Study Guide

The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber Themes

  • Men and Masculinity

    Hemingway was known for liking his men manly and, frankly, his women sort of manly, too. Men in Hemingway stories can often be seen hunting, fighting in a war, or watching a bull get gored at a bullfight. "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" is no exception. Our protagonist starts out a mouse, but by the end of the story he is a man.  In "The Short Happy Life," we have a protagonist who starts out a mouse and in a few pages becomes a man – all because he finally manages to shoot and kill a big, ferocious animal. Macomber's boyishness is contrasted with Wilson's strong masculinity, which is more in keeping with Hemingway's ideal. He is weathered, experienced, tough. Of course what is the point of men and masculinity without a woman around? Lucky we have Margot, whose feminine whiles provide a stage upon which Macomber and Wilson can perform their masculinity. But we also have to face facts. Margot kills her husband just when he has achieved the height of masculinity. What exactly are we supposed to make of that?

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. What qualities does Hemingway hold up as the most masculine in "The Short Happy Life"? What makes a man a man in this world?
    2. Does Wilson have any weaknesses, or is he "pure man" (according to the terms of the story)?
    3. Does the narrator's opinion about manliness differ from that of Wilson?
    4. What do you think Margot really thinks of these men?

    Chew on This

    Macomber will prove his masculinity at all costs. He's even willing to risk his life to do so, which shows just how important it is to be manly in Hemingway's story.

    Wilson's skewed sense of ethics is what makes him the ultimate masculine man. He takes what he wants and asks questions later, if at all.

  • Courage

    To Hemingway, courage and masculinity were absolutely intertwined. Men must be courageous and prove themselves through activities like hunting, boxing, fishing, soldiering. Then here comes rich, handsome Francis Macomber, who has never had to prove himself. Whether he had courage or not had never mattered – until now. Once he is finally forced to prove himself, and suddenly his marriage, his self-worth, and his life are all on the line. The rules have changed. His money and success no longer matter. Courage is what counts in Africa. Macomber not only acts shamefully by running from the hunt, but he also humiliates himself by continuing to harp on the fact that he has no courage. What's interesting is where Hemingway stands on his protagonist's cowardice – does he sympathize with Macomber for what he goes through after that lion hunt, or does he side with Margot's contempt? It's one of the central questions posed by "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," and it's one we are still trying to answer.

    Questions About Courage

    1. What role do the natives play in Macomber's struggle to gain courage?
    2. Who is the most courageous figure in the story? What makes you say so?
    3. What is the reader supposed to think of Macomber when we find out at the very beginning of the story that he is a coward? Do you agree that he's a coward, or can you relate to his behavior?
    4. Do you think facing down a lion amounts to real courage? Are there other ways Macomber should be courageous?

    Chew on This

    Maybe Macomber should have left his wife at home. It's hard to tell if he brought her so she could have fun or so he could show her just how macho he is (not).

    Wilson seems more bugged by Macomber's annoying personality than by his shortcomings as a hunter. Part of the hunting code is "taking it like a man" – even when you fail.

  • Violence

    In "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," bullets are <em>flying</em>. Of course for the most part, humans are not shooting each other here. It's all about shooting animals, and in Hemingway's world, the violence of the hunt was all a part of being a man, as long as you play by the rules. The violence against the animals is the most graphic in this story, with detailed descriptions of the pain of slow death coming from the perspective of the animals themselves. Interestingly, as much of a macho man hunter as Hemingway was, he didn't deny that the animals suffered, and could suffer even more if the hunter did not go and put them out of their misery promptly. The story also features human violence aplenty, both physical and psychological. The servants are threatened with beatings; Wilson considers that Macomber may put a bullet in his head; and Margot torments Macomber, and then finally shoots him like a beast in the field. Deliberate or accidental? To protect him from death or to protect her interests? The violence in this story is not all that straightforward, so we have to figure it out for ourselves.

    Questions About Violence

    1. How many different kinds of violence are there in the story?
    2. What is the worst form of violence we see?
    3. Is the story too graphic? Not graphic enough? Just right? Why?
    4. Who is the most violent character in the story? What makes you say that?

    Chew on This

    Hemingway takes the "thrill" out of the violence by showing the suffering that comes with it. In some ways, the narrator seems more sympathetic to the animals than to Macomber.

    Margot is clearly the most violent character because she kills her husband on purpose in the most gruesome way possible.

  • Women and Femininity

    To be fair, there is only one woman in "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" – Margot Macomber. But she plays a <em>huge </em>role in how the story unfolds. We know she is beautiful, was once a model, is something of a socialite, and a definite <em>femme fatale</em>. She is also a bruiser who makes sport out of busting her husband's chops. At least that's the woman Hemingway presents, from the perspective of her husband and Wilson. But no matter how these guys see her, Margot is, in the end, a bit of a mystery. Given all that Hemingway leaves out of the story, we're not sure if we're supposed to like her, or if we're supposed to write her off as scheming, selfish, cold-hearted wife. One thing is for sure. Her beauty and wits are a threat to her husband's masculinity, and that is so <em>not good</em>. She is powerful, sure, but only in a destructive and cruel way, and we're left wondering if Hemingway agrees with Wilson's assessment that she's not much more than a typically horrible American woman.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. In what ways is Margot feminine? Are there ways in which she is masculine, too?
    2. Why does Hemingway characterize Margot as a fading beauty? Why not just have her be beautiful still?
    3. Why does Wilson think American women are so cruel? Do you think Hemingway might be using Wilson as a mouthpiece here? Or is he just writing what the character would say?
    4. How does Margot use her femininity to gain power?

    Chew on This

    Wilson's assessment of Margot is spot on. She is cruel and selfish – nothing more.

    Margot's femininity is threatening but, then again, so is her masculinity. If she had been passive, Macomber might never have gone hunting in the first place.

  • Marriage

    In "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," there is some seriously nasty game-playing going on in the Macomber marriage. Hemingway lays out the politics of this couple in fairly blunt terms: She's pretty. He's rich. They are stuck. Because they each have more to gain by staying together, there's not much they can do about the fact that they don't actually like each other all that much. So, in the meantime, Margot seems to enjoy tormenting Macomber. A lot. In the face of her contempt, Macomber appears impotent and quivering. Wilson looks on in disgust, clearly relieved that he lives the solo man's life, sleeping with other people's wives and living by his own code. Margot manipulates the relationship through sexual politics, using her sexuality as a form of punishment. Still, Macomber gets his manhood back and in dying at that moment is none the wiser. He may have failed in hunting the lion, but he makes up for it in hunting the buffalo, and that's a definite threat to Margot's marital power.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Is Hemingway trying to tell us something about the politics of marriage? If so, what?
    2. Why isn't Wilson married? Do you think he might ever want to be?
    3. Do the Macombers have the perfect marriage, or the marriage from Hell? (Try to think back to <em>before</em> she kills him).
    4. Sure, Margot has the looks and the smarts, but Macomber has the money. So, who has the real power in this marriage?

    Chew on This

    Wilson has it right. Nothing good can come of marriage, so you might as well make it on your own. Or at least, that's what this story suggests.

    Wilson seems pretty disgusted by the extent to which Macomber allowed Margot to dominate him – but he also seems a little bit jealous.