Black Beauty Themes
The two main themes in Black Beauty are mistreatment of animals and upright behavior.
- Mistreatment of animals: Evidence of abuse that causes pain and suffering for horses is found in nearly every chapter. These practices, and the hope that pointing out their cruelty would bring an end to them, are the real focus of the book.
- Upright behavior: Sewell was classically Victorian in her beliefs about morality, hard work, self-denial, and charity. These beliefs are expressed frequently throughout Black Beauty.
Mistreatment of Animals
In the original introduction to Black Beauty that Sewell herself wrote, she seems to indicate that the purpose of the book is that of an equine care manual, and not that of an entertaining story. Education was very important to Sewell, and since she declared, in part, that her intent was to induce “an understanding of the treatment of horses” through her “little book,” she had to explain how to treat horses. Consequently, it has been said that one could read Black Beauty and come away fairly well prepared to actually care for a horse.
The point of describing appropriate equine care was to provide alternative, replacement behaviors to the practices that Sewell abhorred and wanted to stop. Evidence of abuse that causes pain and suffering for horses is found in nearly every chapter: tail bobbing, blinkers, double bits, check or bearing reins, risky jumps for sport, and long-term confinement in stalls. These practices, and the hope that pointing out their cruelty would bring an end to them, were the real focus of the book. Sewell’s audience also learned that mean-tempered horses were not born but made by cruel treatment. It is important to note that Sewell did not lay blame for the mistreatment of horses so much on working men, even though they enacted the mistreatment, as on the owners and customers who exploited these workers and thereby their horses.
Sewell maintains the theme of evoking sympathy and understanding of horses through the different horse characters who appear in the book. Although Beauty experiences several different types of jobs, Sewell couldn’t realistically place him in every kind of situation. So, evidencing her storytelling skill, she weaves encounters with different horses throughout the book, and each has a unique story to tell. As a result, Sewell is able to present to the reader the types of mistreatment that arise for horses in the city as well as the country; horses that are used for sport, for individual riding, for pulling carts, cabs, and carriages, and for combat. There are abuses that occur in each of these situations, and Sewell’s pointed descriptions bring them to the reader’s attention as had never been done before in literature.
Sewell was raised as a Quaker, lived in a strict religious house, gave classes to working class men, and did charitable work. Her mother wrote evangelical books for children. As a result, Sewell had a definite opinion about what was and was not acceptable behavior. Sewell was classically Victorian in her beliefs about morality, hard work, self-denial, and charity. These beliefs were expressed frequently throughout Black Beauty. Consequently, Sewell’s novel was seen not only as a book about the proper treatment of horses, but also about the proper behavior of humans in general. The lessons given by Duchess to Beauty, by the coachman John Manly and the cab driver Jerry Barker, among others, were purposely placed in the novel for the edification of the reader. These lessons include: Duchess teaching that one should always do one’s best and work hard; John Manly explaining the value of following an example of kindness by doing the same for others; and Jerry Barker demonstrating integrity, helping others in need, and establishing the family as a priority. Others, such as Squire Gordon, lecture on Sewell’s main theme: the need for kindness to animals. There is also a very strong point made repeatedly by Sewell about the evils of drink. The groom who ruins Beauty’s knees was drunk when he caused the calamity. Often, those seen mistreating horses are drunk. It is noted that many of the cab drivers waste time and money drinking. Even the good Governor Grant has a problem with alcohol and asks Jerry how he managed to give it up. Sewell was known to be an ardent advocate of temperance, and she used Black Beauty to express her view on this subject of moral concern as well as others.