A Woman’s Movement
A feminist and psychological assessment of “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter”
D.H. Lawrence’s “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” is about a woman, Mabel Pervin, who suffers with depression after the death of her father. With her mother dying when she was fourteen, her siblings and her father with his business as a horse dealer were all she knew. When her father passes away, all she is left with is her father’s debt and her three brothers who treat her with little respect, if any at all. A series of events leads her to a revelation of herself that revitalizes her being, allowing her to love and be loved. “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” demonstrates a woman’s movement from feeling insignificant and unappreciated to empowered and cared for.
Portrayed as meek and soft-spoken, Mabel is in a continuous state of oppression and disrespect from her brothers. Lawrence establishes their attitude towards their sister in the beginning when Joe, Mabel’s oldest brother, asks her a question but then completely disregards her by turning away “without listening for an answer” because “he did not care about anything since he felt safe himself” (Sipiora 166). Not only do they constantly belittle her, but their expectations of her regarding the home further demeans her vitalizing core by subjecting her to the traditional female role of a household. They simply stand by and watch as she takes care of the dishes and laundry with no obligation to lend assistance. Their behavior can be deemed as a way for them to assert their masculine dominance due to an inheritance of their “father’s patriarchal system, a stereotypically male addiction to control which can afflict a family” (Bump). It could be said that Mabel only encourages their behavior by remaining submissive, “impassive and inscrutable” (167).
It is evident that the Pervin brothers tend to disregard women in general. They treat women as if they are inferior to men and demonstrate this through their language and actions. Joe is soon-to-be married to a woman who comes from wealth. He views his upcoming marriage as a “harness” and a feeling that “his life is over,” thus proving his blatant lack of respect for the female sex (166). The brothers belittle Mabel through name-calling and their controlling attitude. When discussing their plans upon the move, her brother, Fred, insists on telling Mabel that she will go to her sister’s and when she will go; however, it is not out of concern for her that he does so. His tone is forceful and dominating, which gives the impression that he “is eager to divest himself of responsibility for his sister” (Meyers).
One must wonder their state of mind that allows them to be so degrading and selfish. Understandably, “they were all frightened at the collapse of their lives and the sense of disaster in which they were involved left them no inner freedom” (166). It is expected that they would possess a sense of grief after their father’s death and fear regarding the changes that their lives are about to incur. As the oldest, Joe would be the one to take the male role in the household, and one would assume that would include the care of his siblings. Unfortunately, he tends to deny this role and worries only about his own well-being instead. Perhaps Joe and his two brothers were not given the proper nurturing growing up. Because they lost their mother at such a young age, their father became the only role model they had. Her death created a void in their development since, “as family systems theory emphasizes, the marital interaction is the axis around which all the family relationships revolve” (Bump). Without her there as they grew up, it is reasonable to consider that they are overcompensating for their own insecurities due to “a kind of femininity that men can never approach, that never gives reassurance of satisfaction” (Ephraim). It seems they will never be able to achieve the gentler side of their mentality that allows them to sympathize and connect with others on an emotional level, ultimately leading to a lack in feminism.
Like “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter,” Lawrence uses similar aspects in the characters and themes of his other stories. For example, Mabel resembles many of Lawrence’s other female characters in that “women in Lawrence’s fiction are frequently depicted in this mood of cruel independence” (Ephraim). Part of his writing style involves women rising above suppression into powerful roles. Another common aspect of Lawrence’s work is in the psychological sense. Freud was known for his part in psychoanalysis and Lawrence is “a virtual textbook embodiment of Freud’s theories about the pleasure principle and the death instinct” in his stories (Friedman). Lawrence has a way of intertwining certain psychological issues, such as addiction, to display everyday family dysfunction. Some of his works exhibited “an even more dominant addiction which therapists are just beginning to study, the obsession with being in control,” just as we see in “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” with Mabel’s brothers (Bump).
There is a certain quality, an “underlying coherent rhythmic form which gives living shape to a Lawrence story” (McCabe). Lawrence’s writing style and language accentuates the many aspects to “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter.” One can see a transition in his language after Mabel’s transformation. In the beginning, the language emphasizes the criticizing attitude and sadness that surrounds the household. It also provides somewhat of a foreshadowing of the upcoming events. His wording, such as “Mabel sat on like one condemned,” gives the reader an indication of her upcoming actions (168). As the story begins to encompass the attraction between Mabel and Jack Fergusson, Lawrence uses language that is stronger and more inspiring. Like Fergusson, the writing becomes “alive and attentive” (171). Not only does the language emphasize the tone of the story but it adds a dramatic effect to the events. When Jack Fergusson is rescuing Mabel, Lawrence uses terms such as “dead water” and “dead cold” to add emphasis in his description of the pond (172). Despite his use of morbidity in his expressions, the pond actually symbolizes the major conversion for Mabel and is key to her empowered being. All features to his writing provide a more vivid image of Mabel’s mental and emotional transition.
Through a brief background, Lawrence shows that Mabel’s mental state was not always an issue for her. Before the death of her father, Mabel seemed to be more outgoing and sociable. This is, in part, because of her father’s stable and wealthy income from his business as “the sense of money had kept her proud, confident” (170). From simply viewing the title of the story, Lawrence demonstrates how Mabel “has been defined by her father’s occupation” in society (Meyers). When her father passed away, her family was no longer able to live the same lifestyle they were accustom to. This took quite a toll on Mabel and the combination of the death of her parents, the debt, and her hateful siblings sends her spiraling downward into a depressed state of mind. Similar to her brothers, Mabel lacked the maternal nurturing from her mother. Lawrence demonstrates the emotional need for motherly guidance and a feminine role model by focusing on Mabel’s constant attachment to her mother, even in her death. Mabel visits her mother’s grave regularly and maintains the location, all of which gives her sense of closeness with what she has lost. Between the poverty that she now faces and the loneliness that she feels, she longs to be with her mother so much and by “substituting morbidity for sexuality, Mabel hopes to find ecstasy, satisfaction and fulfillment through a reunion with her dead mother” (Meyers). Her decision of suicide only confirms and reiterates Mabel’s depressed state of mind.
After Jack Fergusson rescues Mable, she gains a certain confidence and liberation in herself and “the story moves from death to life” (McCabe). Her focus transitions from the recent death of her father and the definitive need to be with her mother through death to her newfound love interest and feeling of security. She goes from meek to comfortable in her own skin. In Mabel’s simple statement of “I know you love me, I know,” she becomes more assertive and confident in the situation, simultaneously allowing Jack Fergusson to submissively realize his own emotions that “he does love her, against his will” (McCabe).
In “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter,” Lawrence provides all the necessary components that readers anticipate in a good story. Key to his style, Lawrence gives conflict, suffering, hopefulness, and love while revealing a rejuvenation in the characters. Both of Mable’s feelings of insignificance and admiration, as well as the transition in between, adds to the certain feminist and psychological aspects depicted throughout Lawrence’s story.