As D. H. Lawrence so often does, in this story he contrasts the class distinctions that are so important in social conventions to the authentic passion that human beings experience. Mabel Pervin grows up among brothers who treat her roughly, calling her a “bull dog.” All four have lived at home, but with their father’s death, the household is dispersing. The plot centers upon what Mabel, who, as a young woman is not expected to live on her own; the brothers assume she will go to live with her sister. Mabel's relationship with Jack Fergusson, the young village doctor, develops in several stages. As he is a middle-class professional, at first he considers her an unsuitable partner, but he is swept away by passion.
Animal imagery is present from the outset. The appearance of the oldest brother, Joe, is described in horse-like terms, and he physically identifies with the animals. He is uncertain about leaving the ranch and, knowing his future is secure through his upcoming marriage, resents the loss of freedom. Although he is good-looking,
his bearing was stupid. Now he watched the horses with a glazed look of helplessness in his eyes, a certain stupor of downfall . . . Joe watched with glazed hopeless eyes. The horses were almost like his own body to him . . . He would marry and go into harness. His life was over, he would be a subject animal now.
Later, as well, Lawrence describes him thusly" “Joe stood with his knees stuck out, in real horsy fashion.”
The brothers say their sister has a “bull-dog” look—through “the impassive fixity of her face,” they cannot understand her. While they are warm and affectionate with the real family dog, they treat their sister coldly. When she says that she will not go to live with their sister, her brother Fred compares her to a dog: “‘The sulkiest bitch that ever trod!’ muttered her brother.”
Yet the animal comparison is not all negative. Mabel has been keeping house for her brothers for ten years, and she will now be free of this. Although female, she has some things in common with them—what Lawrence calls “animal pride." She has suffered badly during the period of poverty;
Nothing, however, could shake the curious sullen, animal pride that dominated each member of the family.
It turns out that this pride makes Mabel decide to end her life rather than go live with her sister. When she attempts to drown herself in the pond, however, the doctor sees her and rescues her. After he pulls her to safety, takes her to his home, and tends to her, she recovers her wits and defends her actions as “the right thing to do.” At this point, the animal imagery briefly returns, associated with the passions stirring in both of them—but especially in Jack, who looks at her “wild, bare, animal shoulders." As she decides that Jack’s saving her and undressing her means he loves her, he suddenly realizes that, despite himself, he does.