Commentary by Karen Bernardo
D.H. Lawrence’s “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” could be described as a story in which boy meets girl. Its plot, on the surface, resembles that of any number of traditionally romantic pastorals: a country boy saves a country girl from drowning, sees something in her that he never saw before, and, at the end of the story, proposes marriage. But, as we soon see, there is nothing typical about Lawrence’s story, because the psychological workings of its characters, particularly that of the rescuer, defy all our expectations of how such a story should work. Lawrence cuts through the romanticism inherent in such a plot line to reflect the dark and conflicting feelings of the so-called lovers.
In this story, the horse dealer’s daughter is a young woman named Mabel, who has recently discovered that her family has lost all its money; her brothers can go off and make their own way in the world, but Mabel has nowhere to go. There are a few options open to her—going to live with a sister, becoming a servant—but she has run her family’s household ever since her mother’s death, and none of these options are acceptable to her.
In great turmoil of mind, she goes down to the cemetery to trim the grass around her mother’s grave, which is an activity that always brings her peace because in caring for the grave she feels close to her deeply-missed mother. Suddenly, however, Lawrence says that “Mindless and persistent, she seemed in a sort of ecstasy to be coming nearer to her fulfillment, her own glorification, approaching her dead mother, who was glorified.”
This line forms a sort of turning point in the story. We introduce the possibility of Mabel going to her mother literally, through death, rather than just figuratively through a sense of unity with the departed one. The line also represents a turning point because right after this, we shift the point of view away from Mabel herself onto the persona of the idealistic young doctor, Jack Ferguson, who is a friend of Mabel’s brother Fred. Jack is passing near the cemetery and sees Mabel there, looking “so intent and remote, it was like looking into another world.”
Because there is little except for her physical functions holding her to life, we are not surprised when Jack observes Mabel several minutes later seemingly sleepwalking into the putrid lake. Being a doctor whose job is to save life, as well as a human being who assumes everyone wants to be saved, Jack plunges into the lake after her, and with great difficulty brings her to the surface. After resuscitating her, Jack brings Mabel back to her deserted house, strips off her wet and stinking clothes, and wraps her in blankets by the fire. Shortly thereafter she regains consciousness.
The exchange that follows is, on the surface, extremely strange. Mabel asks whether he was the one who pulled her out of the water and undressed her. On being told that he was, Mabel responds by asking whether he loved her.
Now logic would tell us that the reason Jack felt free to undress Mabel was that he is a doctor. Doctors do not look at naked women in the same way as, for example, a lover would; there is absolutely no reason to believe that he has ever looked at Mabel lustfully, or even lovingly, before. But Lawrence seems to argue that by plucking the doomed Mabel out of the water, by bringing her back into the world, Jack has assumed responsibility for her. The most traditional way for a young unmarried man to assume responsibility for a young unmarried woman is to marry her. Consequently Mabel assumes that Jack must love her, since he has brought her back to the world of the living and purports to take care of her. The fact that he has removed her clothes (as a husband would) only seals their compact. She lunges toward him and clutches his legs, murmuring “You love me. I know you love me, I know.” This is embarrassingly silly; yet inexplicably, he kisses her.
Now Jack has never, for one moment, felt an iota of love for Mabel; in fact, aside from the fact that she is his friend Fred’s sister, he’s never even looked at her twice. But suddenly he recognizes his obligation toward her. This fills him with co-mingled shame, frustration, rage—and, perversely, love. He loves her as one loves a helpless bird one has rescued from a fallen nest; yet he hates her for putting himself in this position.
Suddenly looking into his face, she recognizes with horror that he does not love her at all; “I’m so awful, I’m so awful!...You can’t want to love me, I’m horrible.” On the one hand, she would seem to be giving him an opportunity to extricate himself from this mess, but honor will not allow him to do it; as Lawrence points out, in kissing her in her nakedness “he had crossed over the gulf to her, and all that he had left behind had become void.” Jack tells her “I want you, I want to marry you, we’re going to be married, quickly, quickly—tomorrow if I can.” Jack, the country doctor whose life up to this moment has been full of sunlight and promise, has to quickly marry the horse-dealer’s daughter so he will not have time for common sense to change his mind.
Many love stories have a strange sense of fatedness about them—as if the two lovers are being drawn together inexorably by some heavenly hand. In this case, however, Lawrence presents a situation in which Mabel and Jack are being sucked down into a mutual doom—and there is nothing either one can do about it.
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