In the story by Ernest Hemingway, the setting is Africa, where Margot and Francis Macomber have hired the English guide Robert Wilson to take them on a big-game hunt. The Macomber marriage is on shaky ground, but “Margot was too beautiful for Macomber to divorce her and Macomber had too much money for Margot ever to leave him.” The narrative begins at lunch, after Francis has shown himself to be a coward by running from a wounded lion. The narrative flashes back through Francis’s memory of the lion hunt and even into the lion’s sensibility, showing the hunt from the lion’s point of view.
The next scene occurs early the following morning, when Francis encounters Margot returning to their tent after a presumably sexual interlude with Wilson, who carries a double cot for just such occasions. The next morning all three characters go out in a car to hunt buffalo. Macomber bags his buffalo and begins to feel good about himself, as his cheerful, confident behavior clearly indicates. Wilson sees the change in him. Margot is discomfitted by the whole episode. When a wounded bull charges them, Macomber stands his ground to shoot him but is killed by his wife when she shoots at the buffalo “with the 6.5 Mannlicher as it seemed about to gore Macomber.” Wilson seems to accuse Margot of murdering her husband, asking, “Why didn’t you poison him? That’s what they do in England.” But he also assures her that he and the gun bearers will testify that it was an accident.
A central theme is the importance of courage. Wilson quotes Shakespeare: “A man can die but once; we owe God a death and let it go which way it will; he that dies this year is quit for the next.” The implication of these lines fits into the Hemingway code: Since a man has only one chance to face death, he should do so with dignity and grace. Hemingway’s title indicates that without courage a man is less than a man. In that “short” period preceding Macomber’s death, he has behaved courageously and become a man. Therefore, he is “happy.” Wilson, however, categorizes Francis as a soft, great American boy-man. Wilson’s manly character, in contrast to his description of Macomber’s, is outwardly that of a man who fearlessly and competently kills the game he pursues. Yet he is more predator than gallant hunter, cuckolding Francis and then describing his conquest, Margot, as hard, cruel, and dominating. In Macomber and Wilson, Hemingway embodies two definitions of male behavior.
Only one character, however, represents female behavior. Did Margot Macomber shoot her husband on purpose because she feared losing him, given his newfound self-assurance, or was she trying to save his life, accidentally hitting him as she shot at the charging buffalo? Controversy has raged since the story was first published in Cosmopolitan magazine in September 1936, not unaided by the author himself, who wrote: “No, I don’t know whether she shot him on purpose any more than you do.” “Macomber” is a highly elusive text, open to endless reinterpretations, the most recent informed by both a heightened environmentalism, which views big-game hunting in an unfavorable light, and by feminist criticism, which is mindful of sexist standards in the evaluation of women’s behavior.
Baym, Nina. “Actually, I Felt Sorry for the Lion.” In New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, edited by Jackson J. Benson, 112–120. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.