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Black Beauty | Study Guide

Anna Sewell

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Course Hero. "Black Beauty Study Guide." May 10, 2019. Accessed January 28, 2023. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Black-Beauty/.

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Black Beauty | Themes

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Kindness to Animals: A Christian Duty

Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty to encourage people to practice kinder treatment of horses. The concept is grounded in Sewell's Christian faith, and she equates kindness toward horses with Christian teachings about helping the needy and less powerful.

John Manly talks repeatedly about both helping the less fortunate and being kind to horses, linking the two together. James Howard, his first assistant, tells how a classmate was cruel to flies, leading their teacher to associate cruelty, even to insects, with the devil. When Black Beauty and Ginger are stabled at an inn overnight, the old ostler quotes the Bible as he explains how horses trained well in their youth continue to be easy to handle as they grow up. Later, Jerry Barker, one of the kindest owners Beauty has, cites the biblical exhortation to help "the least" in society as he helps the poor woman take her child to the hospital. Jerry also talks about being responsible for one's behavior and making decisions to guard one's soul, even if those decisions go against popular sentiment or cause a loss of income.

Sewell includes biblically influenced expectations of helping the destitute and rearing children, and she connects these expectations with kindness toward animals. Caring for one's animals is equivalent to raising children, and helping other animals—as several characters attempt to help Beauty—parallels helping the needy. This theme not only adds another dimension to Sewell's writing through biblical allusions, but it also serves as a method of persuasion, which was Sewell's primary goal.

Goodness Rewarded: Humans and Horses

One of Anna Sewell's intentions for Black Beauty was for the book to be a source of moral instruction. Therefore, almost without exception, human characters who are righteous and obedient are rewarded. The horse characters, however, do not always get what they deserve.

The humans who do good are ultimately rewarded, even if they experience suffering. Mrs. Gordon grows seriously ill, but at the end of the book she is still alive and in good enough health to exchange letters with friends. Despite a difficult childhood, John Manly has saved enough money, after working for Squire Gordon, to be able to have some choice about a new job. Such an opportunity most likely would be unusual for a man in his position. James Howard risks his life to save Beauty and Ginger, and he ends up with a promotion and a good job. Joe Green, after his initial mistake with Beauty, also proves himself a worthy person and fine groom and has a good job by the end of the book. The Barker family, who live through poverty and the challenges of Jerry's illness, are rewarded with a good job for Jerry and a home in the country.

For the horses, however, life is more capricious, no matter how good they are. Merrylegs is patient with children yet fears he could lose his position. Beauty suffers through many bad situations, even when he has nearly killed himself trying to save a human's life, as he does for Mrs. Gordon. Other horses, like Jerry's horse Captain, suffer life-threatening injuries through no fault of their own. While Sewell's human world has a moral logic to it, the horses are at the mercy of their masters. This situation, connected to the previous theme, gives Sewell a two-pronged argument: good people are rewarded, and kindness to horses is part of being a good person.

Horse versus Machine

Black Beauty was written only decades after the first modern railway carrying passengers opened (in 1830) and machinery began to take over many tasks done by horses and humans. Sewell explores the problems that arise when a horse is treated like a machine. Unlike a machine, a horse is a living creature and deserves respect, an idea that dovetails with Sewell's other thematic point: that kindness to horses is a godly act in the same way as kindness to humans in need.

Merrylegs is the first character to raise the question of why some humans treat horses like machines. "Boys, you see, think a horse or pony is like a steam engine or a thrashing machine," he says, and he teaches them a lesson by throwing them off. Because those humans are children, they can still be taught. Years later, when Beauty is a livery stable horse, he returns to the comparison, saying the cockneys treat horses like steam engines. However, Beauty has no power to stop them. The theme of horse versus machine also comes up when Beauty is a cab horse with Jerry: a kind gentleman pats Beauty, who comments, "ninety-nine out of a hundred would as soon think of patting the steam engine that drew the train."

In opposing the treatment of horses like steam engines, Sewell includes in most chapters some information about the care and handling of horses. If the novel is moralistic, it is also instructive. Sewell explains horses' particular sensitivities and stresses repeatedly that caring for horses is far different from caring for insensate machines.

Sewell's novel works in a similar way to a persuasive or argumentative essay: her thesis is that kindness to horses is an act of God, and her supporting claims include the idea that God rewards those who do kind deeds and that it is unkind to treat a horse like a machine. The themes link together to help Sewell persuade the reader to act accordingly.

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