The Mask of Politeness in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”

Francis Macomber is a troubled man. He is trapped in a fearful life and a fraudulent marriage. His wife, Margot, is a beautiful but unfaithful woman who remains with Francis solely because of his wealth. In turn, he only remains with his wife because she is beautiful and because he is fearful of the alternative. It is an unnatural and unloving marriage.

Ernest Hemingway introduces us to Francis and Margot on safari in Africa, on the outskirts of civilization. Their guide, Robert Wilson, is a capable and experienced hunter who exhibits Hemingway’s manly ideal of ‘grace under pressure.’ Wilson has been hired to help Francis hunt big game in Africa. However, while hunting a ferocious lion, Francis suddenly becomes terrified and runs away in fear. He is embarrassed and labeled a coward by everyone in the party. Cowardice, Hemingway shows us, is a universal language -it is a deed recognizable by anybody within our without the bounds of civilization. In response to his embarrassment, Margot kisses Wilson in front of Francis and then sleeps with him in the evening (apparently this is not her first act of cuckoldry).

Central to the story is Francis’s distasteful lack of courage. Hemingway notes that Francis is not aware of the old Somali proverb which says that a brave man is fearful of a lion three times: first when tracking him, then when hearing his roar, and finally when confronting him. For Hemingway, courage requires experience. Hence why Wilson is a more courageous man – he has already completed these three steps when hunting lions. He hunts wild animals and not wealth or security, while Margot hunts power (i.e. she is a tyrant over her husband), and Francis is the prey.

The following morning is tense between Francis, Margot, and Wilson. The tension is masked by a veneer of polite conversation, led by the malicious and vindictive Margot. As the three speak, they trade under-handed polite conversation, concealing the newly reaffirmed power hierarchy with Margot and Wilson on top, and Francis emasculated below. Civilized society masks this wild untamed truth of hierarchy, where rights are taken not granted. However, during the day the group hunts buffalo and suddenly Francis finds within himself a newfound sense of confidence and courage, much to the dismay of his wife. He and Wilson successfully shoot three buffalo and drink whiskey (no longer the lime juice or lemon squash from the beginning of the story). Francis’s independence, manliness, and happiness are now a threat of his marriage to Margot -the sign of a doomed marriage. Surely, now Francis will leave Margot and she will have neither wealth nor power. Wilson reflects on the distrustful character of modern American women:

“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… he was grateful he had gone through his education before now because this was a very attractive one” (8).

Wilson is experienced with American women, and he views them the same way he tracks wild game in Africa. He is a hunter, but he keeps his prey at a distance.

Look to the ends, says Solon in Herodotus’s Histories, and by this measure Francis dies a happy man, though in truth, his life is short. Perhaps even minutes long. For Hemingway, life is measured by moments of confrontation with fear, and dominance over the fear of death. Thus, Francis Macomber’s short but happy life is the life of a hero. However, ever-the-cynic, Hemingway shows us the truth of Margot’s vengeance in the end. The hunter becomes hunted. Margot cannot celebrate her husband’s victory, and so she shoots and kills him under questionable circumstances. She cannot match his newfound virtue as a hero, and she sees her wealth and power slipping away. She values her arrangement with Francis (i.e. money) but she values even more her dominance over her husband. She wants a weak-willed man, or no man at all. While Francis’s life is short but happy, Margot’s life is long and unhappy. Hers is a life of wealth and security.

In the end, Wilson asks an inconsolable Margot why she did not simply poison Francis, the way murder is done in England. He starts speaking about certain ‘unpleasantness’ and a trial and so on, but he only he stops when she becomes polite and tame: when she says “please.” Wilson comes to light as both a lion hunter as well as a lion tamer.

“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” was first published in Cosmopolitan Magazine at the same that “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” was published in Esquire Magazine in 1936. For this reading I used “The Short Stories: The First Forty-Nine Short Stories” collection.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Short Stories. New York, Scribner, 1955.

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