It is noon. Francis Macomber is on an African safari; Macomber is thirty-five years old, a trim, fit man who holds a number of big-game fishing records. However, at the moment, he has just demonstrated that he is a coward. However, members of the safari are acting as though "nothing had happened." The natives at camp carried Macomber into camp triumphantly, but the gun-bearers who witnessed Macomber's cowardice do not participate in the celebration.
In a flashback, the reader realizes that Macomber and his beautiful wife, Margot, are wealthy Americans, and that this jaunt is their first safari — and that Macomber, when faced with his first lion, bolted and fled, earning the contempt of his wife. Of course, though, she has been contemptuous of him for some time; Francis' running from the lion like a scared rabbit has only increased her dislike for her unmanly husband. She makes no secret of this as she slips off in the middle of the night for a rendezvous with the safari guide, Robert Wilson.
Next day, as she observes Francis gaining a measure of courage as he engages in a standoff with a charging water buffalo, she realizes that if Francis continues to prove himself strong and willful and courageous, he might leave her and rid himself forever of her sharp-tongued ridicule.
As the standoff with the second water buffalo becomes more intense as the water buffalo's horns inch closer and closer to goring Francis, Margot takes aim at the water buffalo, shooting Francis in the back of the head, and he dies at the most courageous moment of his "short happy life."
In the first part of this story, readers hear all sorts of things that have meaning only later in the story. For example, Margot points out that the face of Robert Wilson, the safari guide, is red (from too much sun); Francis Macomber replies that his face is also red; however, his is red from embarrassment. In contrast to the two men, Margo comments that her face is the one that is red today because of all the shame she feels for her husband.
Behind all of this talk about red faces, however, is the fact that after Francis' act of cowardice, Margot leans forward in their motor car and kisses Wilson while Macomber looks on. That night, Margot visits Wilson's tent and has sex with him. Interestingly, Hemingway points out that Wilson always carries a double-size cot for just such occasions as this one; obviously, Wilson is a womanizer and in a sense a prostitute.
In this story, the situation of the hunter and the hunted takes on far more significance than merely humans hunting for African lions and water buffaloes. Consider who is stalking whom in this story. Francis knows that Margot is stalking Wilson, and Wilson realizes that Francis knows who Margot's prey is. Francis Macomber even admits that he feels "beaten," defeated by this sexual safari, because when Wilson explains that he always gives the natives lashes rather than fine them, Macomber adds that "We all take a beating every day . . . one way or another."
Hemingway's sympathy in this story is not with the victim Macomber or the huntress Margo; instead, it is with Wilson. Hemingway admired men who were outsiders, who defied conventional morality and the so-called rules of society. Wilson makes his own rules: If he illegally lashes the natives, it is not because he's sadistic; he simply knows that they'd rather suffer than lose money. It's a simple exchange. Likewise, if he thinks he can bed a woman (or women) who hires him as a safari guide, he takes a double-wide cot on safari; he's not troubled that Francis knows that he is having sex with Margo. Wilson's code is the survival of the fittest, and initially, Francis Macomber proves that he is not fit — although Hemingway stresses at the beginning of this story that Macomber "looked" fit — tall, well-built, trim and healthy. The irony is unmistakable.
Wilson likewise does not abide by conventional rules for hunting game during safaris. Although there's a law against hunting game from vehicles, Wilson thinks that it's far more exciting and dangerous to chase game at high speed. He wants — and needs — the adrenaline rush of danger. Tracking game on foot is child's play.
Fully aware that he would face legal action were the officials in Nairobi to find out that he hunts from moving vehicles, Wilson defies the odds — until Macomber reveals how dangerous a "hunter" his wife, Margot, is: "Now she [Margot] has something on you." This revelation is important, because Margot knows that Macomber is a coward, and she also knows that Wilson is a flagrant lawbreaker. Were this a game of poker, she'd hold the winning hand. Thus Wilson knows that, somehow, he must regain the upper hand over Margo.
Wilson's attitude toward Francis Macomber fluctuates. When Macomber wants to leave the wounded lion, Wilson tells him that "it isn't done." Macomber has no personal code; he reacts rather than acts. Wilson is perplexed about Macomber's passive/aggressive behavior around his wife, but gaining dominance over Margot is exciting because she seems purposely cruel.
Wilson's flaw is his inability to perceive the psychological state of mind of his clients. In contrast, readers are absolutely aware that Macomber is extremely upset about displaying his cowardice; it began in the night, when he awoke and heard the old lion roaring and then couldn't get back to sleep. He was "afraid . . . [and] there was no one to tell he was afraid." Next morning, Margot recognizes that Macomber is upset, but he tells her simply that he's nervous because of the lion's roaring throughout the night.
