The Horse Dealer's Daughter

by D. H. Lawrence

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What are the major themes in "The Horse Dealer's Daughter"?

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The Horse Dealer's Daughter is a short story by D.H. Lawrence, first published in the Saturday Evening Post in the issue dated 23 October 1913. It is one of Lawrence's most anthologized stories and has been widely discussed over time. The story revolves around a rural, working-class family consisting of three brothers and their sister Mabel. When the brothers lose all their money in gambling and are unable to pay off their debts, they are forced to sell their horse for a mere pittance and land up in debtors' prison.

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One major theme in this story is that of female oppression. Mabel Pervin, a young rural working-class woman, appears isolated in the midst of her own family. She has kept house for her three brothers for many years, but they seem to have scant regard for her, while she, in...

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turn, has become indifferent to them.

They had talked at her and round her for so many years, that she hardly heard them  at all.

Mabel’s family life, then, appears quite cold and unloving. There is further evidence of this in the way that her brothers habitually address her, calling her ‘the sulkiest bitch that ever trod,’ and so on.

When the family fortunes finally crash beyond all point of recovery the three brothers do not seem as adversely affected as Mabel does. Unlike them, she is left with literally no place to go. She cannot easily get a job, she has no education, there is no place for her in society as a single and penniless woman. While her brothers are also affected by poverty, she is doubly handicapped in being both impoverished and female. The only way out that she can see is suicide – although she is foiled in this.

Another theme is that of the divisions between social classes. Jack Ferguson, the doctor, a man of education, relatively well-off, can barely comprehend the lives of the working class, families like the Pervins who appear to him 'inarticulate', without intellect, almost animal-like. Yet contact with them stimulates him, and he finally breaks through class barriers completely when he falls in love with Mabel. However, in doing do he has to let go of his more refined, socially-cultivated self, and instead give way to his passion and instincts, which normally in his social circles he cannot do.

A third theme of the story is that of rebirth. Both Ferguson and Mabel find new life in loving one another. They have both been leading a repressed existence; Ferguson until now has had to suppress his natural instincts and emotions, while Mabel, as already discussed, has had no place of her own in the world.

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What is the central theme of "The Horse Dealer's Daughter"?

Certainly any work of literature could be argued to have a number of different themes, and this excellent short story by D. H. Lawrence is no exception. However, one of the themes that I found interesting was the way that society is regarded. Throughout this short story, the two central characters are variously shown to be repressed by society, albeit in different ways.

Mabel is clearly impacted greatly by society because of her poverty. Consider how the text describes this impact:

Why should she think? Why should she answer anybody? It was enough that this was the end, and there was no way out. She need not pass any more darkly along the main street of the small town, avoiding every eye. She need not demean herself any more, going into the shops and buying the chepaest food.

We can see therefore that it is partly the stigma of poverty applied to her by society that drives her to attempting to commit suicide.

Yet at the same time, Fergusson is just as impacted by society. Note how his success as a doctor makes him feel that he is too good for the town that he describes as a "hellish hole." His feeling of superiority causes him to fear for what others would think when he has declared his love for Mabel:

That he should love her? That this was love! That he should be ripped open in this way! Him, a doctor! How they would all jeer if they knew! It was agony to him to think they might know.

Throughout the story therefore, society is presented as a destructive and dominant force, that compels characters to act and think and feel unnatural actions, thoughts and emotions, even as they surrender themselves to their true natures.

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