Critics seem to agree that "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" is one of Ernest Hemingway's best short stories. That's nothing to sniff at for an author who wrote a lot of really good shorts. This story has even been called "perfect." Now we're talking.
What exactly is so perfect about it? Frankly, it has just about everything you could want in a good page-turner: psychological drama, interpersonal scandals, and, of course, guns. But in addition to the theatrics, it is also an excellent demonstration of Hemingway's famously sparse prose style. The narrator gives us the details, nothing more, but packed in those details is all the psychological nuance of a session with Freud. Oh, and just so you know, "The Short Happy Life" was one of Hemingway's favorites.
"The Short Happy Life" was published in the September 1936 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, along with "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," another one of Hem's best. (FYI: those in the know refer to him as "Hem" or "Papa" – just choose your favorite.) Hemingway himself referred to "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" as his African stories because, well, they take place in Africa. But it's also part of a massive body of work that helped to earn Hemingway the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954.
Over the years, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" has been adapted to both radio and film, with a fair degree of popular success. At the time, having stories dramatized over the radio was a great way to reach a mass audience that didn't yet have televisions. "The Short Happy Life" was broadcast from NBC in Hollywood in 1948, and had an impressive one million listeners. Eventually, the story also became a movie, with a much more John Grisham title, The Macomber Affair.
It's also worth noting that many of Hemingway's novels and stories are based on people and experiences from his own life, and "The Short Happy Life" is no exception. In addition to the fact that Hemingway went on his own safari in the thirties, it's also possible the characters are based on friends of his – author F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. The pair had a notoriously stormy marriage, and Margot has some eerie similarities to Zelda. Though we can't prove that the Scotts were Hem's inspiration, the parallels can't be denied.
Frankly, though, Hem did not have to go far to find an example of a disastrous marriage. He was smack dab in the middle of one, himself, with a woman named Pauline. Whatever the case, it's clear that marriage and all its drama (with which Hem was utterly familiar) are at the heart of "The Short Happy Life." Get ready for some serious spats on this safari, readers. This is not a tale of marital bliss.
Ever had a grand plan that simply didn't work out? Totally disappointing, right? Well there might just be a chance to reclaim your dignity. We're not suggesting that hunting big animals will save your rep. No, we're merely pointing out that facing your fears doesn't hurt quite as much as you might suspect. Let us explain.
Ernest Hemingway, our author here, was a really macho guy. Impressing other people by accomplishing daring and physical feats mattered a lot to him, and it matters a lot to title character Francis Macomber, too. Unfortunately, Macomber doesn't really have a great support network. His wife is hardly steadfast, and failing to kill that lion gives his lady an opportunity to jump all over him, in a bad way. It doesn't help that Wilson, paragon of manliness is watching it all go down.
Still, that does not stop Macomber. Does he let a hypercritical, cheating wife, a contemptuous mentor, and scornful locals get him down? Nope. He keeps right on going (after moping for a bit), and gets back out on the horse, or, we should say, the hunt.
Hemingway loves men who are working against the odds. "Underdog" might be too strong a word here, but we think you get our point. In Hemingway's world, men must always prove themselves. In Macomber, Hem gives us a model of persistence. He may have mucked it all up on his first attempt at the hunt, but he makes up for it the next day.
So the moral is if you can't shoot a lion, then go shoot a buffalo. In other words, if one challenge proves to be too much, choose another one (we're not about to recommend that you go big game hunting in Africa just to raise your rep). There will always be another challenge to bump up against, and you'll always have another shot at proving yourself. Just remember that in the end, Macomber finds happiness against the odds because he proves his worth to himself.