Thoughts on Fear

One of my goals in deleting Facebook a little over a week ago was to use the time I previously spent on Facebook to write more. Unfortunately, the power cord to my computer broke, and I was unable to post  here until my new cord arrived in the mail today. However, I did manage to put my time to good use, reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Orwell’s 1984. And while I’m glad to have taken a step closer to literacy by perusing two books that have contributed so much to thought and conversation, neither book impacted me as much as a 23-page short story that I re-read this week, and have read several times in the past: Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”

The fact that Francis Macomber dies is of no more import than the fact that Winston Smith lives–Macomber experiences more of life in his few minutes of manhood than Winston does in his entire existence. And the victory over himself that Macomber achieves is far more worthwhile and laudable than the victory over himself that Winston Smith achieves.

I also find it interesting that in a story published in a woman’s magazine (Cosmopolitan) in 1936, Hemingway identifies an issue that has become prominent in American social commentary as of late–the self-neutering of American masculinity. The people who seem the most disturbed by this trend are not the men themselves, but women. Women write articles in the Wall Street Journal asking where the good men have gone, and before I deleted Facebook I noticed an amazingly large proportion of my female friends “liked” a website called The Art of Manliness, which is a men’s website dedicated to reviving traditional manliness–everything from being handy around the house, to taking the initiative in dating and relationships, to chivalry. And while the term boy-man is often used in these bemoanings, it is always presented as a relatively recent phenomenon. It is interesting then, to see that Hemingway used the same term in 1936.

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. Damned strange people. But he liked this Macomber now. Damned strange fellow. Probably meant the end of cuckoldry too. Well, that would be a damned good thing. Damned good thing. Beggar had probably been afraid all his life. Don’t know what started it. But over now…. Be a damn fire eater now. He’d seen it in the war work the same way. More of a change than any loss of virginity. Fear gone like an operation. Something else grew in its place. Main thing a man had. Made him into a man. Women knew it too. No bloody fear.

Macomber hated being a cuckold. However, up until this point, his wife consistently takes advantage of him because he is afraid of her. That fear makes him not quite a man, but it also makes him manipulable. When he loses his fear, when he becomes truly a man, it scares his wife because she knows that she will no longer be able to take advantage of him and control him. 

“You’re both talking rot,” said Margot. “Just because you’ve chased some helpless animals in a motor car you talk like heroes. “Sorry,” said Wilson. “I have been gassing too much.” She’s worried about it already, he thought. “If you don’t know what we’re talking about why not keep out of it?” Macomber asked his wife. “You’ve gotten awfully brave, awfully suddenly,” his wife said contemptuously, but her contempt was not secure. She was very afraid of something. Macomber laughed, a very natural hearty laugh. “You know I have,” he said. “I really have.”“Isn’t it sort of late?” Margot said bitterly. Because she had done the best she could for many years back and the way they were together now was no one person’s fault. “Not for me,” said Macomber.

Fear is the ultimate emasculator. Francis Macomber conquered fear, and though he died, he died a man. Winston Smith, on the other hand, was conquered by fear in Room 101–if not before–and though he lived, he lived as less than a man. It is better to be unafraid in death than afraid in life. In the words of Shakespeare’s Francis Feeble, as quoted by Hemingway’s Robert Wilson, “By my troth, I care not; 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. “

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