Ernest Hemingway: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”

Incidents and constellations that lead to the self-discovery of Francis Macomber

Term Paper, 2004

18 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Autobiographical Elements in the Story

3. Macomber’s Self-Discovery
3.1. The Situation Preceding Macomber’s Self-Discovery
3.2. The Situations that Lead to Macomber’s Self-Discovery

4. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is among Ernest Hemingway’s most impressive short stories. His famous “Iceberg Theory” (he thereby meant that in his texts, only a short part of the overall content is actually written down, the rest of it stands between the lines) has often caused confusion in reading his short stories and his omissions have tended to obscure their thematic implications - “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”, however, is embarrassing by its riches.

The exciting story is made up of manifold topics being key themes of the literary period of modernism: The main theme of the story, the self-discovery of Francis Macomber, correlates with modernist questions like: “What am I in it? - What’s my function in the universe? - What are the limits of knowledge? - What is real?” Another topic of modernism is the breaking up of traditional values such as the development of a new relationship between man and woman, that is, again, a central theme in Hemingway’s text. Thus, it becomes clear that the topics in the story are also linked to the time the author has lived in.

That’s why this term paper will firstly consider some autobiographical elements in the story. It will then go deeper into the text and examine the incidents and experiences that finally lead to the self-discovery of Francis Macomber. The thesis that “both the constellation of the three major characters on their hunting trip and the powerful experiences in the African wilderness finally lead to the self-discovery of Francis Macomber” will be its central question. Having firstly examined the autobiographical background, the recipient might then better be able to understand the themes in the text as well as the story’s plot. The reader is to realize by this term paper that the specific, almost ironic constellation of the characters in the story together with the strong experiences of Francis Macomber in the African wilderness finally lead to his self-discovery, lead to and also end his very short period of a happy life!

2. Autobiographical Elements in the Story

In the early thirties, Ernest Hemingway was hurt by the attacks of critics about A Farewell to Arms. Winner Take Nothing didn’t reach his normal high standard of writing, Death in the Afternoon was severely criticized and his last fictional work lay five years back; on the whole, he didn’t seem to be able to write a long novel. So when “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” took shape, he might have had sorrows and problems, not only concerning his further career as a writer. His self-doubts and problems - also with his wives - during the thirties seem to have entered “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”, and it may present Hemingway as he might have been or as he feared he might be.

‘Papa’, as he was later called, was all his life terrified of the notion that he could loose his talent, task in life, his masculinity or soul as a result of giving in to the temptations of wealth and women. This notion is exactly the situation the protagonist, being without authority and having lost his masculinity, is in in the story..

Another parallel between the text and the author’s life is that Hemingway has always argued a lot with his wives. In his last marriage with Mary Welsh, he is said to have more quarrelled than lived in peace. She almost left him already on their wedding night after a heavy argument (Rodenberg 104). This theme of being quite cruel to your life mate comes up again in the Macombers’ behaviour towards each other.

At the end of the 1930´s, ‘Papa’s’ relationship with his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer didn’t give him the harmony he needed, and he had an affair with the very pretty and influential Jane Mason. During his first African trip with his wife several arguments shadowed their relationship, as it is the situation in the text. The story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is based on an incident during that hunting trip with Pauline to South- East Africa and the Kilimanjaro region in 1933/1934: Hunting buffaloes, Pauline once almost shot Hemingway accidentally and he later often joked about the situation that she had just wanted to get rid of him to be able to enjoy her love affair with the white hunting guide.

The protagonist’s abilities of fishing or his African hunting trip may reflect Hemingway’s own love for these activities and places. His own childhood was marked by fishing and hunting with his father in the forests of Michigan and he was enthusiastic about the fight of man against the wild animal, he was always keen on big-game hunting, fishing and bullfight visits. Moreover, ‘Papa’ was even called to be ‘accident-prone’. During his second Africa trip in 1954 he had two plane crashes within 24 hours and survived one bush fire (Rodenberg 77). Thus, the situation in the text at the end, when the buffalo dangerously charges Macomber also seems to be an autobiographic element .

Hemingway’s wives were always self-confident and successful journalists. His third love Martha Gellhorn for example worked very hard on her own career as a journalist and author. This emancipated person opposed the traditional image of a woman in these days and didn’t want to stand in the shadow of her husband. She always laughed at his tearful behaviour and self-doubts which finally led to their divorce. One might say that emancipated women (that were often also skilled hunters as Pauline) always fascinated Hemingway. Correlating to this, Margot Macomber, being very emancipated, has the power over her uneasy husband, who suffers bad defeats and disasters. Perhaps, Macomber’s and his wife’s behaviour may also give us a hint how Hemingway might have seen himself in his relationships.

At the end of the story, Macomber is killed by his wife. Death was a theme Hemingway coped with quite often in his life and literature. At his World War I and II participations, in Macedonia, in the Spanish civil war or by his father’s suicide in 1928, he gathered the death experiences he may perhaps also have weaved into Macomber’s death. Ernest Hemmingway ended his life with his favourite shotgun, a Mannlicher, on the morning of 2nd July, 1961. Coincidentally, Margot Macomber uses exactly that type of shotgun, also a Mannlicher, to kill her husband with! Summing up you may say that the text does bear various autobiographical elements and is thus based on real experiences Hemingway had made during his adventurous life.

3. Macomber’s Self-Discovery

One of the most important themes in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is the self-discovery of the protagonist, Francis Macomber. This character, being on the one side well built and wealthy and who is on the other side a coward and married unhappily to a pretty but cruel wife, finally finds himself after having gone through terrible mental suffering. He finds a new, happier life out there in Africa’s wilderness just shortly before he is shot by his woman. This obscure development will now be considered more deeply, verifying the thesis saying that both the constellation of the three major characters on their hunting trip and the powerful experiences in the African wilderness finally lead to the self-discovery of Francis Macomber.

3.1. The Situation Preceding Macomber’s Self-Discovery

The story starts shortly after the returning of the three main characters from the hunt for Macomber´s lion. What is already visible at this first passage of the story is that Macomber, the protagonist, is not very self-confident: When his wife orders a gimlet, he replies “I suppose it’s the right thing to do” (Hemingway 503). This very insecure statement already lets the reader reflect upon this character: “Does Macomber have a lacking in self- confidence?, what has happened?” So his weak, non-masculine behaviour that contrasts his well-built body is shown to the reader already at the beginning of the story.

When the protagonist then asks Wilson, the white hunter, not to mention his cowardice at the Mathaiga Club and later excuses himself for this request, his insecurity becomes quite obvious. He even doesn’t react to Wilson’s insult on him (“… in Africa no woman ever misses her lion and no white man ever bolts.” (Hemingway 506)) but simply apologizes. Thus, Macomber looses authority towards his wife and hunting guide, a development that will be essential for finding his new life later.


Excerpt out of 18 pages


Ernest Hemingway: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”
Incidents and constellations that lead to the self-discovery of Francis Macomber
University of Stuttgart  (Institut für Literaturwissenschaft: Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Literary Studies - G2-Seminar “The American Short Story”
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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1303 KB
Ernest, Hemingway, Short, Happy, Life, Francis, Macomber”, Literary, Studies, G2-Seminar, American, Story”
Quote paper
Jörg Vogelmann (Author), 2004, Ernest Hemingway: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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