The Horse Dealer's Daughter | Study Guide

D.H. Lawrence

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The Horse Dealer's Daughter | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Family

The story opens with the adult Pervin siblings—three brothers and a sister—sitting at the breakfast table with little enthusiasm to talk. Their father recently died and left behind debts, and the siblings are losing their home and the horses that are their livelihood. The eldest, Joe, asks his sister Mabel Pervin what she intends to do, but he is not interested in her answer and she gives none. Joe watches with hopeless eyes as horses are led down the lane for the last time. Joe, Fred Henry, and Malcolm continue to ask Mabel about what she is going to do as they make plans for her. The brothers grow more irritable as Mabel sits mostly silent and sullen. She is so used to her brothers talking at and around—but not to—her that Mabel hardly takes notice of them.

The local doctor Jack Fergusson stops by. He greets the brothers, but not Mabel, and asks about their plans. When Mabel moves in and out of the room clearing dishes, Fergusson takes notice of her and asks if she is going to live with her sister. Mabel's sister is married and no longer lives at home. Mabel looks at him with a gaze that makes him uncomfortable, and says, "No." The brothers and Fergusson go their separate ways, leaving Mabel alone in the house.

Pond

The narrator explains that Joseph Pervin, the father of the family, was an uneducated man who became wealthy dealing horses. Mabel, who is 27 years old and unmarried, has kept house for 10 years. Her mother died when she was 14. Mabel took pride in caring for the family and home when there was money. But then her father remarried a woman not mentioned in the story, the fortune dwindled, and he died. This left his children in debt. For months Mabel has cared for the house and her lazy brothers with no servants and little money. Mabel decides this is the end of buying cheap food and avoiding the eyes of other villagers. She has plans for her future that do not involve living with her married sister or working as a servant. She would rather join her mother in death than continue this unhappy life and makes plans to commit suicide.

Mabel takes supplies to the churchyard to clean her mother's grave. She feels happier in the world of her dead mother than in the real world. Fergusson sees Mabel at her task and watches her, spellbound. Their eyes meet, he feels the power of her gaze, and then he goes to visit patients in the ugly homes of the working people. Fergusson is bored and unhappy living in the countryside. He thinks his work is a drudgery, but he also craves it.

Later Fergusson sees Mabel heading across a field toward a pond and wading into it. He sees her go under and realizes that she is trying to drown herself. He runs to the pond and wades into the cold water. He is frightened as he wades up to his chest because he cannot swim. He stumbles and goes underwater briefly. Fergusson finally finds Mabel, pulls her out of the pond, and carries her to the bank. Mabel is unconscious, but the doctor gets her breathing again. He then carries her all the way home.

Awakening

Fergusson lays Mabel by the fire in her house. He takes off her cold, wet clothes and wraps her in warm blankets. She wakes when he pours some whiskey into her mouth. At first Mabel seems unaware of what she has done and why. Fergusson tells her that he saved her from drowning in the pond. Then she realizes she is naked under the blankets and looks around for her clothes. When she learns that Fergusson undressed her, she declares that he must love her. She hugs him about his legs, kisses him, and insists over and over that he loves her. Fergusson resists at first. He saved her because he is a doctor, not because he loves her. She continues to insist until Fergusson finally lets his heart give way, and he says he loves her. He hugs her, not able to look into her eyes, and draws away from her when he smells the pond water in her hair.

Mabel, suddenly nervous, leaves him to go upstairs. She tosses some dry clothes down to him. He waits for her to return and finally calls up to her that he must leave. Mabel comes down dressed in her best black dress and with wet but tidy hair. Mabel now declares that she is awful and he cannot possibly love her. She begins sobbing, and Fergusson holds her and says he loves her and wants to marry her as soon as possible. Mabel is almost as frightened by his declaration of love as she is of the possibility that he might not want her. It is unclear at the end if Fergusson truly loves Mabel and if the pair will find happiness in marriage.

