Study Guide

The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber Courage

By Ernest Hemingway


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, was good at court games, had a number of big-game fishing records, and had just shown himself, very publicly, to be a coward. (1.17)

Hemingway really sets up the reader here, giving us this elaborate description of a handsome and capable man only to deflate the entire description by telling us he's a coward. His sentence structure suggests that no matter how handsome or successful he is, he can never make up for his public humiliation.

So he's a bloody four-letter man as well as a bloody coward, he thought. (1.61)

Wilson can hardly believe Macomber. The guy is a coward and a blabbermouth? That's a double-whammy of awful for our manly man. In Wilson's world, you keep your mouth shut if you blow it.

[…] as Francis Macomber lay on his cot with the mosquito bar over him and listened to the night noises it was not all over. It was neither all over nor was it beginning. It was there exactly as it happened with some parts of it indelibly emphasized and he was miserably ashamed at it. But more than shame he felt cold, hollow fear in him. The fear was still there like a cold slimy hollow in all the emptiness where once his confidence had been and it made him feel sick. It was still there with him now. (2.9)

Macomber was doomed long before he saw the whites of the lion's eyes. The nightlong dread put him at a distinct disadvantage during the hunt. It isn't at all what he expected, and his courage is already drained from him before he even has a chance to use it.

It had started the night before when he had wakened and heard the lion roaring somewhere up along the river. (2.10)

Macomber lets fear get the best of him. His act of cowardice is not a one-time thing. It was long coming and corrosive.

"What range will it be?"

"Can't tell. Lion has something to say about that. Won't shoot unless it's close enough so you can make sure."

"At under a hundred yards?" Macomber asked.

Wilson looked at him quickly. (2.23-26)

Poor Macomber. He tries to comfort himself by finding out how far he'll be from the lion when he shoots him. Wilson can already sense that something is wrong here, and check out his manly way of speaking. He doesn't even bother using an article in the first sentence, or a subject in the second. He's too busy thinking about the hunt.

"It's that damned roaring," she said. "It's been going on all night, you know."

"Why didn't you wake me, she said. I'd love to have heard it. (2.41-42)

Margot begins needling Macomber when she hears that he has been up all night scared. She subtly puts him down by suggesting that the lion's roar would have delighted her. All right, Margot, we're calling your bluff.

Macomber opened the breech of his rifle and saw had metal-cased bullets, shut the bolt and put the rifle on safety. He saw his hand was trembling. (2.63)

Guns and shaky hands? Not a pretty combination, folks. It's the moment he has been waiting for, but the signs are not good. Never mind aiming. Will he even be able to pull the trigger?

He only knew his hands were shaking and as he walked away from the car it was almost impossible for him to make his legs move. They were stiff in the thighs, but he could feel the muscles fluttering. He raised the rifle, sighted on the junction of the lion's head and shoulders and pulled the trigger. (2.75)

Macomber has this thing about the car. He feels safe in it. On his own two feet he becomes a quivering mess, because he has no steel cage to protect him. His body is rebelling against his ego.

"I don't want to go in there," said Macomber. It was out before he knew he'd said it.

"Neither do I," said Wilson very cheerily. "Really no choice though." Then, as an afterthought, he glanced at Macomber and saw suddenly how he was trembling and the pitiful look on his face. (2.106-107)

Macomber admits what no real man would: he is afraid. Of course he wouldn't <em>want</em> to go face the lion, but that's what you must do when you're hunting. Isn't that what courage is? Facing your fears and pushing through them?

The next thing he knew he was running; running wildly, in panic in the open, running toward the stream. (3.6)

Again, Macomber's body does all the talking. He is functioning on pure instinct at this point. It's fight or flight, and he has chosen flight, much to Margot's dismay.