The Horse Dealer's Daughter

by D. H. Lawrence

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Student Question

What effect does Mabel have on Ferguson in different settings, and what does this reveal about Lawrence's views on love?

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In D.H. Lawrence's "The Horse Dealer's Daughter," Mabel seems to enthrall Ferguson, but not as the story begins.

When Mabel and her brothers receive the news of their shattered futures around the breakfast table—due to their late father's debts— Ferguson arrives, but he and Mabel do not initially speak. Later Ferguson asks her, as her brothers have, what she will do—will she go to her sister Lucy to stay? She has not told her brothers, but she finally answers Ferguson. She says no, but refuses to say more, much to the aggravation of her brother Fred Henry:

"What are you going to do, then, Miss Pervin?" asked Ferguson. "Going to your sister's, are you?"

Mabel looked at him with her steady, dangerous eyes, that always made him uncomfortable, unsettling his superficial ease.

The young doctor must feel something—Mabel's eyes seem dangerous—perhaps they seem hypnotic.

Soon after, as Ferguson hurries about on his rounds, he notices Mabel walking into the churchyard, where she trims the grass and arranges flowers around her mother's gravestone, even washing the marble.

When Ferguson spots Mabel at her mother's grave...

She seemed so intent and remote, it was like looking into another world. Some mystical element was touched in him. He slowed down as he walked, watching her as if spellbound.

...her face. It seemed to mesmerize him. There was a heavy power in her eyes which laid hold of his whole being...

Their eyes meet, but they both look away. However, at the end of Ferguson's day, something happens that changes both of them enormously.

...the doctor's quick eye detected a figure in black passing through the gate of the field, down towards the pond...It would be Mabel Pervin. His mind suddenly became alive and attentive.

As he watches, she approaches the pond:

There she stood on the bank for a moment. She never raised her head. Then she waded slowly into the water...slowly and deliberately towards the center of the pond...

Ferguson gets closer and Mabel, unaware of his presence, moves deeper into the water until she is covered to her shoulders...and then her head moves beneath the water. Ferguson cannot swim, has been ill recently, and is extremely fearful of drowning himself. This may be symbolic of his fear to open his heart to Mabel; however, he gives himself fully to saving her and does fall in. He carries Mabel back to her house and sets her before the fire. Soon, she comes back to herself; she is surprised to see Ferguson and to learn what she has done.

Here, then, the relationship alters dramatically: Ferguson, a doctor, has undressed her, covered her with blankets and given her some whiskey to revive her. Suddenly, she asks him if he loves her. For several terrible moments, he fights the feeling—resists giving in. Repeatedly he thinks "...he had, really, no intention of loving her." However, when he touches her skin, his hand burns. He feels his heart is being ripped open, and as he did when saving her from drowning, he finally lets himself go. He commits himself to loving her, and speaks of marriage—even while he fears his own vulnerability in taking these steps. And as much as Mabel seems to desire his reassuring words of love, something about the way he says it "frightened her almost more than her horror lest he should not want her."

Lawrence seems to think that love can sometimes be a terrible thing, while impossible to resist.

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