Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 631
The narrator reflects on her great-grandfather and the stories about him she heard from her paternal grandmother, his ninth child, who was conceived in a stall. According to her grandmother, the narrator’s great-grandfather was obsessed with drinking, drifting, and horses. He was such a lover of horses that he owned twenty-nine of them when he left his wife and eleven children in order to run off with a circus that was passing through town. The narrator concludes that he was stolen by a horse, a dappled gray stallion trained to dance a variation of the mazurka. Seven years later, probably after the death of the circus stallion, the great-grandfather returned home to die, burned out by his obsession. He spent his last years being cared for, and he sometimes went into an open field and danced the circus horse’s dance.
The narrator’s father, obsessed with drifting, drinking, and card playing, and the narrator’s mother, a practical woman, manage to stay together, although the mother never learns to deal with the drinking and gambling. When the narrator’s father seems on the brink of self-destruction, her mother calls her home.
When she arrives home, she learns that her father is on a gambling and drinking spree in the local tavern. She prepares a broth that she takes to him and finds him in the middle of a record winning streak. Apparently excited by his run of good luck, she ministers to him by bringing him broth and beer but does not stay too long for fear she may interfere with his luck.
During the next two days and nights of gambling, the father continues to win but becomes deeply exhausted and oblivious to winning. Despite the mother’s pleading, the local doctor refuses to order the father home. At the end of the third day, the game folds because the other players are unwilling to challenge his winning streak. In disgust and disappointment, the father gets drunk and is escorted home, with his winnings, by two friends.
Like his grandfather, the narrator’s father returns home to die. He withdraws further from the world, engaging in ritualistic acts to evade death. His wife caters to him, even relenting and allowing whiskey in the house. Meanwhile, the narrator begins her grieving. She drifts away from the house, haunts her father’s favorite places, and takes up smoking. She finishes her ritual path on a stone bench under a cedar tree overlooking the ocean, her father’s favorite place to sit. She tears branches from the cedar tree to make herself a bed under the tree, where she sleeps under the stars, with the hiss of the ocean in her ears. Speaking to herself and to her absent father, she vows to enter the world of dancers and drunkards, gamblers, and lovers of horses to which she now believes she must belong. She vows to plunge into the heart of this new life and be ruthlessly lost forever.
Style and Technique
“The Lover of Horses” is told entirely through the interior monologue of the narrator, who sketches the great-grandfather and father precisely. These sketches give the story its life and suspense. Reading Gallagher’s story is like moving through an art gallery in which the paintings are endowed with sound and movement. Among these sketches are the dancing horse, the great-grandfather’s return, the father at the gambling table, the stripping away of the furniture in the room where the father dies, and the narrator at rest on the cedar branches near the stone bench, with the hiss of the ocean in her ears. An artful sketcher and a masterful teller of stories, Gallagher uses these skills to reveal the complexities of the father-daughter relationship in “The Lover of Horses.”