The Horse Dealer's Daughter

by D. H. Lawrence

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What role does animal imagery in "The Horse Dealer's Daughter" play in the story's romance?

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As D. H. Lawrence so often does, in this story he contrasts the class distinctions that are so important in social conventions to the authentic passion that human beings experience. Mabel Pervin grows up among brothers who treat her roughly, calling her a “bull dog.” All four have lived at home, but with their father’s death, the household is dispersing. The plot centers upon what Mabel, who, as a young woman is not expected to live on her own; the brothers assume she will go to live with her sister. Mabel's relationship with Jack Fergusson, the young village doctor, develops in several stages. As he is a middle-class professional, at first he considers her an unsuitable partner, but he is swept away by passion.

Animal imagery is present from the outset. The appearance of the oldest brother, Joe, is described in horse-like terms, and he physically identifies with the animals. He is uncertain about leaving the ranch and, knowing his future is secure through his upcoming marriage, resents the loss of freedom. Although he is good-looking,

his bearing was stupid. Now he watched the horses with a glazed look of helplessness in his eyes, a certain stupor of downfall . . . Joe watched with glazed hopeless eyes. The horses were almost like his own body to him . . . He would marry and go into harness. His life was over, he would be a subject animal now.

Later, as well, Lawrence describes him thusly" “Joe stood with his knees stuck out, in real horsy fashion.”

The brothers say their sister has a “bull-dog” look—through “the impassive fixity of her face,” they cannot understand her. While they are warm and affectionate with the real family dog, they treat their sister coldly. When she says that she will not go to live with their sister, her brother Fred compares her to a dog: “‘The sulkiest bitch that ever trod!’ muttered her brother.”

Yet the animal comparison is not all negative. Mabel has been keeping house for her brothers for ten years, and she will now be free of this. Although female, she has some things in common with them—what Lawrence calls “animal pride." She has suffered badly during the period of poverty;

Nothing, however, could shake the curious sullen, animal pride that dominated each member of the family.

It turns out that this pride makes Mabel decide to end her life rather than go live with her sister. When she attempts to drown herself in the pond, however, the doctor sees her and rescues her. After he pulls her to safety, takes her to his home, and tends to her, she recovers her wits and defends her actions as “the right thing to do.” At this point, the animal imagery briefly returns, associated with the passions stirring in both of them—but especially in Jack, who looks at her “wild, bare, animal shoulders." As she decides that Jack’s saving her and undressing her means he loves her, he suddenly realizes that, despite himself, he does.

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The animal imagery relates to Mabel in this short story. She emerges from the "animal pride" of the Pervin family and she is described as she lies naked on the floor as if she were an animal from Ferguson's perspective:

He looked down at the tangled wet hair, the wild, bare, animal shoulders.

The use of such animal imagery serves two purposes in this story. Firstly, it highlights the humble origins of Mabel which stand in complete contrast to the background and present social situation of Ferguson. Secondly, they serve to highlight the kind of elemental, animal passion that seize both Mabel and Ferguson as they find themselves overcome by their love and passion for each other. This is particularly the case with Ferguson, whose mind comes up with a number of reasons not to pursue this relationship with Mabel, but whose body and passion forces him to continue being with her. Lawrence presents these two characters fundamentally as animals; driven by their passions, emotions and urges rather than the cool, objective voice of reason. The title of this short story therefore helps focus the reader's attention on these two themes. As befitting her status as "the horse dealer's daughter," Mabel herself is presented as being subject to animal urges and also of coming from a lower class than Ferguson. These are two aspects that Lawrence skillfully weaves into the theme of this short story.

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How is animal imagery used and how it is integrated into "The Horse Dealer's Daughter"?

Significantly, animal imagery is used to describe Mabel when she is naked and after she comes round when Fergusson revives her after she tries to drown herself. This of course is highly significant, because it seems to emphasise the way in which the overpowering sensuality of this encounter relates more to the sexual drive of animals than to the reasoned and rational approach of humans. Lawrence seems to be suggesting that there is more of the animal in us than we would like to admit. Consider the following example:

He looked down at the tangled wet hair, the wild, bare, animal shoulders. He was amazed, bewildered and afraid.

Note how the description of Mabel's "animal shoulders" is coupled with Fergussons fear and amazement that he is so easily overpowered by love. Although Fergusson and we as humans believe that we are separate from animals because of our ability to reason, this story argues that humans have animal instincts and drives that often overpower that reason.

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