Black Beauty's Appeal and Flaws
Anna Sewell wrote just one novel in her life, most of it composed as she suffered the effects of a debilitating disease. There is a passion evident in her writing, more than likely created by her sense of urgency in communicating a lesson she felt compelled to deliver to the world before dying. In her earnest attempt to appeal to all horse owners to treat their animals in a more humane manner, much of the prose in Sewell’s book is recorded in a didactic tone. Messages against animal cruelty are paramount, of course, but there is also other subtle moralizing going on here, making some of the reading, in contemporary times, a little hard to swallow. The author’s emphasis on teaching specific lessons has also resulted in characters who fit all too comfortably into stereotypical forms. The good characters, for instance, are very, very good, and the few others who do not match this mold are totally and mercilessly corrupt. But despite the novel’s shortcomings, this story has a very specific quality that has allowed it to continue to inspire the very young at heart for more than one hundred years after it was written. So what then is the appeal? Why does this story still engage its modern audience far removed from the times and social issues that plagued the world of the nineteenth century?
The sole purpose of Sewell’s novel was to make people take better care of their horses. And one way that Sewell attempts to do this is to make the animals in her story appear more human. She wanted her audience to look at animals as creatures who had thoughts and feelings; rather than seeing them as if they were machines, created to do the work that humans were incapable of doing on their own. As seen through Sewell’s eyes, horses were often treated as slaves in her time. Little or no thought was rendered by horse owners as to the effect that their cruelty was having on the physical and mental attitude of their animals. Sewell’s hope was that she might change all that.
Another thing that Sewell does in order to open the hearts of her readers is to tell her story through the eyes of a beautiful and sensitive horse. In reading this novel, audiences experience every joyful and every sorrowful moment of Black Beauty’s life as if they were living through the same situations of the protagonist. The horse, although he is never made into a cartoon character who talks, does, however, speak his mind in...
(The entire section is 2179 words.)
The Moral Lessons in Black Beauty
Kerschen is a school district administrator and freelance writer. In this essay, Kerschen discusses the moral lessons, particularly about temperance, that Sewell incorporates into Black Beauty.
In the first chapter of Black Beauty, Anna Sewell provides her hero with a wise admonition from his mother: “I hope you will grow up gentle and good, and never learn bad ways; do your work with a good will.” This advice may have come from an equine mother, but it is the kind of moral instruction that humans could use as well. It was Sewell’s stated intent to write a book that would “induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses.” That is, the subject was not horses, but the treatment of horses, and therefore the book was a set of instructions for humans. In the process, Sewell set forth not only the proper care of horses, but the proper behavior of humans in other areas as well.
Considering Sewell’s intent for the novel, it is reasonable to believe that an appropriate audience would be the adults, particularly men, who worked with and cared for horses. However, the book is traditionally classified as a juvenile novel and was actually used for moral instruction in schools. As Lucy Grealy noted in her “Afterword” to a recent edition of Black Beauty, the Education Act of 1870, which legally established public education in England,...
(The entire section is 1830 words.)
The Horse's Point of View
The author who decides to tell a story from the point of view of an animal has some tricky challenges. Somehow, the author must use this point of view so that it enhances, rather than detracts from, the story that the author puts on the page. But having an animal as a story’s main point of view character also lends advantages. Because of an animal’s assumed innocence (in comparison to humans, in this case), the author might more easily make points in the story that could appear preachy or dogmatic if these points were made through a human character. In Black Beauty, Sewell uses circumstance and Black Beauty’s point of view to effectively make statements about morality, animal treatment, and class division. Sewell uses the horse’s point of view to her advantage, and as a result, none of the book’s statements about these issues sound overly dogmatic. These issues would run the risk of sounding too much like the author’s opinion, if they were voiced through a human character.
Almost immediately, the reader is made aware of the importance of class in the setting of this story. Even among horses, class and breeding are quite important. Black Beauty’s mother tells him that he is “well-bred and well-born,” and she warns him not to bite or kick in play, as the cart horses (who have not learned manners) do.
In Black Beauty, some members of the upper classes will go to any length to...
(The entire section is 1867 words.)
Carter is currently employed as a freelance writer. In this essay, Carter considers the social and historical relevance of Sewell’s document as a treatise on animal rights.
Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty served in her time not only as a treatise on animal rights, it is an account closely relevant to the author’s personal life, as well as her advocacy for horses in a time where females were not a presence in the equine community, their voices more often than not discounted in a male-dominated society. Examples are sprinkled throughout the novel, in the words and actions of the characters, both animal and female, which demonstrate their ability to provoke responses that expose the very underpinnings of a male-dominated Victorian society.
Strikingly different for a Victorian woman, Sewell knew a great deal about an industry long dominated by men. The novel’s cast of characters, from stable boys to groomsmen to proprietors—all are men. It is primarily men who openly speak for Sewell in her quest for animal rights. In one scene, for example, one of the novel’s main characters goes out of his way to tip off a neighbor of the abuses a pony is suffering as his son needlessly whips, kicks and knocks a “good little pony about shamefully because he would not leap a gate that was too high for him.” In another instance, Joe admonishes a carter for flogging or beating a team...
(The entire section is 1786 words.)