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 this story. He does so through what might be called his intended thoughts, which he is able to share with other animals. In this way, Sewell makes Black Beauty appear human in his reactions and emotions. This is not a talking-horse gimmick, however, because Black Beauty never exposes his thoughts to the human characters in the novel, except through his gestures, which any horse might make—a nudging with his nose, a neigh, a tossing of his head. Sewell does not, in other words, remove Black Beauty from his “horseness.” Rather, she situates him in a very definite horse world but then imbues him with a soul, a spirit that is related to that of every living creature on earth. In this way, Sewell arouses more sympathy or empathy for her protagonist; and this is seen most evidently in children who hear or read the story of Black Beauty.

Not only does Sewell provide an avenue into the mind and heart of her protagonist through his thoughts, she also gives her readers quite an extensive biography of Black Beauty. Readers are introduced to him shortly after he is born. There is even mention of his lineage, supplied not just to give readers an account of his pedigree, but to place Black Beauty in a family—to connect him to a mother and father. This provides a subtle reference for young readers. Black Beauty does not just appear out of nowhere. He is not just a horse, he is also a son and a grandson. His mother was, at one time, pregnant with him, just as children have been told that their mothers once carried them. And like their mothers, Black Beauty’s mother carried him, gave birth to him, and nursed him. This also provides Black Beauty with a history, which adds more depth to his character. Beginning a story in this way especially grabs the imagination of children, who are still very much attached to their parents. Then, as the story progresses, young readers relate to Black Beauty’s youth. For example, they associate with the feelings of Black Beauty as he plays in the field as a young colt. And Sewell masterfully intensifies these feelings when she provides a playground setting (for horses, that is) and even includes a neighborhood bully who throws stones at the young colts. Young readers, once again, are pulled into the story through these details. Every schoolyard has a bully, so every child can connect with the young colt as he faces this challenge. And when the “master” comes to the rescue of Black Beauty and the other young horses by banishing the bully from the fields where the young horses play, children cheer the strength and power of the good master and protector. This master represents a sense of security for children reading this book. They would like to believe that at every moment that they are challenged by a bully, they too would be protected by some powerful master.

Black Beauty’s mother hits another nerve for young readers. She is represented as...

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