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Black Beauty | Study Guide

Anna Sewell

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Black Beauty | Context


Anthropomorphic Fantasy

Black Beauty is an anthropomorphic fantasy novel, which takes the concept of talking animals to a new level. In fact, Anna Sewell effectively created the subgenre. Anthropomorphism is the giving of human characteristics to nonhumans. It is similar to personification, a literary device in which authors attribute human traits or actions to nonhuman things—for example, "the scowling sky." Anthropomorphism, however, makes nonhuman characters behave as if they were fully human. The wolf in "Little Red Riding Hood" or the title characters in "The Tortoise and the Hare" are anthropomorphized.

Although anthropomorphized animals had appeared in fables and fairy tales, and even in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Sewell was one of the first writers to center an entire novel around them. She termed her work an "animal autobiography." Yet Beauty and his fellow horses are not fully anthropomorphized. They do not wear clothes, speak with humans, or have their own society as Kenneth Grahame's characters do later in The Wind in the Willows (1908), but they do have humanlike thoughts and feelings, which they express to each other.

Anthropomorphized animals may seem particularly sympathetic, especially for young readers who are still developing the ability to empathize. And to gain more sympathy for the horses, Sewell used first-person narration to bring her readers deep inside the horse's experience. Both first-person narration and anthropomorphism serve Sewell's primary objective: advocating for better treatment of horses.

Although Sewell did not intend to write a book solely for children, most 19th- and early 20th-century novels with anthropomorphized main characters would be classified as children's books. This classification began to change with George Orwell's novel Animal Farm (1945), which uses anthropomorphized animals for satiric commentary. Although some modern adult novels, such as Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain (2008), use anthropomorphized animals as narrators, the majority of "talking animal" books are still written for children. Classics of this genre include Stuart Little (1945), Charlotte's Web (1952), The Cricket in Times Square (1960), and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971).

Society in Victorian England

Social structure was well defined in Victorian England. As had been true for centuries, the nobles, like the earl who owns Black Beauty for a time, held the most power. The aristocracy and wealthy gentry who owned land, such as Squire Gordon, were considered members of the upper class. Some of those in the upper class might have earned their money rather than inherited it, such as owners of factories and large businesses, and might have been looked down on by those who inherited their wealth. The upper class, which also included some members of the government, held most of the financial and political power in the country. Their sons attended the same schools, and they typically married within their own circles, thus maintaining their social and economic status.

The middle class was a new development in Victorian England. The social and financial changes of the Industrial Revolution, which lasted from around 1750 to the early 1900s, had created groups of people, such as shop owners, who were more financially stable than they had been in earlier times. Neither wealthy nor educated enough to be included in the upper class, they nevertheless aspired to certain upper-class behaviors. Mr. Barry, who briefly owns Beauty, is probably a member of the middle class.

Below them in the social hierarchy would be the working class: people with less financial stability or education but many of whom were skilled workers. John Manly and the other head grooms would be part of the working class. People who rent Beauty from the livery stable would be either middle-class or working-class individuals.

At the bottom of the working class would be unskilled laborers. Some experts divide this group into its own "underclass." The cab drivers would fall into the working class/underclass. Jerry Barker, however, is at the upper end, for he has saved enough to buy his own horses and runs his own business.

Although Beauty's experiences are influenced by the class of people with whom he lives, Anna Sewell firmly rejects the notion that only upper-class individuals can provide good care. Jerry Barker is a working-class man and one of the best owners Beauty ever has, whereas the earl's wife is an aristocrat who mistreats horses.

Animal Rights

Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty "to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses." In the novel Sewell raises issues about docking horses' tails, using restrictive equipment such as checkreins (also called bearing reins), and overloading cart horses. A checkrein is a piece of tack (accessory or equipment), or a strap, that runs from the horse's back, goes over the head, and connects to the bit in the horse's mouth. This rein keeps the horse from lowering its head beyond a certain point, which is uncomfortable or painful for the horse if it's too tight.

When the book was published, activists hoped it would spark a conversation about animal rights. Advocates for the humane treatment of animals went so far as to distribute copies to stable workers. Many experts believe the book helped decrease the use of the checkrein. Other practices, such as tail docking, are still in use by some horse owners today, though they remain controversial.

Features and Uses of Horses

A young horse is a foal; a colt is a male foal, and a filly is a female. An adult female horse is a mare, an uncastrated adult male is a stallion, and a castrated male is a gelding. Black Beauty is a male horse, but Victorian sensibilities prevent any statement about whether he is a stallion or a gelding. Geldings and mares generally are perceived as easier to handle than stallions. In size, horses can range from ponies that are less than four feet tall to a large horse more than six feet tall. In spite of their size, horses operate on a "fight or flight" mechanism and usually flee from danger.

By animal standards, horses are highly intelligent, though most of their brains are devoted to the interpretation of sensory information. Many horses can be high-strung and easily frightened, particularly thoroughbreds, which were bred for speed rather than calm temperament. Black Beauty may indeed be a thoroughbred, considering his ancestors won horse races. Horses appear to have good memories and can be trained to perform many different tasks. Although Sewell anthropomorphizes the animal characters in Black Beauty, her descriptions of horse behavior are highly realistic.

Horses' legs are extremely delicate and easily injured, as are horses' hooves. The hoof is made of keratin, like a human fingernail. In the novel Beauty suffers multiple leg and foot injuries as a result of neglect or improper care. Horses must be fed multiple times each day, and they do best with a variety of foods. Horses' teeth are designed primarily for grinding grains and grass. Horses can also nip with their front teeth, as Beauty's friend Ginger does.

Horses were one of the primary means of transportation for much of history. By the time Black Beauty was written, the practical use of horses was beginning to decline. The Industrial Revolution, starting in England in the mid-18th century, and development of the steam locomotive led to an increasing interest in and dependence on machines. These changes in the methods of farming, making products, and means of transportation inform Sewell's emphasis on the difference between horses and machines, a topic that is raised repeatedly. Horse-drawn carriages and farm vehicles were still the primary means of transportation for short distances, but within 50 years after the publication of Black Beauty, cars and airplanes were already in use.

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