(Short Story) Beginnings

Critical Essay 1: Beginnings

One of the areas I have received comments on in the residency workshop and at my graduate assistant manuscript review, on two different pieces of short fiction, is to do a better job of foreshadowing and/or introducing the action and/or conflict earlier in the story. I think Ernest Hemingway does this extremely well in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” By analyzing the opening of “Short Happy Life,” I hope to apply these proven methods and techniques, and improve my writing and my creative work.

Hemingway’s “Short Happy Life” starts like this:

It was now lunchtime and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened (p. 5).

This sentence is interesting (which makes me want to read more), suggests future action and conflict, and poses several questions that hint at larger thematic elements. Without knowing anything about the rest of the story at this point, we are given many suggestions of what is to come.

“It was now lunchtime” – We know that time has passed since the beginning of the story, and we are “late coming to it.” Maybe one of the characters will be “late coming to it,” too – whatever it is. We also know that it is now “lunchtime,” which means it is the middle of the day, not the end or the beginning of the day, so there is time left, perhaps, to resolve the issue, whatever it might be. It is “lunchtime,” which tells us (1) food might be important (or love, if we apply the Freudian/Jungian archetype), and (2) we are at rest at this point, which means we are not in action, so perhaps the mood is restful now, or perhaps we have had an active morning and are resting, being comtemplative, “needing nourishment,” “replenishing food” now. We are also signaled that time is not going to be chronological in this story – there is going to be “purposeful confusion,” if you will; the author/story is going to unveil the story to us in a different chronology, and perhaps at a different pace than we are accustomed to.

“…and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent”: We know from this phrase that there is more than one person involved. We are “sitting,” which again signals repose and rest, not action like we might expect – which creates a sort of tension on its own. “Under” – the participants are protected by something (the tent flap), but also we are below versus on or above, so we know something a little dark and sinister is afoot, perhaps. Another tension-building device. What are we under? “the double green fly of the dining tent” – another archtype, green, signaling us that this story is going to be about life, and implied its opposite, death – and beyond that, “bigger/larger than life or death” – it’s a double-sized fly. Or, it’s about one or more “double lives?” As we learn later, Francis (and maybe Margot?) has or will have a double life of sorts, the one they lead in “civilization,” and the one they lead here on safari. Or solely in Macomber’s place, the life he leads before coming of age, and the life he leads after. “The dining tent” is another sign (like “lunchtime” earlier) that the story is about consuming food/love, and/or replenishing food/love. We also encounter the theme of protection again. We vaguely know who needs to be protected (“they”), but we don’t yet know from what or whom they need protection. As it turns out, of course, Macomber needed a form of protection from Margot that he didn’t get, even tho he gained another form of “protection,” ie his manhood and independence.

“…and pretending that nothing had happened.” Now we’re hooked. The participants are “pretending,” which suggests “games” and brings to mind “play,” which suggests childhood and youth and games and perhaps the innocence and rules associated with these. The word also suggests a play on the noun “game,” which is a key to the natural world that is Africa and the object of the safari – in other words, the story may be about the pursuit of game as animals to be hunted, as on safari, and/or about the pursuit of the natural life, either to obtain/possess it or kill it. But “pretending” also suggests something less than the full truth, bringing honesty into play, which is yet another device Hemingway is using to create tension. “Pretending” also suggests “not natural” and “artificial construct,” which in the context of Hemingway and the story so far suggests the inherent conflict between the jungle and society, the jungle being “natural order, truth, a natural chaos,” society being “pretentious, perhaps false, at minimum less than natural.” “Nothing” is both a “content” word and a “substance” word. Either there is nothing there, literally no-thing to deal with, or, because we are pretending after all, it is perhaps the opposite, ie something will happen that means everything, that is of the utmost importance. “Had happened” gives us another time reference, and tells us that some event of great importance the narrator isn’t telling us about yet has already occurred in the past.

So – a very close reading of the first sentence of “The Short Happy Life of Francs Macomber” gives us crucial hints as to what we will be encountering, and what the author’s message of the story is about: literal events like camping, travel, tents and such, and big universal themes like love, life and death, and truth.

Furthermore, the writing style through which the author gives us these hints is deceptively simple – short words, prepositional phrases strung together, nothing complex on the surface, a single sentence. So we know we are in for “more than is on the surface.” And of course we know we’re on a literary roller-coaster ride because our clock, our “story time,” is either not what it seems to be and/or is out of sequence. These technical elements establish, maintain and support a tension and conflict that Hemingway purposefully creates because it is central to his vision of “truth” and “reality.” All elements of his story-telling work together on us, consciously and subconsciously, to support his greater themes.

If this conclusion is true, of course, Hemingway would not let something as significant as his title be wasted. And it is not. “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” – Why is it a short life instead of a long life? (“Short” also suggests diminutive size and stature as well as a time-frame reference.) What makes the character’s life “happy” – what was missing before? What is “happiness?” What does the story have to offer about “life,” living, about life and perhaps death itself? “Francis” – a boy’s name or a girl’s name? A male name or a female name? Confusion? Macomber – Celtic, lyrical, poetic, rolls off the tongue. Finally: what can I the reader learn from such a story – can I learn to be happy too, and live a long happy life for myself, unlike the short happy life of Francis Macomber?

Hemingway’s beginnings, especially this one, are indeed rich. I can learn from this example that literally every word of my short stories, beginning with the titles, is absolutely essential to the themes I want to project, to the truth(s) I want to portray. The beginning is an opportunity I don’t want to and can’t afford to waste. I think it also shows that Hemingway didn’t just start writing – the careful placement and choice of these words no doubt took him hours and hours if not days and weeks or longer. Finally, I think this analysis suggests that, while I may start a story with a beginning just to get started in the draft and capture the essence of my thoughts, the opening and title are perhaps written AFTER the rest of the story so that you can look at the themes that actually DID come out in your story and come up with the best opening and title.

Hemingway set the bar high with the opening of “Short Happy Life.” It would still be a very good story with a weaker beginning, but it is a great story because of the title and opening sentence. I can learn much from Hemingway’s efforts and make a conscious effort to make my own story beginnings better.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. The FincaVigia Collection. Scribner, Simon and Shuster: New York: 1987.

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