Ernest Hemingway emerged as one of America’s more colorful writers in the early to mid-1900s, presenting himself as the ultimate man’s man, worldly traveler, mighty hunter and hard-drinking spinner of tales. His short stories focused on the virtues held by men a generation or two earlier than him as well as the effects and aftereffects of war. Yet each story contained a deeper message within the lines, if the reader felt the desire to go searching for it. He believed in omitting extra details as a way of strengthening his stories. He compared this to an iceberg. Just like only the top 1/8th of an iceberg can be seen above the water with the rest remaining below the surface providing it with its momentum and dignity, Hemingway believed his stories should follow the same structure. Throughout his life, Hemingway struggled in his relationships with others, particularly women, and these struggles can be traced through many of his works including “The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”
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In “The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber”, Hemingway reveals his latent fear of strong women and being dominated as he depicts the story of a middle-aged man who is finally beginning to understand his true worth. This man is accompanied by his wife, a woman who has nothing but contempt for her weak and cowardly husband. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that during this, the couple’s first safari, Francis fled from the sight of his first lion. This was an action that has taken place just before the opening of the story, and the audience is only aware of it, and the tensions it causes, by the reactions of the hunting party members around the camp that afternoon. The marriage relationship is shown to be full of contempt on the part of the wife and shame on the part of the husband, but nevertheless relatively stable. “They had a sound basis of union. Margot was too beautiful for Macomber to divorce her and Macomber had too much money for Margot ever to leave him” (Hemingway 22).
Margot Macomber is characterized throughout the story as a cruel, vindictive woman who will simply not allow her husband to forget his weaknesses and yet fears his increasing confidence. Throughout the story, she is described in unflattering and dominant terms such as ‘hard,’ ‘cruel’ or ‘predatory.’ From the beginning of the story, it is clear that Margot cannot stand the shame of her husband’s cowardice in running from the lion nor can she tolerate the thought of him growing beyond her as he begins to face his fears. As he stands down the charge of his second water buffalo, taking careful aim at the buffalo’s head, Francis “felt a sudden white-hot, blinding flash explode inside his head and that was all he ever felt” (Hemingway 36). Wilson’s reaction to the shooting seals the suspicions on the reader’s part that Margot intentionally shot her husband and suggests the reason she did. However, familiar with the wild beast within her, Wilson forces Margot to plead with him for his assistance following the ‘accident’.
However much Hemingway himself might have envisioned his character as an evil American woman, though, there remains a great deal of realism to her character, including hints that she is trapped within a specific role of her own. Her survival is based upon her husband’s ability, and willingness, to support her. As long as he remains an emasculated male, she is secure. However, in leaving her husband to sleep with Wilson, Hemingway suggests that Margot forces Frances, in order to keep her, to become finally fully male. When Frances discovers his own mature masculine drive, Margot’s survival in the greater world is threatened and she takes actions to protect it. However, Wilson ensures that in doing so, she must still relinquish her claims to masculine behavior if she wishes to survive. From this perspective, Margot emerges as a victim in her own right and begs the question why society would choose to foster such hostility among the genders.
Hemingway, Ernest. “The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” The Short Stories. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986: 3-37.