Out of Bounds

A Short Happy Life

Revisiting Hemingway's “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”

By Rob Breeding

If you watched the Ken Burns documentary on Ernest Hemingway last week, it’s understandable if it left you a little confused. Hemingway, the series suggested, was complicated, a veritable man of mystery.

Burns got the complicated part wrong. Hemingway was simply a complete … ahem … jerk.

His words, however, matter, and most of Hemingway’s words were pretty dang good. When it comes to outdoor writing, fishing and hunting especially, those words are unrivaled.

Some of his best stuff is in the short stories, especially “Big Two-Hearted River,” which I wrote about last week, and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” in the queue for next week. 

This week it’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”

It’s a favorite, but to love it I had to learn to look past the somewhat dubious caricatures he crafts while setting up the trio that form the story.

The strained verisimilitude begins with Francis, in whom Hemingway revisits one of his recurring themes: the cuckolded man. Margot, an aging beauty, plays it to type as his predatory wife. Their guide on African safari is Robert Wilson, a great white hunter who lives by a code of, well, convenience.

The story begins with the three in the dining tent, drinking lunchtime gimlets and “pretending that nothing had happened.” Moments before, Macomber was received in camp as a hero for killing his first lion.

We soon learn the “nothing” was that it wasn’t Macomber who killed the lion. Worse still — stricken by fear after a lion’s roars kept him awake the night before — he rushed his aim, wounding the big cat, which retreated into heavy cover. Terrified, Macomber would rather leave than face the danger awaiting in the long grass.

But Wilson insists. They can’t leave the animal to suffer — the code of course — and the wounded lion could kill some other unsuspecting hunter. Macomber reluctantly follows the guide into the long grass, but when the lion charges, he runs in fear, his cowardice on full display for the gun bearers, and Margot.

Wilson puts the beast out of its misery.

The remainder of Macomber’s day is filled with escalating tensions, including relentless taunting from his wife. His humiliation is complete when Margot slips out of their tent that night, to share Wilson’s cot. It’s not her first indiscretion.

Macomber’s safari from hell continues the following morning as the three share breakfast. But his anger becomes a fulcrum for redemption, fueling a wild shooting spree as Macomber guns down three cape buffalo. Again, a wounded beast has slunk off into the bush, but this time Macomber, his blood racing, has to be restrained from rushing in for the kill.

Eventually they do go in. When the buffalo charges, time slows for Macomber. Alive and newly masculinized, he stands his ground. Aiming high he notes his solids striking the heavy boss of horn atop the buffalo’s skull.

He adjusts his aim, but in the instant after he kills the buffalo, Margot, terrified by the specter of her suddenly revitalized husband, and fearing abandonment, shoots Macomber in the head, ending his short happy life.

The “love” triangle melodrama is a Hemingway trope. Macomber goes from cuckold to hero; Margot from domineering vamp to murderous coward. Wilson reinvents himself multiple times, from principled hunter to situational ethicist.

But the hunting scenes are vivid, and here the drama is real. Hemingway even switches the omniscient narrator’s point of view to that of the wounded lion, fierce with anger and weakened by wounds that bring a “thin foamy red to his mouth” as he breathes.

We end up pulling for the lion, then the buffalo, chased by trucks across the savanna in a “hunt” that defies all principles of fair chase. 

Hemingway’s beasts are noble. The hunters, not so much.

Rob Breeding writes and blogs at www.mthookandbullet.com.