Francis Macomber… 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.
Ernest Hemingway, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”
In retrospect, it’s tough to blame poor Francis Macomber for his cowardice on his first African safari, but you can judge for yourself. Here’s what happened.
A wounded male lion, gut-shot by Macomber’s shaky aim, has taken refuge in a patch of tall grass. Rather than simply wait for it to come out, Macomber’s hunting guide, Robert Wilson, explains that they must go in after him. The animal is suffering, Wilson says, and they don’t want anyone else to wander into his path.
There’s just one problem.
“A wounded lion’s going to charge,” Wilson points out. “You can’t see him until you’re right on him. He’ll make himself perfectly flat in cover you wouldn’t think would hide a hare.”
Despite his obvious terror, Macomber insists on walking into the grass alongside Wilson. They don’t get far. The huge, muscle-bound lion releases a blood-choked grunt and charges as soon as he hears the men approach. Wilson lets fly twice with his .505 Gibbs, but the lion, mangled and bloody, continues to crawl forward. The third shot ends the animal’s life, but Macomber has already fled.
“The next thing he knew he was running; running wildly, in panic in the open, running toward the stream.”
There are plenty of good hunting stories out there, but I don’t think you can best “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Ernest Hemingway.
If you don’t want us to spoil the ending, you can read it here. It’s only 20 pages long.
While Hemingway’s work has been (pretty fairly) criticized for a certain amount of romanticized machismo, anyone familiar with the hunting experience knows the necessity of courage under pressure. Even if the target isn’t considered dangerous game, hunters of all stripes have wondered, alone in grizzly country or stalking wild hogs at night, “Do I have what it takes to stand in the face of death?”
This is the first of many reasons I love Hemingway’s short story, and it’s the same reason survival and hunting stories have been popular throughout American history. As we judge Macomber’s actions, we are forced to consider our own courage. Most of us like to believe we’d respond with bravery, and even though it’s impossible to say for sure, the question is worth asking.
Hemingway was a hunter himself, of course, and he tested his mettle against the “Big Five” (lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhino) on safaris in 1933 and 1953. He killed all except the elephant on both trips, according to Silvio Calabi in “Hemingway and Africa.” (If you want to nerd out about Hemingway’s guns and gear, check out that chapter in Calabi’s book. It’s great.) Hemingway used his experiences on that first safari as the foundation both for “Francis Macomber” and his 1935 novel, “Green Hills of Africa.”
Any good hunting story should include details that hunters will recognize as evidence of the author’s bona fides, and Hemingway used his experience on safari to do just that. He includes descriptions of hunting strategies like following a blood trail, and intercepting buffalo between their grazing and bedding grounds. He mentions specific guns, like Macomber’s Springfield .30-06, and calibers like Wilson’s .505 Gibbs. He even includes a debate about whether it’s sporting to use a car to hunt.
But the most relatable moment comes just minutes before Macomber’s cowardly retreat. Struck with both fear and lion fever, Macomber raises his .30-06 and pulls the trigger “until he thought his finger would break.” He soon makes the error all hunters commit sooner or later. He lowers the rifle to flip the safety off, but the action prompts the lion to take off at a trot, which turns a relatively easy shot at a stationary target into a much more difficult trick.
Macomber’s problems are just beginning after his embarrassing lion hunt. Wilson and the gun bearers aren’t the only people who see him run. His wife, Margot, is there as well, and she isn’t impressed with his performance.
She doesn’t look at Macomber when he returns from his “lion killing.” Instead, when Macomber tries to hold her hand, she pulls it away, taps Wilson on the shoulder, and kisses him on the mouth.
She doesn’t stop there. Even though she tells Macomber that she has forgotten his cowardice, he wakes up in the middle of the night to find that she has left their bed. Readers soon learn that she has joined Wilson in his. This is, apparently, not an uncommon habit of hers.
But the next day, something changes.
In what is surely the most awkward car ride recorded in fiction, Macomber, Wilson, and Margot set out early in the morning to look for buffalo. They speed after three bulls, and Macomber jumps out and begins to fire. Here’s how he describes the experience once he has two bulls down and another wounded in the brush:
“You know I don’t think I’ll be afraid of anything again,” he tells Wilson. “Something happened in me after we first saw the buff and started after him. Like a dam bursting. It was pure excitement… I feel absolutely different.”
Wilson believes Macomber found his courage because he didn’t have time to feel fear before going after the buffalo. “He’d seen it in war work the same way,” the narrator says. “More of a change than any loss of virginity. Fear gone like an operation. Something else grew in its place.”
The experience produces the opposite change in Margot.
“You’ve gotten awfully brave, awfully suddenly,” she tells Macomber, “contemptuously.” But the narrator tells us her contempt isn’t sincere—she’s “very afraid of something.”
Earlier in the story, readers are told that Macomber won’t leave Margot because she’s too beautiful. As a member of the upper crust of society, Macomber is also doubtless afraid of the social and financial ramifications of a divorce.
Now Macomber believes he’ll never be afraid of anything again, which might explain what happens next.
As Macomber searches the brush for the angry, wounded buffalo, the animal charges much like the lion did the day before. This time, however, Macomber stands tall, shooting at the buffalo’s head while it lowers its horns and rushes on him. Wilson ducks to the side, but Macomber stays put. He feels a white-hot, blinding flash explode inside his head, and then he never feels anything again.
Margot is standing in the car holding the 6.5 Mannlicher rifle she used to kill her husband. She begins to cry “hysterically,” and Wilson comments (helpfully), “Why didn’t you poison him? That’s what they do in England.”
There’s some debate as to whether Margot meant to kill her husband or was trying to kill the charging buffalo. You should read the full story and judge for yourself. But putting aside this cynical portrayal of women, Macomber’s short happy life illustrates an essential benefit of the hunting experience.
All hunters have suffered the disappointment that comes with a missed opportunity. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as Macomber’s ordeal, but everyone has lost an animal due to stupidity, negligence, or cowardice. How we respond to this adversity both builds and reveals character. Macomber was a coward (both in his outdoor and personal lives), but he didn’t remain so. Macomber got his second shot the next day. For the rest of us, the seasons never stop changing, and those missed opportunities can be redeemed.
The failure-to-success cycle that Hemingway illustrates is among the greatest benefits hunting can offer. It isn’t the only activity that can build grit, but I would argue it’s among the most powerful. Failure is more devastating, and success is more euphoric. The space in the middle is where character is built, as readers see so clearly in Macomber.
Not everyone is as impressed with Hemingway’s tale. Frank O’Connor, writing in “The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story,” calls Hemingway’s “obsession” with physical courage a “personal problem,” and blasts Francis Macomber as a “ludicrously distorted impression of human life”:
To say that the psychology of the story is childish would be to waste good words. As farce it ranks with Ten Nights in a Bar Room or any other Victorian morality you can think of. Clearly, it is the working out of a personal problem that for the vast majority of men and women has no validity whatever.
Like many people in our urbanized, digital society, O’Connor discounts the importance of physical courage. For the increasing number of Americans who don’t face death on a regular basis, hunting provides the opportunity to develop the character necessary to rise to the occasion when steadfastness is required. Hemingway clearly understood the crucial role hunting might play in modern society, and he illustrates the importance of self-evaluation in “Francis Macomber” using a tale informed by real-world experience.
There are better stories out there—Hemingway wrote some of them himself. But as a defense of hunting and the life-changing power of the outdoors, you won’t find anything better than “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”
Feature image from The Macomber Affair, a film based on the short story.