The Black Stallion

by Walter Farley

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The exotic opening setting sustains theme and characterization in significant ways. Alec enters the novel in a situation that demonstrates his capacity for independence. He is a passenger on the steamer Drake, headed toward the Gulf of Aden and into the Red Sea. Alec is returning alone to New York after a stay with his Uncle Ralph in India. The Black Stallion first appears in a setting that conjures images from the Arabian Nights. Alec's steamer docks to take the stallion aboard at a small Arabian seaport. The locale establishes the aura of mystery that clings to the stallion and foreshadows the "strange understanding" that soon develops between him and Alec.

Ships at sea, foreign ports of call, and outdoor settings distinguish approximately the first third of the novel, as Alec and the stallion pursue their journey together to New York. The outdoor settings are critical in evoking a larger-than-life sense of the stallion. They reveal Alec's courage and determination when his ship is wrecked in a storm. Alec is plunged into the sea with the stallion, who swims for a considerable time. The two reach an uninhabited island, where again the stallion proves to be an unusual life-saving force. The island is especially important, since it is here that Alec solidifies his relationship with the Black.

Alec comes to terms with wild nature in both the stallion and the environment. The island is small, perhaps two miles around, and largely barren. The few existing trees and bushes are inadequate for shelter. The reader may wonder when a snake appears for the stallion to kill, since the island is depicted as devoid of wildlife. The landscape includes an abandoned bird's nest and a hollow turtle shell. Sand, intense heat, and scattered patches of burned-out grass also characterize the island. Its features provide a perfect backdrop to Alec's demonstration of courageous self-reliance, since food and shelter must be found through ingenuity. Readers who are familiar with Daniel Defoe's fictional character Robinson Crusoe will recognize one of Alec's literary antecedents.

The natural setting of the island explores the issue of an interdependency between humans and animals. Even the wildest of animals is vulnerable and requires human help, and the stallion must respond to Alec's overtures in order to eat. A theme of value in education is highlighted here as well, since Alec is forced to recall what he learned in high school about the edible properties of a kind of seaweed called carragheen.

The island experience, which lasts for nineteen September days, lends a timeless and somewhat mythic quality to the narrative. Otherwise, the novel evokes a more leisurely time in history. Alec reaches the island after weeks at sea. The modern reader, accustomed to air travel, will note that Alec spent four weeks by ship to reach India in the first place. Back in the United States, trains are the foremost means of travel. Alec uses a train toward the novel's close in order to reach Chicago.

Once Alec arrives home, the action is set primarily in or near the New York City suburb of Flushing. The setting represents a shift toward greater realism, except that Alec's extraordinary relationship with the wild stallion remains. Flushing in the year 1941 is a town with open fields rather than a hectic part of a vast metropolitan area. The Ramsay family dwelling is a typical middle class house, complete with kitchen, bedrooms, and living room with shaded lights and comfortable furniture. Alec's room includes "familiar high school banners hanging on the walls."

Two blocks from the Ramsay house is the run-down Halleran estate, and...

(This entire section contains 663 words.)

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it is here that Alec and the stallion spend most of their time. The Halleran house is used to accommodate tourists, but behind it and down a gravel road are a barn and field. In these facilities Alec stables and trains the stallion. Additional workouts occur during the night at nearby Belmont track, the original facility rather than the rebuilt one that stands today.

Literary Qualities

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Farley employs a variety of techniques that keep the reader's attention focused upon The Black Stallion and Alec's relationship to him. Among these are repetition, the use of superlatives in narrative and dialogue, the incorporation of symbolic and mythic elements, and recurring motifs of color and contrast. The narrative is structured so that exotic features are balanced by settings and details that are commonplace. The novel features dramatic adventures. Alec experiences a shipwreck, a swim for dear life, an inhospitable island, a series of rides astride an unruly stallion.

The stallion enters the novel in the midst of action made more effective by third person description from Alec's point of view. Alec notices a throng of milling Arabs and hears a whistle—"shrill, loud, clear, unlike anything he had ever heard before." He sees a "mighty black horse" engaged in rearing, with forelegs striking out at the air. The horse continues to scream and rear, bolt and plunge. Once in his shipboard stall, the horse crashes his legs into wood and sends it flying. Through a similar action scene when quarantined in New York, Farley reinforces the idea of the stallion's powerful character.

