Hemingway introduces the three principal characters, Francis Macomber, his wife Margot, and their safari guide Richard Wilson, over cocktails in the afternoon on the African plain following a morning of hunting. Macomber and his wife are wealthy Americans hoping to revitalize their sometimes-foundering marriage with a romantic African safari and Wilson is a jaded Englishman who runs safaris for wealthy tourists for a living. As the three drink gimlets, they dance around the topic of Macomber’s display of cowardice earlier that day as he ran away from a wounded lion and left Wilson to shoot it.
As Macomber becomes apologetic toward Wilson, Margot loses her composure and runs off to cry out of shame on her husband’s behalf. Macomber expresses his embarrassment to Wilson once more and asks Wilson not to mention his cowardice to mutual acquaintances. This is too much for Wilson, who insults Macomber in an attempt to estrange himself from husband and wife and set up an atmosphere of professional coolness for the remainder of the safari. Macomber is too friendly, however, and Wilson ends up both liking and pitying him.
Margot returns to the table and begins a campaign of “bitchery” against her husband, referring obliquely and ironically to the topics of fear, lions, and hunting both to needle Macomber and impress Wilson. Wilson’s sympathy for Macomber deepens.
In the late afternoon, Macomber and Wilson go off together and shoot impala while Margot stays behind in camp looking, as Wilson puts it, like an English rose (though she is American). Macomber successfully shoots an impala.
That night after dinner, Macomber lies in his bunk and meditates on his loss of confidence and the cowardice that replaced his self-assurance. He relives the incident beginning with his attempt at sleep 24 hours earlier, which was when he first heard the roaring of the lion and became afraid of it. The day of the incident, he discussed shooting the lion with Wilson over breakfast, then the three drove off in a car to find it. Once it appeared, Wilson encouraged Macomber to get out and shoot it, which he did, alone, after hesitating and missing a good shot. Gut-shot, the lion slunk into the bush and Wilson announced they were going in after it to finish it off. Macomber, terrified but unable to appear so, accompanied Wilson into the bush and promptly ran when the wounded lion leaped at him. Wilson shot it and Margot witnessed the whole incident from the car. When the men return to the car, Margot kisses Wilson.
Macomber also meditates on the fact that his marriage had been on the rocks before but that he was sure his wife would not leave him because he was too rich. He was equally sure he would never leave her because she was too beautiful. He then falls asleep, waking to find his wife gone. After two hours, Margot returns to the tent and it becomes clear that she has slept with Wilson. She refuses to discuss the matter with Macomber.
The next morning, the atmosphere is strained. Wilson absolves himself of blame by mentally rubbishing Macomber and explaining to the reader that he sleeps with many of the wives of his clients, who feel that they are not getting their money’s worth unless they share his cot at some point during the expedition. Presently, husband, wife, and guide start off in the car in search of buffalo. They find three and chase them in their car. Macomber and Wilson fire a volley of shots and bring down all three. The chase and the shootings are fast-paced and exciting, and leave Macomber with a sense of elation and a new confidence, which Wilson likens to a “coming of age.” Margot is clearly uneasy about this development, which seems to foreshadow a power shift in her relationship with her husband.
One of the gun-bearers then comes limping up to the car to announce that the first buffalo Macomber shot was not killed but wounded, and has crawled off into the brush. The car is driven back to the shooting site, and Macomber and Wilson walk into the brush in search of the buffalo, which charges Macomber. Macomber stands his ground in front of the charging animal and both he and Wilson shoot it. As it is about to hit Macomber, Margot fires from the car, shooting Macomber in the back of the head and killing him.
Wilson sarcastically assures Margot that she will not be convicted of her husband’s murder, though he says Macomber “would have left you too.” Margot is hysterical, and it is left unclear whether she hit her husband accidentally or is a cold-blooded murderess.
Hemingway’s themes in this story are masculinity and its foil, cowardice, and the “coming of age” that is possible through exposure to nature and by overcoming the challenges of the great outdoors. Francis Macomber is described as a handsome man who is “good at court games” and “had a number of big-game fishing records,” and whose safari clothes are, significantly, “new.” He is a typical international jet setter who lives in a suburban or perhaps big-city setting and has had no real exposure to a raw, unadulterated natural environment, though he is considered athletic. As such, Hemingway portrays him as weak, subservient to his wife, cowardly and frustrated. Once he conquers his fears and guns down three buffalo, he becomes empowered, emboldened, and elated. By conquering nature, he has become a man. As Robert Wilson puts it, “It had taken a strange chance of hunting, a sudden precipitation into action without worrying beforehand, to bring this about with Macomber…Fear gone like an operation. Something else grew in its place. Main thing a man had. Made him into a man. Women knew it too. No bloody fear.”
Hemingway was a great believer in the power of nature to improve one’s quality of life. He was a lifelong outdoorsman; he went hunting, fishing, camping, and boating in places as diverse as Europe, the Caribbean, the United States, and Africa. In fact, he wrote this short story following a 10-week safari in East Africa. This story summarizes the importance Hemingway placed on outdoor activities, especially for men. The character of Macomber comes into his own masculinity through a few seconds of shooting buffalo; the activity of hunting not only provides entertainment, excitement, and physical fitness, but it completely transforms his character and revolutionizes his relationships with others.
