In this paper I will discuss the theme of heroism in Hemingway’s “The short happy life of Francis Macomber”. Heroism is a quite intangible virtue because it can be hardly characterised in general, usually it has to be in connection with an action. Action is typically a basis of Hemingway’s novels, they are built upon a man of action rather than a man of theory. A fearless man of action is the exact definition of a Hemingway hero.
The story is placed in the African safari and there are three main characters in the centre of attention. Robert Wilson is a professional hunter who earns a living by hunting wild safari animals for wealthy but amateur hunter men. Wilson is self-confident, insensitive and a typical man of action. His “flat, blue, machine gunner’s eyes” (p. 8) also suggests his dominance. On the other hand, the main character, Francis Macomber is a coward, an introverted thinker who lacks self-esteem. He is full of fear as Hemingway illustrates: “The fear was still there like a cold, slimy hollow in all the emptiness where once his confidence had been and it made him feel sick.” (p. 11) He does not seem to conform to the concept of a Hemingway hero. It is quite meaningful that he is despised by his own wife, Margaret Macomber, who openly cheats on him with Wilson. She thinks he is too afraid to leave her because he will not find any other women besides her. Margot is clearly labelled as “a bitch” (p. 22) by her husband after spending the night with Wilson. But despite his conviction Francis is not man enough to make any physical efforts in punishing his wife or Wilson so he gets the label “laddybuck” from Wilson referring to his cowardice.
According to Hemingway when it comes to the virtue of heroism the concept of death is essential. He thought it important to place his characters in a situation where there is a danger of death. In “The short happy life of Francis Macomber” we can see that confronting death is an essential part in a man’s life to become a real man. In the presence of death a man’s qualities and manhood are tested and this is what we can observe throughout this short story. In the beginning when they hunt for the lion Francis runs like a coward, Wilson is the one who acts in a brave manner and eventually kills the lion. Macomber faces the danger but his fear is proved to be stronger than his confidence and courage. He is frightened and runs away from the situation in a cowardly way in front of his wife. Hemingway effectively uses metaphors to emphasize the characteristics of the personalities. He identifies the human characters with animals. Macomber has the rabbit-hare metaphor which refers to his cowardice. His rabbit-like behaviour is clearly in contrast with the bravery and determination of the lion that is fighting until the end. While Macomber has “softened and gone to pieces nervously” (p. 8) the lion is described as “all of him, pain, sickness, hatred and all of his remaining strength, was tightening into an absolute concentration for a rush” (p. 19) Margot does not have a concrete identification with an animal but her “American female cruelty” (p. 9) in Wilson’s eyes is described by the following: “the hardest in the world: the hardest, the cruelest, the most predatory and the most attractive” (p. 8). This somehow foreshadows the tragic end. In the end Macomber changes. When they are going to hunt for the buffalo Francis becomes a man equal to Wilson. He finally proves to be a true Hemingway hero. He acts like a man determined to kill the bulls and does not care for fear. He succeeds to block his fear of death because he only concentrates on killing the bulls, all he feels is pure excitement. It is a sudden action so he does not have the opportunity to worry beforehand. He feels a “drunken elation” (p. 23) and his face is shining after his success. He knows that something has happened to him because he feels different. He says with great determination to Wilson that “You know I don’t think I’d ever be afraid of anything again” (p. 25). He even wants to confront with his great fear again and try to hunt another lion. It may seem strange that someone changes so fast. In fact it can be interpreted as an awakening to consciousness. He was just coasting along without self-esteem in his whole life not finding happiness, enthusiasm and his manhood. But killing the first buffalo is a real breakthrough in his life by which he becomes a self-conscious, independent man who finally really lives. His inner change does not seem to affect his wife at all, she only reacts with a strange look. This is the point when Wilson starts to like Francis and adds “cleans out of your liver…damn funny things happen to people” (p. 25). He further tells his opinion about American men: “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” (p. 25−26). Macomber goes through a life-changing personal development and acquires self-confidence. We can see how his personality changes from coward to courageous, from boyish to heroic. We can also observe his character’s metaphoric changes from rabbit and “laddybuck” to lion, bull. In Wilson’s eyes he becomes “a ruddy fire-eater” (p. 31) which brings Macomber closer to both the “red-faced Mr. Wilson” and the lion. He becomes equal in courage and manhood to Wilson, the lion and the buffalo he has killed. He is born into his “short, happy life” because that is when he really starts to live. But his happy and heroic life is already near to its end. Something foreshadowed his tragic death. Wilson promises at the beginning of the story: “You know in Africa no woman ever misses her lion” (p. 7). This sentence is meaningful and predicts Francis Macomber’s fate. After killing the buffalo, the hunter actually becomes the hunted. By Margaret Macomber’s hands he is hit “two inches up and a little to one side of the base of his skull” (p. 36) similarly as Francis himself “aimed carefully at the centre of the huge, jerking, rage-driven neck and shot” (p. 29). In spite of their disparagement towards each other, it does not seem to be a wilful murder considering that Margot cannot stop crying for Wilson to stop being insensitive.