Themes and Meanings

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Tess Gallagher’s “The Lover of Horses” was first published in the same year that her father died in her arms after a bout with lung cancer. In the sixteen-page story, the narrator reflects on the history of men in her family, particularly her great-grandfather and her father. The exploration of the father-daughter relationship is at the heart of the sketch. The narrator needs to know how she feels about her father and her great-grandfather and to choose her course accordingly. Her final choice is between the course of her deadly practical mother and that of the lover of horses—the person who answers obsessions, plunges into life, and suffers the consequences. She chooses to be a lover of horses.

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Related to this choice is the theme of those who can be stolen by things—by drinking, by gambling, by a circus traveling through town, and by a dancing horse. An irony tied to this theme is the role of those abandoned by those who are stolen by things. The great-grandfather returns home after the death of the dancing horse, and his wife agrees to take him in and care for him. The father steals his wife’s belongings and wagers them on his card games. After his final immersion in gambling and drink, he returns to her; she takes him in and cares for him. Recognizing obsessions and luck for what they are, the men return home, cast off by the things that have stolen them. They have no deep moment of recognition, no remorse, only the childlike fear of punishment. In the instance of the narrator’s father, this punishment comes in his sense of being stalked by death.

To the last, the narrator’s father is engaged in rituals to fend off death. He changes his diet to deceive death and avoids his bed, so death cannot find him there. He asks his wife to sweep the doorway as guests come and go, perhaps so that death will not trail in on their heels. The daughter, no more eager than her father to be around when death comes, sleeps outdoors under the cedar tree, one of her father’s favorite places. In her ritual acts of grieving, she embraces his rituals of life but will have no part in his rituals of death. The mother concludes what the narrator has realized, that she and her father are too much alike. Unlike her mother, however, the narrator finds solace in her vow to live like her father and great-grandfather, as a lover of horses.

Gallagher also explores the meanings of silence and sound. The narrator’s mother desperately tries to deliver her daughter...

(The entire section contains 675 words.)

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Critical Essays