Hemingway’s masculine ideal in this story seems to be Wilson, the “white hunter” who lives, works, shoots, and kills in the great outdoors, and whose stock-in-trade is ruggedness and physical courage. Margot and the reader are invited to compare Macomber to Wilson, and certainly, Wilson comes out on top in that comparison. However, at the end of the story Wilson breaks the code he purports to live by as he hunts down buffalo in a car, a certainly unsportsmanlike, possibly cowardly, and indisputably illegal act. Wilson may be a paragon of manly virtues after the Hemingway school of masculinity, but he is by no means perfect.
Macomber emphasizes masculinity not only by contrast to cowardice but also to femininity, specifically through the character of Margot, who is central to the story’s plot. Hemingway’s treatment of women in his fiction has long been, and continues to be, the subject of debate among critics. The accepted wisdom is that Hemingway was a chauvinist and possibly a misogynist; women in his stories are obstacles to their male counterparts rather than positive contributors to the action. Many critics have challenged this view, arguing that Hemingway’s portrayal of women is more nuanced and his general attitude more complex than the traditional view suggests.
There is little debate, however, that Margot Macomber is one of Hemingway’s “bitch goddess” characters; she is grasping, cruel, contemptible, unfaithful, opportunistic, and possibly murderous. In general, Hemingway treats Margot as a necessary evil in this story, as an inconvenient but essential component of the existence of his male characters. Wilson calls women “a nuisance” on safari, and indeed, Margot’s only function in this story is to drive Wilson and Macomber apart in spite of their often-mutual desire to be friendly or at least cordial with each other. In addition, Wilson makes a number of sweeping and unflattering generalizations about American women of the jet set using Margot as a case study. In spite of his attraction to her, he calls her “enameled in that American female cruelty” and refers to her sarcasm at Macomber’s expense after the lion incident “damn terrorism.” Margot is portrayed as a thorough harpy; her only redeeming quality appears to be her beauty, as Wilson recognizes the morning after he sleeps with her. As for Macomber, he considers Margot’s beauty to be the only thing that gives her value; it is the only reason he married her and the only reason he will never leave her. He recognizes that “His wife had been a great beauty and she was still a great beauty in Africa, but she was not a great enough beauty any more at home to be able to leave him and better herself and she knew it and he knew it.” Margot’s beauty is her only stock-in-trade.
The lingering question of the story, of course, is whether Margot felt threatened enough by Macomber’s emancipation to murder him at the end, or whether she was merely trying to kill the buffalo. Scholars have come down on both sides of the question. The traditional reading of the story teaches that Margot is a thoroughly grasping and cruel character who shoots to kill, but more revisionist interpretations point out that, when she pulls the trigger, it is unnecessary for her to be shooting to kill her husband because the buffalo will run him down in a few seconds anyway. In addition, the accusations of murder that Wilson levels at her may be motivated by a desire to blackmail her into silence about the fact that he hunted the buffalo from a car, an illegal practice. According to many scholars, Hemingway himself used to hint that Macomber’s death was murder.
Another lingering question among Hemingway scholars is whether Macomber and Margot are modeled on F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. Fitzgerald was a friend-turned-bitter-rival of Hemingway’s and some critics argue that Hemingway created Macomber as an incarnation of all the qualities Hemingway most disliked in his nemesis. Hemingway certainly mentioned Fitzgerald by name in some of his other stories. Proponents of this theory point to the fact that Hemingway chose to name Macomber “Francis,” which was also Fitzgerald’s first name. However, critics point out that this choice was more likely a reference to Francis Feeble, a character in Shakespeare’s play Henry IV who served as the original speaker of the quotation Wilson offers about death toward the end of the story.
The narration of this story is in the third person with an omniscient narrator; Hemingway tells the story from the points of view of Macomber, Wilson, Margot and the lion from which Macomber flees. As the plot is driven by interpersonal relationships, this technique is effective at revealing each character’s motivations and the reasons for their behavior. The points of view most often adopted by the narrator are Macomber’s and Wilson’s, a trend that is consistent with Hemingway’s marginalization of Margot.
Two literary techniques are in play throughout the story that enliven the action and embellish Hemingway’s otherwise minimal descriptive passages. The first is onomatopoeia, and is best exemplified by “whunk,” the noise Macomber’s bullet makes as it hits the lion (p. 22, 33), and “carawong,” the noise Wilson’s high-velocity “big gun” makes as it fires at game (p. 26, 34). Hemingway’s usage of these terms helps the reader imagine the noises and brutality of the hunt.
The second technique Hemingway employs is simile and metaphor. The most notable example occurs in Wilson’s thoughts when Macomber suggests they leave the wounded lion: “Robert Wilson, whose entire occupation had been with the lion and the problem he presented, and who had not been thinking about Macomber except to note that he was rather windy, suddenly felt as though he had opened the wrong door in a hotel and seen something shameful” (p. 24). This simile demonstrates Wilson’s shock at hearing Macomber voice such cowardly sentiments; Macomber would rather leave the lion to suffer or risk someone else running into the lion and possibly being killed than face up to hunting it down and finishing what he started.
One of the most prominent metaphors in the story is soon after this passage and describes the appearance of the gun-bearers who have to accompany Macomber and Wilson into the brush to search for the wounded lion: “[Wilson] spoke in Swahili to the two gun-bearers who looked the picture of gloom” (p. 25).
“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is a story about one man’s “coming of age” with the help of the African flatlands, a rifle, and a friendship with another man, and about how his emancipation was possibly forestalled by a selfish wife.