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Literature Study GuidesBlack BeautyPart 1 Chapters 19 21 Summary

Black Beauty | Study Guide

Anna Sewell

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Black Beauty | Part 1, Chapters 19–21 | Summary



Chapter 19: Only Ignorance

Black Beauty is critically ill. The other horses have been moved from the stable to give Beauty quiet, for his high fever sharpens his hearing, which keeps him from resting. The horse is suffering from an inflammation of the lungs and has trouble breathing.

One night Beauty overhears John Manly and Thomas Green talking after the two men give the horse his medicine. Joe Green feels guilty about Beauty's illness, and his father asks John to be kind to his son, explaining Joe's mistake was only ignorance. To John, however, ignorance is no excuse. He recounts stories of the catastrophic results of ignorance: a woman who killed a baby by dosing it with too much medicine; a boy who "frighten[ed] his brother into fits" and made the brother "no better than an idiot"; and some young ladies who ruined the plants Joe's father was growing in the hothouse. All of them claimed ignorance. Still angry, he challenges Thomas Green, asking, "Don't you know that [ignorance] is the worst thing in the world, next to wickedness?" Joe's father agrees, at least in part.

When Thomas Green asks John to give Joe a kind word, John says he will—but only if Beauty recovers. And he does.

Chapter 20: Joe Green

Joe has been learning well and quickly. Needing a message to be delivered, Squire Gordon entrusts Joe to ride Beauty. When they are on their errand, they see a man abusing his horses. Joe speaks to the man, even offers to help lighten the horses' load, but the man shouts at him. Angry, Joe informs Mr. Clay, the man's employer. The abusive man ends up on trial before the magistrate—Squire Gordon himself—and Joe gives evidence. The man may face prison time as a result. After the incident, John and Beauty both notice Joe seems more grown up, "as if he had jumped at once from a boy into a man."

Chapter 21: The Parting

Mrs. Gordon will die unless they move to a warm climate, so the family must leave. Departure includes selling the horses. Merrylegs goes to the vicar's family, with Joe to help in the stable. The squire sells Beauty and Ginger to his friend, the Earl of W—, reputed to be a good horse owner. John, saddened by the family's departure, does not take another job immediately. He tells the squire he would like to be a horse trainer, because he believes many horses are spoiled by bad training experiences. The squire encourages John in this goal. The squire and his wife leave, sad to say goodbye to the horses. John believes they will never see her alive again.


John is a gentle man, so his diatribe against ignorance is startling. John calls it "the worst thing in the world, next to wickedness ... which does the most mischief, heaven only knows." In Victorian England, education was becoming more widespread and more valued. Although wealthy boys had always been educated, 19th-century Britain saw an increase in the number of schools for middle-class and poor children. John, James, and little Joe would potentially have been students at such a school.

In spite of his vehemence, however, John hired Joe, whose ignorance nearly killed Beauty. The reader knows why John hired Joe, but John's generosity has unintended consequences. Even John cannot keep Beauty safe all the time. These consequences foreshadow future events: even when the humans around Beauty try to protect him, they are not always successful.

Joe unintentionally hurt Beauty, but Joe is not a bad person. He just needs to grow up and learn the right way of caring for horses. Anna Sewell illustrates the beginnings of Joe's maturity when he tries to stop the man who is beating his horses. Joe acts like John. Given John's name, Sewell implies that watching out for vulnerable animals is the "manly" thing to do. Beauty and John both comment on how much Joe seems to have grown after the incident.

Sensitive to the suffering in the squire's family, Beauty claims "horses can tell more by the voice than many men can." This animal sensitivity connects to the veneration of Nature, the Romantic thread in Sewell's writing. She fosters the idea that horses have inherent wisdom humans overlook. Beyond the thematic elements, however, horses do in fact communicate with each other through vocalizations as well as through physical interactions and body language. Many riders give anecdotal evidence of how a horse responds to various tones of the human voice. While horses are repeatedly referred to as "dumb beasts," Sewell suggests that even though they may not speak, horses perceive more than many people realize.

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