By my troth, I care not; a man can die but once: we
owe God a death: I’ll ne’er bear a base mind:
an’t be my destiny, so; an’t be not, so: no man is
too good to serve’s prince; and let it go which way
it will, he that dies this year is quit for the next.
–Henry IV, Part 2
Ernest Hemingway is know for several prominent traits: his overt masculinity, his love for big game hunting, and his severely economic writing style. In fact, he is so known for these traits that his writing and legacy are in constant danger of becoming a parody of itself, a concept played to great effect in Midnight in Paris.
To me the greatness of Hemingway’s style is that he is able to convey the depths of human emotion through the barest of text. In his wisp-of-a-story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” Hemingway is able to bring the full emotional complexity of a difficult decision to bare in what works out to be hardly more than 40 minutes of conversation. That emotional weight also comes to bare in the subtle and touching end to The Sun Also Rises. It’s in stories like those that Hemingway shows himself to be more of a humanist than a lot of his critics give him credit for.
Enter “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” Hemingway’s most Hemingway’ed story ever. Published in 1936, “The Short, Happy Life” is as full of about as much testosterone as you could wish. At it’s heart, the story is a detailed look at the making and unmaking of a coward, the worst thing a man can be. Hemingway makes no bones about the fact that Francis Macomber, a “very tall, very well built” man “had just shown himself, very publicly, to be a coward.” It becomes clear that Macomber’s actions when faced with the onslaught of a wounded lion are bad, but that is hardly his worst sin. No, that distinction is left to the fact that his wife, Margot, is watching the entire episode.
It’s with that distinction that the meat of Hemingway’s fear becomes apparent; it’s not being a coward that’s the issue, or even the fear of death at the hands of an angry lion. It’s the fear of being shown a coward in front of a woman. One of the things I find most interesting about this story is how Hemingway defines the masculine ideal as one that is constantly filtered through the female gaze. For Francis, the physical reality of his cowardice is bad, but the fact that Margot is witness to his act is far worse. It’s with a story such as “Short, Happy Life” that some of Hemingway’s criticisms begin to gain some traction. We begin to see Margot as the interloper, “a nuisance on safari” that causes more harm than good. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Francis’ embarrassment stems less from his actions and more from the way in which his wife perceives his actions. While Wilson, the hunting guide, would just as soon let the encounter go without mention, Margot’s constant needling of Francis in effect, emasculates her husband. It certainly doesn’t help that Hemingway sets up Robert Wilson, the white hunting guide, as a stark contrast to Francis. Wilson, with his “big brown hands, his old slacks, his very dirty boots,” is clearly set as the standard for what constitutes a man on the plains of Africa.
It’s only through several acts of violence that Francis is able to regain his courage and, in a sense, reinvent himself as a man in a way that he has been unable to thus far. It is a change that Wilson grudgingly respects and Margot seems to fear. For Hemingway, however, it seems as if the natural order has been restored, even if for only a short while. Perhaps then Francis’ shocking death is a blessing as he will never feel more elated than the moment before he is killed. For, as Albert Camus wrote, “in order to exist just once in the world, it is necessary never again to exist.”