The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber
The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber is a piece that brings you distress and discomfort. None of the characters are especially charismatic or particularly brilliant. They don’t seem to have any aggrandizing purpose in life or message that can enrich the reader. On the opposite, they are unabashedly tedious, small-minded and futile.
You go through the few pages of this short story really glad that it is short and silently begging for it to end. It actually feels pointless and a waste of time reading it. Personally, I don’t know exactly why I stumbled upon Francis Macomber some years ago, but I read it moved by a mix of stubbornness and masochism. Yes, I do have some masochist reading tendencies. I read things my psyche loathes and rejects just for the pleasure of proving myself wrong – it was worth doing after all. It is never a blind shot, though. I knew Ernest can find gold in the sewer. Actually there is a fortune hidden there.
At this point you must be asking yourself “Heck, why am I reading this stupid review about a stupid story?” The answer is simple – because you are stupid and stupidity is humanity’s main feature – it needs to be addressed, documented and sublimated through art and literature. Mirrors are created by sewer gold-diggers like Hemingway, and it is your duty to appreciate the reflected image.
“He is one of those who, honestly and undauntedly, reproduces the genuine features of the hard countenance of the age” – From the Nobel Prize Citation.
Big game hunter
Give them some context, then, for Christ’s sake! Are these people so bloody vain and uninteresting, fallen from the sky as nonsensical parachutists?
Much has been speculated about the cryptic meanings of The Short Life of Francis Macomber since the story has an unexpected, weird denouement as if it had been cherry-picked from the “Twilight Zone” fruit farm.
Hemingway himself was an avid big game hunter, a distinctive feature for the 20th century America. In 1909, Teddy and Kermit Roosevelt went on their own safari in eastern Africa, killing more than 512 animals, including 17 lions, 29 zebras, 27 gazelles, 9 black and white monkeys, 8 hippopotami, 2 ostriches, a pelican and no less than 4 crocodiles – the expedition was actually billed as a conservation mission.
The hunting culture flourished in America as the leisure and sport of the elite, sparking the imperialist flame in its heart, in the image and likeness of the British Empire.
In the summer of 1933, Hemingway, his wife Pauline and a friend launched to Africa for a three-month safari, travelling through Kenya and Tanzania, inspired by the legendary hunts of Theodore Roosevelt. These adventures provided the material for the novel “Green Hills of Africa” and two short stories “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”.
The Man-Eaters’ Killer
But to what extent Hemingway’s personal safari experiences are reflected in the narrative of The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber?
The plot is actually an adaptation of a past major scandal for the hunting high society involving the legendary Colonel John Henry Patterson (November 10, 1867 – June 18, 1947).
Patterson became worldwide known after being commissioned, in 1898, by the British East Africa Company to oversee and coordinate the construction of a railway bridge over the Tsavo River in present-day Kenya – the Uganda-Mombasa Railway. Arriving there, he was confronted with an apparently insurmountable problem – railway workers were being attacked and eaten by lions.
Lions’ man-eating behaviour is considered very unusual and generally caused by the obvious human intervention in their natural habitat with practices that condition them to have humans as their primary food source ( unburied human remains and abandoned bodies left in a slave trade route through the area, in Tsavo’s specific case). A pair of rogue males was found to be responsible for many deaths amongst workers and locals, rendering the bridge construction impossible.
Patterson undertook an extensive effort to deal with the crisis and after months effectively killed the two lions. The story and his deed were immortalized in the book “The man-eaters of Tsavo and other East African Adventures”, which incited the imagination and gained the admiration of many hunters of his and other times, including Hemingway. Hollywood recently adapted it to the big screen casting Val Kilmer to play Patterson, exploiting the atmosphere of fear, suspense and reviving the malignant, supernatural features attributed to the lions by popular ignorance – The Ghost and The Darkness, 1996.