The scene of the storm that wrecks Alec's ship is filled with drama and suspense. It begins with the ship's nighttime lurch that throws Alec to the floor. Farley employs the senses—sight, hearing, touch—in this scene as he does elsewhere in order to build excitement. Thus Alec sees lightning flashes, hears shouts, feels his face hot and sticky with blood after a sharp crack that shakes the ship and again throws him, stunned, to the floor. The subsequent battle with waves sets Alec on the island with the Black in a situation of dramatic contrast. Alec feels the stillness—"no birds, no animals, no sounds." The effect is to build the mystique that surrounds and differentiates the castaways.

Superlatives help to sustain the mystique. Besides introducing the stallion in an unusual locale accompanied by dramatic action, Farley initially depicts him as "a giant of a horse" with a head that is "beautiful, savage, splendid." The stallion is also depicted as "wild," "ruthless," "powerful." Farley foreshadows the mystery that surrounds the origin of the stallion by depicting him as "too big to be pure Arabian." The use of Alec's point of view enhances the description, which is repetitive: "a wild stallion—unbroken, such as he had read and dreamed about!" Repetitious use of such vivid descriptive words and synonyms for them evoke wonder and sustain the perception throughout the narrative.

Dialogue that reflects reactions of characters is a particularly effective method by which Farley reinforces the reader's perceptions of the stallion. "He's too wild," a sea captain says. "He's a beauty," a police officer says. Alec's mother comments fearfully that the Black is "dangerous." The reaction of Alec's friend Whiff is typical: "Boy, he's the biggest horse I ever did see and what a mean look!" The unusual quality of Alec's relationship with the Black is reinforced by dialogue. A ship's captain considers "almost uncanny" the way Alec gets along with "a wild beast like that, a killer." The sailor Pat confirms that the relationship is "one of the strangest things" he has ever seen. Henry remarks that the Black and Alec play the "strangest" game.

Characters also refer to the Black as a "devil." The Black is in many ways a creature of symbolism and myth. In an early chapter, the stallion appears "as if by magic" to crew members of the rescue ship after they hear "an inhuman scream." It is significant also that the stallion's presence seems to provoke cooperation from anyone who might thwart Alec's purpose. Alec's watery pursuit at the end of the stallion's rope is the stuff of myth and legend. It evokes the sea chase after a symbolic white whale in Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

In addition, Alec is preoccupied with a stallion he never really names, except to call it the Black. The color black, which reflects no light, is another way in which Farley sustains an aura of mystery and symbolism. Farley employs other colors as well. Stablemate Napoleon is gray, a neutral color. The horse has a "quieting effect" on the Black. The match-race horses, red Cyclone and chestnut-gold Sun Raider, are bright in contrast to the Black. Farley employs the starkly contrasting colors of black and white in an important recurring motif that emphasizes the stallion and related themes. Alec first sees the horse in terms of black and white. The Black's eyes are covered with a white scarf. On the island, Alec sees the stallion standing beside a boulder "as if an artist had painted the Black on white stone."

Contrasts of black and white particularly integrate with the thematic concept of nature's dark side opposed to youthful innocence that must change and grow. Alec often wears white that stands out against the Black's body. He does so in a scene at Belmont, when he experiences a loss of control over his mount who runs "wild and free." Alec clings to the Black, white shirt "standing out vividly" again the black body. In another scene set two nights later, Alec retains control wearing a black sweater. Guided by the white fence, Alec lets the stallion run until they become a "black blur." The Black slows when he sees the quieting, "gray form" of Napoleon.

Farley employs contrast in settings as well, which include exotic and mundane locales. He balances the Black's extraordinary characteristics by portraying him with unremarkable elements of tack. Details related to racing lend verisimilitude, such as Henry's memorabilia of silver cups, newspaper clippings, jockey's clothes and cap. Slower-paced episodes balance dramatic scenes, although Farley never loses sight of elements that generate mystery and excitement. He threads a suspenseful wait for a letter about the Black into chapters when Alec's life "became as regular as a time clock."
Farley builds excitement into the concluding match race in several ways. He begins before it occurs by limiting knowledge of the Black's involvement to a few characters. The uninitiated repeatedly wonder who the "mystery horse" is. Farley also depicts preparations in terms that stress Alec's trouble controlling the Black. In a rare shift away from Alec's viewpoint, Farley enhances the thrill of the actual race by employing the perceptions of a network sports commentator. The device permits a recapitulation of the Black's dangerous qualities. "That boy sure can stick on a horse. What a struggle is going on out there, folks!" Farley cleverly condenses the governor's post-race speech. He depicts Alec catching sight of his parents with Henry and forgetting to listen. "The governor kept talking.... Finally the governor was through."

