Please identify the theme of initiation in D.H. Lawrence's short story "The Horse Dealer's Daughter."

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Initiation is defined as...

[…a] ceremony, ritual, test, or period of instruction with which a new member is admitted to an organization or office or to knowledge.

In D.H. Lawrence's short story "The Horse Dealer's Daughter," the theme of initiation can be seen in the relationship that develops between Mabel and Jack Fergusson, the town doctor.

An analysis of the story indicates that there are two forces working between Mabel and Jack, which control who they are and how they initially act—not only with others, but in particular with each other.

While Mabel has no concern for her brothers and reveals nothing of her plans after they are forced to leave the horse farm, the reader discovers that there is an unseen and profound complexity to her that will later come as a surprise; she has the

...ability to see the situation and respond deeply to it.

In direct contrast, Jack Fergusson

…represents "mental consciousness," which has all the power of logic and science, but which cannot by itself do more than deny the instinctive forces of life.

Consider the opening scene of the story. Mabel's brothers discuss their plans in the face of losing their home because of their deceased father's outstanding debts. While they press Mabel for news of what she will do or where she will go when they are forced out, she ignores them as she has learned to do over ten years of caring for them and the house. While it infuriates her brother Fred Henry, Mabel cares not a whit. When Jack Fergusson enters the house, they do not even acknowledge each other. The reader sees Mabel's strong sense of purpose for her own life in doing as she pleases. She and Jack have no interaction, though from the conversation we can assume he visits the brothers often. As the story continues, we find that circumstances arise making it impossible for each of them to ignore the other. 

Mabel goes to the cemetery to lovingly tend her mother's grave. She finds peace and something akin to happiness in this place. Lawrence also foreshadows what Mabel intends to do with her life now:

Mindless and persistent, she seemed in a sort of ecstasy to be coming nearer to her fulfilment, her own glorification, approaching her dead mother, who was glorified.

The reader discovers that the doctor likes to complain about his job in the poor little town, working with the common folk and always running back and forth to serve their needs. In truth, however, he notes that he thrives on this life. As we learn more about Fergusson, there is never any indication that he thinks about becoming a part of the community, settling there or finding a wife.

Neither has a thought for the other. Even as Fergusson passes Mabel as she sees to her mother's grave, their eyes meet and they both immediately look away. However, as the doctor later races back across town, he can clearly pick out Mabel's form—almost with unnatural clarity in the deepening dusk—as she moves toward the pond. She is unaware of him; she moves on and purposefully walks into the pond, going under the water.

One could argue that the doctor rushes to save Mabel's life not because he has any special feeling for her (or so he believes), but because he is a physician. He pulls her unconscious body from the stagnant water and carries her to her home. No one is there to help, so Fergusson gets Mabel out of her wet clothes to keep her from becoming ill. She wakens and is surprised to see him there; she is unaware of what she has done. Then, discovering that she is unclothed, she looks at the doctor and says (much to his amazement and discomfort):

Do you love me, then?

This is Mabel's initiation to the knowledge or concept of love, trying to make sense of this thing so unfamiliar in her world. And while she hugs Jack around the knees, she repeats herself over and over that he loves her. The definition of initiation describes a "period of instruction," ostensibly into something new: in this case, love. Having little experience with love, other than the love her mother gave her, Mabel sees her physical condition in the presence of a man as an understanding of sorts. For only someone who loved her (we can infer) would be so intimate with her.

If the situation is an awakening for Mabel, it is earth shattering for Jack Fergusson. Love for Mabel (as far as the reader can tell) had never consciously occurred to him:

He had never thought of loving her. He had never wanted to love her. When he rescued her and restored her, he was a doctor, and she was a patient. He had had no single personal thought of her.

Jack fights off the truth Mabel is placing before him. He wants nothing to do with it…except that he does! Initiation is something that refers to newness. This consideration of love takes him completely by surprise:

He was amazed, bewildered and afraid…It was horrible. He revolted from it, violently. And yet—and yet—he had not the power to break away.

Mabel looks at him with "powerful love" and a "frightening light of triumph." For all Jack is worth, he fights very hard not to believe or accept what she has said. While his scientific mind shies away from the concept of love, his hand on her bare shoulder burns. His heart feels like it is breaking; even as he resists, he feels himself yielding to the truth she keeps repeating…that he loves her. And when doubt enters her eyes...

With an inward groan he gave way, and let his heart yield towards her. A sudden gentle smile came on this face…he could not move. He could never let her go again…He wanted to remain like that forever.

When Mabel asks Fergusson again whether he loves her, his answer is yes. His kiss is "an eternal pledge." And then, "The strange pain of his heart that was broken seemed to consume him…" and he thinks, "That this was love!"

The newness is seen, too, in their awkwardness with each other, and an uncertainly of how to behave, what to believe. When she tries to leave to get him dry clothes, he does not even notice his earlier discomfort, and tells her to stay. Then when he tells her that he must return to the surgery, she does not want to let him go. She offers to make tea. She begins to doubt herself.

Initiation not only brings the sense of newness, but also a test, and such a test can be painful. Fergusson's pain is in trying to resist this new feeling that has come over him, which is ripping his heart apart. At the same time, though, it is not a suffering that he wants to end. He is fearful of the joy in her eyes, but more fearful that he might see doubt there. He has surrendered his heart to Mabel uncertainly, but completely. Mabel suffers as well. She doubts that he could love her even while she clings to the belief with every fiber of her being. Like Fergusson, she fears that he may not love her. In her doubt she recriminates herself for what she has done at the pond.

They do survive the initiation. Of course, there is still fear and doubt, but one is left with the sense that while things may not go altogether smoothly for them, their commitment is clear to this new aspect of life that was previously unknown to either of them—they are thereby initiated into a foreign but central aspect of human existence.

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