Analysis

Animal Imagery

A striking element of "The Horse Dealer's Daughter" is its pervasive animal imagery set up by the title of the story.

All the siblings are compared to animals. The narrator notes that each member of the family is dominated by "animal pride." More specifically Mabel Pervin is described as having a face like a bulldog, and at the end of the story Jack Fergusson is attracted to her "wild, bare, animal shoulders." The eldest brother Joe is repeatedly given animal-like characteristics. For instance he rises from his chair and stands with his knees out "in horsey fashion" and leaves the room as though "with his tail between his legs." While Joe is described as a "subject animal," brother Fred Henry is an "animal which controls, not one which is controlled." For all the siblings, the collapse of their family fortune and livelihood threatens their independence, just as the dog that Joe teases is uneasily dependent on the family.

Semi-Autobiographical Elements

As with many of Lawrence's stories and novels, "The Horse Dealer's Daughter" contains elements that are reflections of the author's own life. The story takes place in a village that is reminiscent of Lawrence's hometown of Eastwood, a small mining town populated by uneducated but honest and hardworking people. It is characterized by ugly houses and coal pits but also beautiful countryside. Like the author himself, Fergusson is better educated than most in the village. He does not feel as though he fits in even though he has a strong craving for the people and the place. Lawrence, too, did not fit in at Eastwood. He valued books and education and aspired to a better life, yet he returned to Eastwood and its citizens over and over in his fiction. The mining town clearly had a strong hold on him as it does on Fergusson, and Lawrence returned to Eastwood and its culture of miners throughout his writing career.

Lawrence's mother Lydia and Mabel share similarities. Lydia was raised in a middle-class family that had fallen on hard financial times. She married a coal miner, a man who was beneath her in social status and education. This difference in class contributed to Lydia's unhappiness in her marriage and her desire to lift her children out of the struggling working-class situation that she found herself in. Mabel is the daughter of a working-class father who built an estate trading horses. Then Mabel, like Lydia, loses her place in society as the family fortune is lost. Instead of holding her head high, she avoids the eyes of others as she goes into shops to buy cheap food. But she, too, is not content with a life of servitude and will marry someone of a different class. In Mabel's case, however, she will be marrying up but it is not clear if this marriage across the class divide will be a happy one.

Narrative Voice

The story is narrated by an unnamed, third-person narrator with access into the minds of all the characters. In the first scene of the story, the narrator provides insight into the Pervin brothers, particularly those of the eldest brother Joe, and their feelings about the loss of their home and livelihood. Their sister Mabel, who is the horse dealer's daughter of the title, is mostly silent, both in speech and narrator insight. The only observation the narrator makes of Mabel in the first scene is that she hardly notices when her brothers speak to her because they have talked at and around her for years.

The narrator does not focus on Mabel until after her brothers and the doctor leave her alone in the house. At this point the narrator reveals Mabel's thoughts about her situation over the last several months as the family fortune was lost and her feelings of happiness as she spends time at her mother's grave. The narrator's perspective shifts quickly away from Mabel and turns entirely to Fergusson. For the rest of the story, the narrator focuses only on Fergusson's emotional turmoil as he rescues Mabel from drowning, fights against her insistence that he loves her, and finally submits to that love. Whether Fergusson actually loves Mabel at the end of the story is ambiguous. The narrator returns to Mabel's feelings for the final sentence of the story. It is surprising that the narrator focuses so little on Mabel who is the central character in the story. It is as though Mabel's voice is silenced first by her brothers and then almost entirely by the narrator.

The Horse Dealer's Daughter Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 The Pervin brothers ask Mabel where she plans to live now.

Rising Action

2 Their father recently died, leaving them in debt.

3 Jack Fergusson watches Mabel tend her mother's grave.

4 Fergusson sees Mabel walk into a pond to drown herself.

Climax

5 Fergusson risks his own life to rescue Mabel from drowning.

Falling Action

6 Mabel insists Fergusson must love her.

Resolution

7 Unclear if they are in love, the couple agrees to marry.

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