Social Sensitivity

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Farley's sensitivity to the needs of young readers undoubtedly accounts for much of The Black Stallion's timeless appeal. There is little opportunity for boredom in a novel that unfolds at a fast pace and builds to a thrilling conclusion. The subject matter involves the typical wish for a pet, and Farley's hero Alec succeeds admirably as the owner of a winning horse. Alec is highly attractive as well because he gains the approval and respect young people need so much from peers, parents, and adults in the world at large. While the 1941 novel incorporates a few social attitudes that have dropped from favor, Farley's positive overall presentation diminishes their significance.

Farley displays particular sensitivity to the emotional process of maturation he depicts. Within the context of a unique relationship with an animal, Farley constructs a supportive atmosphere in which Alec can "try his wings" and build self-confidence. No authority figure blocks Alec's way as he proceeds with the Black, a symbol of adult responsibility and freedom. His parents especially acquiesce in letting Alec have a horse known to be untamable. In this way, Farley deftly handles the desire often seen in teenagers not only to be free but to rebel by courting danger in some form. In spite of early scenes that confirm the stallion's potential to kill, ultimately Farley confines the danger within the parameters of a competitive sport.

Farley delicately treats the subject of teenage rebellion by involving his protagonist in a mild conspiracy. Alec sneaks out while his parents are asleep to go to the racetrack with his friend Henry, a mature and supportive adult who is well able to serve as a guardian. Farley gently depicts teenage independence by having Alec hobnob with a number of respectful and approving adults, such as sportswriters and racetrack professionals. Alec is rarely shown in the company of his peers, since becoming an adult is what matters in this novel. However, Farley makes it clear that Alec has school friends who respect him.

The educational process is distasteful to many young people, and Farley seldom shows Alec at school. His approach is nonetheless very positive. Alec is understood to be a concerned student. His sole act of defiance at school is to continue sprinting down the hall when a person in authority calls out for him to stop. Henry considers school to be important in Alec's life. "We'll show your folks that you can raise a champion race horse and get good marks at the same time!" The relationship between Alec and Henry is important for the positive image it conveys of the respect and harmonious exchange of information between generations. Alec gains immeasurably from Henry's teaching and friendship, and Henry recaptures lost youth as his pupil fills his shoes as a winning jockey.

Henry comments, however, on having raised two girls who presumably could not follow in his footsteps. The 1941 novel is notable for a dearth of female characters. Mrs. Ramsay, if viewed in the context of modern standards for gender equality, may appear as a subservient as well as minor figure. She is stereotypically depicted as a homemaker who provides griddle cakes and sausages. "I'll have to tell your father," she says, if Alec neglects his studies. Mrs. Ramsay's departure alone to visit her sister in Chicago seems to reflect a time of separate and complementary spheres for men and women.

Farley's portrayal of family life emanates from a time when most parents stayed together. Teenagers like Alec worked for allowances at home rather than paychecks from outside employers. The portrayal is nonetheless very positive. The Black Stallion is a sensitive novel that stresses timeless human values. Alec has universal appeal as a character who persists to realize his dream. He surprises family members, friends, and the country at large by succeeding at something that—as Henry tells Mr. Ramsay—"no one else in the world can do!"

For Further Reference

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"Farley, Walter." In Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, vol. 84. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. Favorable overview of critical commentary with personal information and lists of books and awards.

"Farley, Walter." In Something about the Author, vol. 43. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. Biographical overview including significant quotations by Farley about his life, work, and purpose.

The Black Stallion http://www.theblackstallion. com. February 2,2001. Valuable resource for Farley's biography and The Black Stallion book, series, and motion picture.

Walter Farley Literary Landmark http:// education/farley.htm. February 2, 2001. An overview of Farley's life and importance to the Venice Public Library and to literature for young people.




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