the notion of leaving—and thereby emasculating—him, and he provides her with a degree of sexual freedom by tacitly permitting her affairs. Of course, this “permission” is also reflective of his inability to assert himself as the man—and thus, in the world of the story, the leader—of their marriage.
Yet Macomber is given a crucial opportunity to confront fear—in the form of the menacing buffalo at the story’s end—and prove himself as strong and virile as his rival Wilson. By standing his ground against the buffalo, Macomber earns the latter’s respect, and Macomber’s transformation is notably defined by both courage and dominance: upon observing the change, Wilson thinks to himself, “Fear gone like an operation. Something else grew in its place. Main thing a man had. Made him into a man […] No bloody fear.” Wilson notably believes this means “the end of cuckholdry too.” Indeed, Margot suddenly becomes “very afraid,” something Wilson attributes to her awareness that she can no longer exert independence from and control over her husband. It is left up to the reader to decide if Margot, threatened by Macomber’s apparent transformation from cuckold to man of action, kills her husband in order to demonstrate her ultimate power over him (and, symbolically, over masculinity). It is also possible that Margot intended to kill the buffalo charging at Macomber, either because she hoped to protect her husband—whom she may have come to recognize as a “true man”—or to prove to the men around her that she, too, can wield violent force.
Regardless, Macomber’s pivotal transformation to “true manhood” is fleeting. Though Wilson sees Macomber’s sudden acquisition of courage and confidence as a belated “coming to age,” a rebirth, Hemingway’s title reminds us, crucially, that this new life is both “happy” and “short.” Macomber does not live long enough to experience much more than a few of moments of euphoria, and Margot (quiet and “bitter” at the scene of the hunt) refuses to openly acknowledge the change, never validating his newfound masculine prowess. Additionally, in the shootout that ensues at the narrative’s climax, the buffalo’s killer is left ambiguous. In spite of his development, then, Macomber may not have accomplished, or conquered, anything. His death might therefore be seen as tragic and meaningless, not freeing or glorious. The story, then, implicitly questions the same masculinity its characters value. Perhaps standing in the path of a wild animal is folly, rather than courage; and perhaps attempting to dominate the world leads only to bitterness and destruction.
In “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” Hemingway suggests that masculinity is intimately tied to power, using the safari as a site where this connection is explored and borne out. Yet because Macomber’s “new life” is tragically cut short, Hemingway seems to conclude that masculine fortitude may not lead to triumph or freedom. Even though the narrative initially upholds patriarchal conventions about relationships between men and women—and between masculinity, dominance, and violence—its shocking, deadly ending upsets these conventions by intimating that male power and “courage” can have dangerous, undesirable ends.
Masculinity, Dominance, and Courage ThemeTracker
Masculinity, Dominance, and Courage Quotes in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber
One, Wilson, the white hunter, she knew she had never truly seen before. He was about middle height with sandy hair, a stubby mustache, a very red face and extremely cold blue eyes with faint white wrinkles at the comers that grooved merrily when he smiled. He smiled at her now and she looked away from his face at the way his shoulders sloped in the loose tunic he wore with the four big cartridges held in loops where the left breast pocket should have been, at his big brown hands, his old slacks, his very dirty boots and back to his red face again.
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.
But that night after dinner and a whisky and soda by the fire before going to bed, as Francis Macomber lay on his cot with the mosquito bar over him and listened to the night noises it was not all over. It was neither all over nor was it beginning. It was there exactly as it happened with some parts of it indelibly emphasized and he was miserably ashamed at it. 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. It was still there with him now.
All in all they were known as a comparatively happily married couple, one of those whose disruption is often rumored but never occurs, and as the society columnist put it, they were adding more than a spice of adventure to their much envied and ever-enduring Romance by a Safari in what was known as Darkest Africa until the Martin Johnsons lighted it on so many silver screens where they were pursuing Old Simba the lion, the buffalo, Tembo the elephant and as well collecting specimens for the Museum of Natural History.
"If you make a scene I'll leave you, darling," Margot said quietly.
"No, you won't."
"You can try it and see."
"You won't leave me."
"No," she said. "I won't leave you and you'll behave yourself."
"Behave myself? That's a way to talk. Behave myself."
"Yes. Behave yourself."
"Why don't you try behaving?"
"I've tried it so long. So very long."
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.