Fiction Poetry Life
In Ernest Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, Francis loses the respect of his wife. You get the sense that her respect for him has been dwindling for years. But an incident that occurs during a big game hunting trip in Africa makes the last bit of it dry up.
The question the story raises for me is, Is respect, once lost, recoverable? Particularly in a marriage.
I first read this story a little over ten years ago. At the time, I was single and would have said that if a marriage suffers a loss of respect on either side, it’s done. I’ve been married for five years, so I’m certainly not an expert on either marriage or the loss of respect in a marriage (my own marriage hasn’t suffered such a loss).
Still, the subject intrigues me now more than ever, probably because I read the story this time from the vantage point of marriage. And this time it struck me in a different way.
What Does R-E-S-P-E-C-T Mean?
Being angry at or disappointed with your mate is not the same as losing respect for him or her. The dictionary definition of respect is “A feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.”
Some synonyms are esteem, high opinion and honor. Feelings of this depth don’t wear off easily, certainly not because your husband isn’t handy around the house or your wife put on a little weight.
I did some lite web research on this topic. I found advice on psychology websites for marriage mates who’ve lost respect for one another. I also found some personal accounts. Interestingly, all the personal accounts were written by women. The main causes for loss of respect seemed to be 1) she made considerably more money than he did, 2) he lacked, in her eyes, the proper ambition to advance in his career, or 3) he’d made a bad financial move that costs the family the house, the car and many other belongings.
Are these women merely materialistic? Not really. All of the above scenarios create their own peculiar stresses. Living under stress for a long period of time can wear away patience, affection and respect. For some women, knowing their husband can provide for the family is what engenders respect. For some women though, other qualities and abilities, like being generous hearted or a good father, engender respect.
Do we respect and admire our mate only in so far as their abilities, qualities or achievements reflect well on us?
In the case of Francis Macomber, it seems that although his wealth and stature reflected well on his wife, those things weren’t enough. Here’s what happens after Francis shoots, but doesn’t kill, a lion, and Francis, the guide, Wilson, and the gun-bearers go to finish the lion off:
Kongoni, the old gun-bearer, in the lead watching the blood spoor, Wilson watching the grass for any movement, his big gun ready, the second gun-bearer looking ahead and listening, Macomber close to Wilson, his rifle cocked, they had just moved into the grass when Macomber heard the blood-choked coughing grunt, and saw the swishing rush in the grass. The next thing he knew he was running; running wildly, in panic in the open, running toward the stream.
With his wife looking on, Francis Macomber “had just shown himself, very publicly, to be a coward.”
Is It a Gender Thing?
Respect is important to both husbands and wives, but men in particular need and desire their mate’s respect. This makes sense, because Ephesians 5:33 tells us that “the wife should have deep respect for her husband.” That’s not to say that wives don’t value the respect of their husbands, we certainly do, but it is more a primary need for men.
The shame resulting from Francis Macomber’s act of self-preservation is so great that it engulfs not only Francis, but Margot Macomber too. Back at the camp, first she mocks him in front of Wilson, then she runs off to the tent sobbing, “I wish it hadn’t happened. Oh, I wish it hadn’t happened.” Margot may be more humiliated than Francis. Later, apparently to get back at Francis for his perceived cowardice, and maybe to show him how little he means to her now, she sleeps with Wilson. When Francis confronts her about it, she’s dismissive, belittling him even more.
Whether or not Margot should be ashamed of Francis is debatable. Is it unreasonable that an inexperienced hunter would run from an injured and angry wild animal twice his size when it leaps at him? Couldn’t it be laughed off later at the camp over a stiff drink? If Margot had had a different perspective on the whole event, she could have chided Francis about it a little, then soothed his bruised ego. The whole thing might have blown over.
Marriage is Work
I once asked a coworker how she liked being married. She said she liked it fine, but it was a lot of work. I remember thinking that marriage shouldn’t be work, it should be fun. I was still single at the time, and very naïve (read: ignorant). Marriage is a lot of work. But it’s the best kind of work.
Given time, every wounded marriage has hope, if neither partner gives up. Unfortunately, when Margot Macomber punishes her husband by sleeping with Wilson, she demonstrates to Francis that she’s given up on him, on their marriage, and tragedy soon follows.
As I said, I’m not expert on the subject, but I do think that respect is a feeling you can cultivate, even after it’s been damaged by the actions of your mate. In both your heart and mind, dwell on his best qualities, not his shortcomings. Then compliment him on those fine qualities – often. Let him know, through word and deed, that you respect him. Active demonstration of positive feelings like love and respect are incredibly beneficial to such a close and intimate relationship as a marriage.
To answer the question I started out with, yes, I believe respect, once lost, is recoverable. Especially in marriage. It may be a long road back to that “feeling of deep admiration,” but it’s a journey worth taking.
What do you think? In a marriage, if one partner loses respect for the other, can they get it back?