In "The Horse Dealer's Daughter," in what way does the opening scene help us to understand Mabel and the events that follow?
The opening scene of "The Horse Dealer's Daughter" by D. H. Lawrence displays the hopelessness of Mabel's situation, which leads to her suicide attempt and desperate demands for the love of the doctor who saves her.
The story opens with Mabel, Joe, Fred Henry, and Malcolm at breakfast. Their father is dead, and their fortunes have turned. Though they've worked with horses their whole lives, they won't be doing it again and will have to move on to new vocations and new places to live.
Joe asks Mabel what she's planning to do now—and doesn't wait to hear the answer. The brothers' way of speaking to Mabel makes it clear that none of them are very concerned with what she'll do now that their lives have changed. Lawrence says that Joe "did not care about anything, since he felt safe himself."
Her brothers discuss what Mabel can do next casually, but she says nothing because "they had talked at her and round her for so many years, that she hardly heard them at all." She's a person who has no options and is aware of it; her brothers have all but abandoned her for their new lives.
This opening scene displays the sense of hopelessness that drives Mabel to walk into the lake and attempt to drown herself. It also explains her actions once Dr. Jack Fergusson pulls her out to save her. She demands that he love her; she insists that he does. He's the new life she sought at the beginning of the story and, to Mabel, her last chance for a meaningful life. Jack is security for Mabel, who thought herself established as long as her family had money but then felt ashamed about having to purchase cheap food when their fortunes reversed.
In this excellent short story by D. H. Lawrence, the situation of Mabel is clearly indicated in the opening paragraphs. However, unlike her three brothers, she has no real hope or chance of finding alternative employment at her level, and looks either to face a future working as a menial servant or becoming dependent upon the hospitality of others. Both of these are fates which we can understand she would object to strongly, given her own independence. However, note how their situation is described in the second paragraph:
The three brothers and the sister sat round the desolate breakfast-table, attempting some sort of desultory consultation. The morning's post had given the final tap to the family fortunes, and all was over. The dreary dining-room itself, with its heavy mahogany furniture, looked as if it were waiting to be done away with.
Mabel is thus a young woman without options and resources. It is clear that her brothers care little about her fate and will offer her nothing. As an unmarried woman who has kept house, she finds herself now cast off in the world, friendless and devoted to the memory of a dead mother that, as we shall soon find out, she feels right that she joins. It is only because of the desperate nature of her situation that she feels forced to engage in such a path of self-destruction.