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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Several themes in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber

The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber is a relatively late Ernest Hemingway short story - meaning written and published in the 30s and not the 20s - his tremendously influential torrent of short stories all came forth within roughly a decade, with just a few to follow late in life, and those I think pretty much commercial efforts - and though clearly one of his best stories it's not typical of his work: whereas the earlier stories tended to highly compressed and focused on a single moment, not a narrative arc but a narrative jolt, Short Happy is far more conventional, and quite long for EH as well. FM and his wife are on a hunting safari; the only other speaking character is their hunter guide, a white hunter Robert Wilson (possibly a S. African?). EH of course knows how to put the "bone in the throat" so the story begins rather than builds toward a moment of crisis: Fm is returning from a lion hunt and the African servants and gun bearers celebrate his killing of his first lion but we learn immediately that it's a sham and that FM is mortified that he showed himself to be a coward during the hunt; he knocked the lion down with a gut shot and then panicked when Wilson and the servants led him toward the lion for the kill. He's humiliated, especially in front of his cold and cynical wife. Making matters worse, she sneaks off into Wilson's cot in the middle of the night, leading to one of the most tense breakfasts in literary history the next day. They go off to shoot buffalo (this is an African species with big bull-like horns, pretty dangerous apparently), and FM shoots well and becomes "happy" - an suddenly brave; in the final moments, as he takes aim at a charging buffalo, his wife, watching from their car (they shouldn't be chasing buffalo using a car) takes a shot - whether to protect him or not is left open - and shoots him dead. In the "short happy" of the title, short modifies happy - only a short part of his life was happy, that is. Aside from terrific writing about big-game hunting, Hemingway at his best as a craftsman here, no matter what your thoughts are about hunting you do understand it from the hunter's (and the prey's) POV  after reading this, it's also obviously a story about sexual rivalry - the male pecking order is much like the law of the jungle, is the obvious message - but also about colonialism and racism: the black servants and gun bearers are treated horribly (whipped for screwing up orders, and they'd rather be whipped than lose a day's pay), about exploitation of the land and the fauna - it's impossible not to read this without some sympathy for the animals and contempt for the trophy hunting and blood lust of the hunters - an early "environmental" story, whether Hemingway wanted it to be so or not.

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