The scandal that allured Hemingway
In 1908, Patterson, now Chief Game Warden of the East Africa Protectorate, went on a hunting trip with a fellow British Army officer Audley James Blyth and his wife Ethel. Blyth mysteriously died in his tent due to a gunshot wound and his wife was reported running and screaming out of it immediately after the shooting.
When Patterson and Mrs. Blyth returned to Nairobi three and a half months later (the expedition continued after the fatality) they said that Mr. Blyth had contracted cranial malaria and accidentally shot himself in the head with a revolver, that they had buried him in the wilderness but could not remember the exact place of his grave.
African witnesses contradicted Patterson’s account of Blyth’s passing and revealed that the white hunter and the disaffected wife had sexual relations and shared the same tent after Blyth’s death.
“We saw the lady leave the sick man’s tent and go to Bwana Patterson’s tent and stayed there all night. In the morning she went back to her husband’s tent and directly she entered we heard a shot and the lady came running out and we found the European had shot himself in the mouth and the bullet had come out near his ear… After the death of the European, Bwana Patterson and the lady occupied one tent.”
Patterson was not officially charged, but informally accused of being morally implicated in Blyth’s death. The scandal led to his resignation and he was asked to never return to Kenya.
The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber
Now that the context is clarified we easily understand that Ernest’s short story is a moral accounting of Patterson’s real life scandal, but it is much more than this.
Hemingway’s characters (Francis and his wife Margot) are a wealthy, high society couple of Americans searching for a prestigious adventure in the African continent, typical of those who can pay serious money for it and bring the trophy home to be displayed as an exclusive animal skin rug on the marble floor or magnificent horns hanging on the walls of their luxurious mansion. Safaris have always conveyed this explicit message – the superiority of the white man and woman submitting nature and other humans (the natives) to the futility of their will.
Robert Wilson is the British white hunter, but on a commercial enterprise. There is a latent, dormant idealism and passion for nature in his soul, but above it there is the businessman who sells hunting expertise. He will not hesitate in sleeping with his clients and chasing helpless animals in motorcars to guarantee the best safari experience to his customers.
However, the best of literature always comes from relationship issues. In fact, Francis and Margot’s marital crisis takes the center of the stage. They have a marriage of convenience – she is a beautiful woman, he is a wealthy man. She does not leave him because of his money; he does not leave her because of fear, and she knows how to manipulate his emotions through criticism, disapproval and betrayal.
Hemingway’s narrative reaches a climax when Macomber makes it through his rite of passage. From a fearful boy he becomes a man.
Macomber’s face was shining. “You know something did happen to me,” he said. “I feel absolutely different.”
It had taken a strange chance of hunting, a sudden precipitation into action without opportunity for worrying beforehand, to bring this about with Macomber, but regardless of how it had happened it had most certainly happened. Look at the beggar now, Wilson thought. It’s that some of them stay little boys so long, Wilson thought. Sometimes all their lives. Their figures stay boyish when they’re fifty. The great American boy-men. Damned strange people. But he liked this Macomber now. Damned strange fellow. Probably meant the end of cuckoldry too. Well, that would be a damned good thing. Damned good thing. Beggar had probably been afraid all his life. Don’t know what started it. But over now. Hadn’t had time to be afraid with the buff. That and being angry too. Motor car too. Motor cars made it familiar. Be a damn fire eater now. He’d seen it in the war work the same way. More of a change than any loss of virginity. Fear gone like an operation. Something else grew in its place. Main thing a man had. Made him into a man. Women knew it too. No bloody fear.Ernest Hemingway in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber
As we know when braveness conquers cowardice the oppressor loses the whip. Before the tide turned Mrs. Macomber delivered her checkmate.
1. Ernest Hemingway. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Pharos Books Pvt. Ltd.. Kindle Edition.
2.John Henry Patterson – https://www.africahunting.com/threads/john-henry-patterson.2822/
3. Patterson – https://www.europeansineastafrica.co.uk/_site/custom/database/?a=viewIndividual&pid=2&person=1568