"She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not:" the Short Happy Symbiotic Marriage of Margot and Francis Macomber

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"What does a woman want?" is a question Freud asked, but never was able to answer and literary critics have often focused their critiques of "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" on the very same question with similar results. Their main strategy has most often been to unravel the Macomber conundrum by applying an either/or solution. Margot either fired her rifle to saver her husband's life from the charging buffalo or she took advantage of the opportunity to become a "respectable" widow and murdered him. And, quite predictably, much criticism has often laid the blame for the bloody ending of the story squarely on the shoulders of Margot Macomber.' Thus, H. H. Bell, Jr., for example, perpetuates the anti-woman position of the tale by viewing Margot as "something [not someone!] akin to a lioness" (78). Bell notes that the narrator describes Margot as "hard," "cruel," and predatory." Therefore, Wilson's treatment of Margot at the story's conclusion is what one would expect from a professional hunter dealing with a dangerous, wild beast, i.e., Margot Macomber. Despite or because of the animal imagery, Bell brands Margot a murderer, and she is, in turn, destroyed by Wilson who "kills" her by "killing her spirit" and making her beg for his help in avoiding a scandal.

Nina Baym finds a more appealing use of the lion metaphor in a manner diametrically opposed to Bell. "Actually I Felt Sorry for the Lion," is surely one of the finest attempts to portray Margot as neither American "bitch" nor murderer. Yet by analyzing the section of the text with lion as focalizer, and creating a bond between the beast and Margot, Baym argues, in effect, that Margot is innocent because she herself is as much a victim of macho cruelty as is the lion. Both have been hunted down by the great white hunters: one, Francis, her husband, is a master gamester of the western capitalist world, while the other, Wilson, sees himself and perhaps is master of the "heart of darkness." In the last analysis, Baym claims, Margot did not "shoot to kill" but rather "to save her husband" (113). But perhaps Baym's most important contribution, one which I would like to fortify in a "both/and" rather than "either/or manner," is that Hemingway need not be branded a misogynist if Margot emerges from the story without having murdered her husband.

Baym suggests convincingly that the standard view of Hemingway's work, in its treatment of women, has much to do with the way critics have read this story: "Hemingway's fiction casts all but the most passive, submissive, and silent women as corrupting or destructive. Only when women accept their 'place' as a lower order of being than men, rightly assigned the functions of waiting on them when they are around and waiting for them when they are elsewhere, do they win authorial approval" (112). And whatever else might be said about Margot, we know that she is as far removed from Saint Paul's edict to be silent and submissive as is Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises. Thus both characters become the prototype for Hemingway's American "bitch."

What makes a reinterpretation of this story especially difficult, however, is the author himself and the way he is portrayed by his biographer, Carlos Baker. Simply put, Baker and Hemingway deserve a lot of the credit for the criticism that has perpetuated Margot's image as "bitch." Baker claims Margot's character was based on a "real" woman they both knew: "Macomber's wife, Margot, [in addition to Francis] was also invented from a living prototype. Handsome, well-kept, a society beauty with a nearly perfect oval face and a wealth of dark hair, she embodied all the internal qualities that Ernest detested among the wives of his wealthier friends" (Baker 344). And Hemingway adds to this description in his own words: "'I invented her complete with handles,' said he, 'from the worst bitch I knew [then] and when I first knew her she'd been lovely. Not my dish, not my pigeon, not my cup of tea, but lovely for what she was, and I was her all of the above, which is whatever you make of it"' (344). …