A Summary and Critical Analysis of "The Horse Dealer's Daughter" by D.H. Lawrence

Updated on June 18, 2014

The work of controversial English author D. H. Lawrence explores human nature through explicit sexual descriptions and intense psychological dialogue. Lawrence's short fiction often reflects his dark experiences of growing up in a radical and industrial England. World War I also had a strong impact on Lawrence - through much of his work, he uses a continuing symbolic cycle of life and death to display how new life can be given to individuals or societies of the verge of despair. Specifically, in his work of short fiction titled "The Horse-Dealer's Daughter," Lawrence displays the redemption of a traditionally English society through a love affair between the town doctor and a girl whom he rescues from committing suicide. In this story, Lawrence abandons the romantic style that such a story would typically embrace by illuminating the deeply conflicting emotions of the two characters. He suggests that the need felt by both of these characters to be loved drives their actions throughout the story. Lawrence argues that the universal need to be loved is often confused when emotions and expectations collide; however these two disparate feelings are reconciled in Lawrence's world when the female assumes a dominant role and expresses her desire for love and the male submissively fulfills her expectations.

Mabel is the daughter of a horse dealer who has recently died and left the family in debt. Mabel's mother had died some time before this, and her brothers plan to move away. Mabel's brothers do not concern themselves with her - her only option is to move in with her sister and become a servant. In such a depressed and apathetic state, Mabel often visits her mother's grave to decorate it with flowers. On one such occasion, a young doctor named Jack Ferguson watches her from a distance. She leaves the grave, walks through a field, and proceeds to walk directly into a lake. Jack watches her from afar, stupefied, and when she does not surface, he quickly runs in after her and saves her. Jack brings her to the house, where he takes off her wet clothes and wraps her in blankets by a warm fire. Upon awakening, Mabel is confused and asks Jack if he was the one who saved her from the lake and undressed her. When Jack responds that it was him, she asks if he loves her. She then begins to insist - she grabs on to him and says repeatedly "you love me, you love me, I know you love me, I know." Jack is shocked and does not know how to respond. Mabel begins to kiss him, passionately, still repeating "you love me" over and over, until finally, Jack responds that he does.

An in-depth analysis of Mabel's character illustrates how her actions and demands for Jack's love are solely based on her emotional state. When Mabel, who feels her life is void and worthless, walks into the lake to end her life, she does not wish for anyone to rescue her. However, when Jack automatically jumps into the frigid waters to save her, not even knowing how to swim, he is acting in terms of his obligation to her as a doctor. Jack is also a human being who assumes that Mabel wants to be saved. This collision of intentions causes confusion between the two characters:

"'Did you dive into the pond for me?' she asked.

'No' he answered. 'I walked in. But I went overhead as well.'

'Why did you?' she asked.

'Because I didn't want you to do such a foolish thing,' he said.

'It wasn't foolish,' she said, still gazing at him as she lay on the floor, with a sofa cushion under her head. 'It was the right thing to do. I knew best, then.'

'I'll go and shift these wet things,' he said. But still he had not the power to move out of her presence, until she sent him. It was as if she had the life of his body in her hands, and he could not extricate himself. Or perhaps he did not want to."

Mabel feels the only reason Jack felt compelled to save her is because he loves her, while Jack feels he was simply doing his job.

This division is only unified when Mabel assumes the dominant role. She forces the idea of love onto Jack. She repeats the phrase "you love me, I know you love me." Mabel believes that because Jack saved her from the lake, carried her to the house and undressed her by the fire that he is essentially assuming responsibility for her and therefore he must plan to continue caring for her. This resonates deeply with Mabel, especially during this depressed and insecure time in her life where her future is uncertain and her family members are indifferent of her fate.

"He looked down at the tangled wet hair, the wild, bare animal shoulders. He was amazed, bewildered and afraid. He has never thought of loving her. He had never wanted to love her. When he rescued her and restored her, he was a doctor, and she was a patient. He had no single personal thought of her. Nay this introduction of the personal element was very distasteful to him, a violation of his professional honour. It was horrible. He revolted from it, violently. And yet - and yet - he had not the power to break away."

Even though the idea of loving Mabel horrified Jack, he somehow felt drawn to her. She was a victim, largely of herself, and Jack is the one person who offered her assistance.

As a result of her dominance, Jack submits to Mabel's demand for love after resolving his inner conflict. The idea of responsibility for Mabel initially fills Jack with annoyance and disgust. and at the same time, love. He loves her for being helpless, but he hates her for putting him in this situation. Mabel realizes his conflicting feelings and responds by saying, "I'm so awful, I'm so awful... you can't want to love me, I'm horrible." Jack does not use Mabel's doubt as an escape from this unwanted position. Instead, he tells her that he does want her, and that he wishes to marry her as soon as possible. In Lawrence's world, love is a form of submission. The dominant female, Mabel, uses force to make her male counterpart submit to her desire. These two people, strangers at first, are now quickly and impulsively committed to each other.

Jack and Mabel's relationship is almost entirely involuntary. Mabel commands Jack's love - Jack saves her from drowning and therefore he should be committed to her for life. What seemed to Jack as a simple yet heroic rescue turns into a life-long commitment. Lawrence argues that in saving Mabel, Jack is united to her through love, even if Jack's love for her is out of guilt rather than true emotion. Lawrence insists that love is a combination of impulsive, illogical emotions, and that through this kind of love Jack and Mabel become fatedly united.


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    • profile image

      lynn treas 

      2 years ago

      This d.h. Lawrence short story was a requirement for my English 101 class at the university of Mississippi. Of all the stories we were required to read "The Horsedealer's Daughter" was my favorite, the other stories didn't rank anywhere close to it's laud. And the writer, Eudora Welty, a Mississippi author was surprisingly not of interest to me.

    • Cee-Jay Aurinko profile image

      Cee-Jay Aurinko 

      3 years ago from Cape Town, South Africa

      I would love to read this short story. I very much enjoyed this hub, Rebekah Nydam. Thank you.


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