The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber
by Ernest Hemingway
Let's face it. On a safari, actions speak way louder than words, especially when that action is shooting a gun. You don't get much louder than that.
By Action We Mean Nonaction
It's all well and good that Francis Macomber "was good at court games, [and] had a number of big-game fishing records […]" (3.17), but hunting is what matters out here. Macomber has big plans for the safari. He got the outfit and the guide, and he is ready to kill himself a lion. But these are plans and hopes. When it comes to action, Macomber fails, and that failure is the central nonaction of the story. It sets everything spiraling downhill.
In contrast, of course, is Wilson, who carries that enormous rifle because he must always have his client's back. When Macomber finds himself incapable of finishing off the lion, Robert tells him, "You don't have to go in, of course, […] That's what I'm hired for, you know. That's why I'm so expensive" (2.108). Wilson is, if nothing else, a man of action. He will shoot when he needs to, no questions asked.
For Margot's part, her actions are the most decisive of the story. Women are meant to stay back at camp or, at the very least, in the car. Well, Ms. Margot stays in the car but she absolutely takes action. She kills her own husband in an act of nobly defending him or taking him out for fear that he will leave her – in other words, that he will act on his newly found happiness. What is so frustrating about this is that, in a world where actions tell you who a person is, we can't actually get to the bottom of Margot's act. Her character remains a mystery.
These are some good-looking people. You might be too young to know this actor, but for the movie version of the story, Wilson was played by the oh-so handsome Gregory Peck. Hemingway provides quite a lengthy description of Wilson's appearance, so it must be important:
He was about middle height with sandy hair, a stubby moustache, a very red face and extremely cold blue eyes with faint white wrinkles at the corners that grooved merrily when he smiled. […] his shoulders sloped in the loose tunic he wore with the four big cartridges held in loops where the left breast pocket should have been, at his big brown hands, his old slacks, his very dirty boots, and back to his red face again[…] the baked red of his face stopped in a white line that marked the circle left by his Stetson hat that hung now from one of the pegs of the tent pole. (1.15)
Keep in mind that this description comes from the eyes of Margot, who is clearly checking out the eye candy. She definitely likes what she sees.
Compared to Wilson, Macomber looks like he just stepped out of his sixth-grade class picture. Here's Francis:
Francis Macomber was very tall, very well built if you did not mind that length of bone, dark, his hair cropped like an oarsman, rather thin-lipped, and was considered handsome. He was dressed in the same sort of safari clothes that Wilson wore except that his were new, he was thirty-five years old, kept himself very fit […]. (1.170)
Hemingway leaves much more for you to interpret here. Whereas Wilson is unquestionably hardy and striking, Macomber's good looks are up for debate – "if you did not mind that length of bone" implies that not everyone would think him good-looking. And thin-lipped? Not a huge asset, at least in our day and age; nonetheless, we are told that he "was considered handsome." By whom, we don't know.
The point is, Wilson presents an irrefutable image of strength, but the jury is still out on Macomber. Robert sees him as having an "American face that would stay adolescent until it became middle-aged […] and crew-cropped hair, fine eyes only faintly shifty, good nose, thin lips and handsome jaw" (1.64). His youthful appearance is suggestive of his inexperience – and the "thin lips" again? Makes the man sound kind of flimsy. He is a good old boy until the chips are down, and then he turns into a wimp.
As for Margot, we know she is "an extremely handsome and well-kept woman of the beauty and social position which had, five years before, commanded five thousand dollars as the price of endorsing, with photographs, a beauty product which she had never used" (1.13) Margot's looks are important; they make her money and bring her men. Of course, the virile Wilson can't help but notice. That double cot ain't for nothing, you know.
Her looks go much farther in Africa: "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" (3.17). While her looks have not lasted, apparently his money has. This brief insight also reminds us of something even more revealing about Margot: her beauty is only skin deep. Inside, she seems just about as ugly as a buffalo, and even meaner.
Sex and Love
The Macombers have been married eleven years; Wilson is a bachelor. Therein lies the difference, as Hemingway makes abundantly clear in the following passage: "Margot looked at them both and they both saw that she was going to cry. Wilson had seen it coming for a long time and he dreaded it. Macomber was past dreading it" (1.35).
Macomber may see his wife as a pain, but he seems to still love her, or at least he is too tired to do anything about it. Wilson sees her as cruel and predatory, but that sure doesn't stop him from sleeping with her. In fact, it is clear that Margot has cheated before, as we find out in this exchange:
"There wasn't going to be any of that. You promised there wouldn't be."
"Well, there is now," she said sweetly.
"You said if we made this trip that there would be none of that. You promised."
"Yes, darling. That's the way I meant it to be. But the trip was spoiled yesterday. We don't have to talk about it, do we?" (3.37-40)
Margot uses sex with other men to punish Macomber for not being enough of a man himself. She wasn't planning on sleeping with anyone else. That is, until Macomber messed up. Her husband seems incapable of stopping her, and both she and Wilson act like it wasn't their fault, either. For his part, Wilson doesn't help matters:
He, Robert Wilson, carried a double size cot on safari to accommodate any windfalls he might receive. He had hunted for a certain clientele, the international, fast, sporting set, where the women did not feel they were getting their money's worth unless they had shared that cot with the white hunter. (3.93)
Wilson won't chase after women, but he sure won't turn the wives away at his tent door. The only thing he hunts is his big game. He lets the women come to him.