Later, after Macomber wounds a lion, his innocence is pitted against the knowledge, experience, and codified values of Wilson. When Macomber discovers that they will have to confront the wounded lion, which is extremely dangerous, Macomber offers all kinds of excuses for not participating in the hunt. First he wonders if they can set the grass afire, but it is too green; then he suggests sending in the beaters, but Wilson says that suggestion is "just a touch murderous." Then Macomber suggests the gun-bearers, and Wilson points out that they have to go in — it's their duty; but he also adds that the beaters "don't look too happy." Significantly, he notices that Macomber is "trembling . . . [with] a pitiful look on his face."
As a last resort, Macomber suggests that they just leave the lion alone, and again Wilson tells him, "It isn't done." When the lion does attack, Macomber, in panic, bolts and runs for the river while the others kill the lion and look at Macomber with contempt. Thus Macomber's cowardice in this scene is the central motivating force for the entire story.
On the way back to camp, Macomber is immediately relegated to the back seat of the motor car even though, on the way out to the bush, he had occupied the front seat. Hemingway is very careful with these details so that he can fully explore the depths to which Macomber has sunk.
Making his embarrassed cowardice even more painful, Macomber watches as Margot reaches forward and puts her hand on Wilson's shoulder, then kisses him on the mouth, calling him "the beautiful red-faced Mr. Wilson." Margot dominates Macomber in this scene, revealing Macomber's enormous cowardice and defeat. The fact that he cannot control his wife's behavior foreshadows what will happen that night when Margot leaves their tent to go to Wilson's tent for the night.
After Margot returns from having sex with Wilson, readers learn about the basis for her marriage to Francis. She is too beautiful for Francis to divorce her, and Francis has too much money for her to ever leave him. Francis confronts her when she returns to their tent, calling her a bitch. She says simply, "Well, you're a coward."
When Macomber reminds Margot that there "wasn't to be any of that. You promised there wouldn't be," we realize that this infidelity has been going on for a long time. Earlier, in years past, Macomber had learned to live with his wife's infidelity, but here, on safari, Margo's sexual betrayal is so open and performed in such defiance because she wants Macomber to know how very much his cowardice has changed everything. And Margot will continue to press her advantage until the end — when she realizes that Macomber is gaining courage and a strong sense of his own manhood.
Much of the genius and brilliance of this story is seen in its careful, technical structuring. The scene that focuses on the shooting and wounding of the lion and Macomber's "bolting like a coward" is paralleled with the scene of the shooting and wounding of the water buffalo. In both cases, Wilson and Macomber and the gunbearers are expected to go in and finish off the wounded animal. In the first scene, Macomber bolts; in the second, he stands his ground and proves his courage.
At first, Margo is ashamed of her husband and uses his cowardice to control and intimidate him; she uses her new-gained control over him to justify her having sex with Wilson and also to remind Macomber that he is a coward. She taunts him in other ways as well; for example, when Macomber says of Wilson, "I hate that red-faced swine. . . . I loathe the sight of him," Margot snidely replies, "He's really very nice." Macomber's dislike stems from the fact that after he asked Wilson if he slept well, Wilson's answer — "Topping!" — infuriates Macomber.
In the last part of the story, an enormous metamorphosis occurs within Macomber, and also within Margot. Seeing the water buffalo, Macomber shoots and Wilson congratulates him on his fine shooting: "You shot damn well." This scene marks the beginning of the tremendous change in Macomber, and he himself feels it happen. In all of his life, he has never felt so good. In contrast, Margot sits "very white faced." She recognizes that Macomber is changing, and she fears this change.
When it's discovered that the first bull water buffalo limped into the bush, Margot is elated, believing that it's going to burst out "just like the lion" and anticipating that Macomber will again "bolt." Wilson, however, has also noticed the change in Macomber and tells Margot that what's going to happen won't "be a damned bit like the lion."
Macomber himself, in truth, had expected the fear to return when the buffalo retreated into the bush, but instead, he realizes that for the first time in his life, he is wholly without fear. Instead of fear, he has a feeling of elation. Even Wilson acknowledges that the day before, Macomber was scared sick, but not anymore; now he is a "ruddy fire eater."
It is Margo who is ill; scared sick, as it were. Whereas she loved the lion hunt, here we have the same situation, but now Macomber finds it marvelous, and it is Margo who screams, "I hate it." Earlier she had looked forward to this hunt because she assumed that Macomber would show his cowardice again. Now she hates it because she realizes that she's losing psychological control over Macomber. Although Margot's marriage to Macomber is based on money, she values her psychological control and power over Macomber as much as she values his money. She certainly knows that if Macomber realizes his strong sense of manhood finally, he will have the strength and courage to leave her — and go hunting for other, younger beauties, because although the story explicitly states that she is still beautiful, she is not as beautiful as she once was.
By now, Wilson fully sympathizes with Macomber. When Macomber says that he will never be afraid of anything again, he tells Wilson that something happened after they first saw the buffalo. It was, he says, "like a dam bursting . . . pure excitement." Wilson realizes that Macomber has definitely undergone a change; he has watched grown men "come of age" in the plains of Africa before.
Macomber has passed and excelled at his initiation into manhood, into the world of courage. And Margo is afraid, "very afraid of something." She tries to taunt him, but he ignores her and becomes almost oblivious to her existence. She now knows that he has found his sense of manhood and that his future does not include her because he can change, and perhaps she cannot.
The short, happy life of Francis Macomber begins with his standing solid and shooting for the water buffalo's nose and the heavy horns, "splintering and chipping them" — and then he himself is killed — killed by Margot. His short, happy life lasts for only a second or two, but he dies as master of his own life.
Wilson believes that Margot intentionally shoots her husband, and he makes it quite clear that he knows, boasting that had he lived, Macomber would have left her. He even taunts her with "Why didn't you poison him? That's what they do in England."
One question remains: Because Wilson had become excited about Macomber's new sense of manhood, why does he now seem willing to forget all about her murdering Macomber?
We must remember that Wilson, although he has his own strict code of behavior for safaris and hunting and for his personal conduct, does not adhere to the laws of society. He whips natives, he allows clients to shoot from fast-moving vehicles, and he beds clients' wives. If he were to report that the death of Macomber was not an accident, there would have to be an extensive investigation in which all sorts of hunting code violations would be open for investigation, and Wilson could very possibly lose his license.
After all, as Macomber noted earlier, Margot has "something" on Wilson; he knows that he flagrantly disregards laws concerning safari hunts. Thus Wilson has reason to fear Margot, and the only way he can checkmate her is to have "something" on her — her killing of Macomber.
Of all of Hemingway's short stories, this one captures Hemingway's genius for combining exciting subject matter (the great game hunt) with death. Additionally, he has written an initiation story about a man who had never had his courage tested and who had never discovered a sense of manhood until he was thirty-five years old. The story is brilliantly narrated and filled with many ironies and parallels. It not only ranks with the very best of Hemingway's short stories but also with the best American short stories ever written.
gimlet a popular British colonial drink made from gin and lime juice. Originally it was believed that gimlets were good for staving off scurvy. Since then it has become a popular American drink and is often made with vodka and lime juice.
quid slang for the British pound, a currency that — at the time of this story — was worth approximately five dollars.
court games squash, handball, and other games played in exclusive men's clubs.
giant killer liquor; in this case, Scotch whiskey.
Swahili the so-called "lingua franca," or universal language used through South Central Africa — Kenya, Zaire, Tanzania, Zanzibar, and along the trading coast. Swahili is a mixture of native dialects (principally Bantu) with some Hindi, German, French and English added to it.
Mathiaga Club a big game hunters club in Nairobi, Kenya. White hunters are professional hunters/guides who arrange and accompany clients on big game hunts, or safaris.
buffalo the buffalo mentioned in this story is nothing like the American buffalo, or bison. The Cape Buffalo is a large, horned creature that is considered by hunters to be the most dangerous of all African big game. It is mean and cunning and extremely strong, invulnerable to all but the best-placed shots.
impala a type of antelope that makes prodigious leaps to see if enemies are near. It is very similar to the eland antelope.
kippers and coffee the British are fond of kippered herring — brine-soaked and smoked filets of fish, served most often for breakfast.
.505 Gibbs a very large caliber hunting rifle. While his clients may use smaller guns, a safari guide must carry a sure killer in case the amateur misses and he must make the kill at the last moment — as in the case of Macomber and the lion.
gut shot a shot into the stomach of an animal.
Memsahib "Lady" in Swahili; a title of respect derived from a Hindu word.
Bwana "Mister" or "Master"; a term of respect.
windy British slang for "nervous."
Martin Johnson an American hunter and motion picture producer who made many films about big game hunts.
mosquito bar a net on a bar hung over a cot to keep out insects, particularly mosquitoes.
beggar the word Hemingway originally used was "bugger," a derogatory British term for someone or something disagreeable; however, the term is also synonymous with a sodomite, which was distasteful to Hemingway's editor — thus his substitution of "beggar." Remember that this story was originally published in 1936; today, in the United States, we casually use the term "bastard" with the same non-literal frequency.
Mannlicher an expensive German hunting rifle.
wireless British for "radio."