THE HORSE DEALER’S DAUGHTER (D.H. Lawrence): An Analysis
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
from England, My England (1922)
“My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is! Nothing but old fags and cabbage-stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest… what old and hard-worked staleness, masquerading as the all new!”
—D.H. Lawrence on James Joyce
“James Joyce bores me stiff—too terribly would-be and done-on-purpose, utterly without spontaneity or real life.”
—D.H. Lawrence on James Joyce
“[D.H. Lawrence] is a propagandist and a very bad writer.”
—James Joyce on D.H. Lawrence
From the third paragraph of “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” by D.H. Lawrence is the following sentence:
There was a strange air of ineffectuality about the three men, as they sprawled at table, smoking and reflecting vaguely on their own condition.
The word sprawl is used for the first time here (it will be used twice more in the text). To sprawl is to spread oneself out irregularly and unevenly. The three Pervin brothers—Joe, Fred Henry, and Malcolm—are positioned perversely around the table, positioned in a way that suggests their collective stupidity; they are asprawl. Sprawled makes them appear insensate, callous, obtuse, stolid. They are doing what rather careless people carelessly call “manspreading”—a fuzz word that has to do with sitting on a New York subway with one’s legs splayed frog-like. Sprawling denotes a mindless subhuman inactivity (I will return to the motif of subhumanity below).
Stupidity is the inability to grasp even basic concepts, and in that sense, all three brothers are stupid. They are not even individual entities (they are not “alone” in the sense that Mabel is “alone”); they form an undifferentiated “ineffectual conclave.” They cannot apprehend that their sister is geared toward the absence of all relations which is death–self-imposed death.
Safe in their stupidity, the brothers are sprawlingly looking forward to their eviction from their father’s house, whereas the youngest (?) daughter in the family, Mabel Pervin, is hyper-conscious of, and sensitively sensitive to the loss of her dignity, to the loss of her status, and to the curtailing of her possibilities. The men in the story propose that she might become a nurse, she might become a skivvy, or, worst of all, she might become someone’s wife. It is important to stress that she wants to become none of these things.
Mabel is not sprawling around the table: Unlike her brothers, who are only able to reflect “vaguely,” her external “impassive fixity” masquerades a hive of conscious activity (I will return to the “impassiveness” of Mabel’s exterior below).
The great draught-horses swung past.
The word swing comes into play for the first time here (it will be deployed four times altogether in the text). Swung: This connotes a mechanical back-and-forth movement. Motion without any consciousness. The idiocy of the boys’ sprawling is correlated with the idiocy of the horses’ swinging. The horses are swinging their great rounded haunches sumptuously (in a manner that pleases the senses, but not the intellect). Their movement shows a massive, slumbrous strength (the intellect is asleep). They rock behind the hedges in a motionlike sleep (they only seem to be kinetic; they are mindlessly static).
Draught-horse: a large horse that is used for bearing heavy loads.
Joe watched with glazed hopeless eyes. The horses were almost like his own body to him… He would marry and go into harness. His life was over, he would be a subject animal now.
D.H. Lawrence gets himself into some trouble here. He tells too much (which is unlike him) and shows too little (which is unlike him). I can write without fear of repudiation or of exaggeration that this is the weakest passage in the story. The writing of this passage is didactic / propagandistic (to refer to the Joycean epigraph above). It is far too explicit and spells out what should have been left to the reader to decode: Joe is looking forward to an engagement to a woman as old as himself and therefore to financial safety, and this “safety” is the safety of a kept animal. A domesticated animal. Marriage will reduce him to subjection. He will lose his vitality. He will lose his human spontaneity.
[W]ith foolish restlessness, [Joe] reached for the scraps of bacon-rind from the plates, and making a faint whistling sound, flung them to the terrier that lay against the fender. He watched the dog swallow them, and waited till the creature looked into his eyes.
And what is in those doggy eyes other than the nullity of animal stupidity, a stupidity that reflects his own stupidity? What is in those eyes other than the likeness of his own animal insensibility?
The flinging of the bacon corresponds to the swinging of the horses. The word swing, etymologically, means “to fling”—the Old High German word swingan means “to rush” or “to fling.” The idiocy of the mechanical movement of swinging corresponds the idiocy of the mechanical movement of flinging. The etymology of swing further establishes a metaphorical connection between Joe and the animals of the story (the dog, the horses).
The equine and canine metaphors bestialize all of the brothers. (Joe, in particular, is described as straddling his knees “in real horsy fashion”; he seems “to have his tail between his legs,” etc.) They are all dull, dim beasts, animals that will soon be subjected to the yoke of marriage and of other forms of servitude (labor, etc.). As all domestic beasts, they will become subject to human authority. To be an animal, according to the metaphorics of the text, means to be subjected to human power. As mentioned above, Joe will soon be subordinated to the bestial subjection of marriage. To draw out one the implications of the text: A married couple resembles two animals yoked together.
The face of the young woman darkened, but she sat on immutable.
Mabel, on the other hand, is described as seeming immutable (once) and impassive (four times): not incapable of emotion or without affectability, but inscrutable, as withholding herself from expression, from saying and speaking. Impassivity, here, means not the absence of emotion, but rather, inexpressiveness. Expression will become important in the third and final act of the story.
‘I’ll be seeing you tonight, shall I?’ he said to his friend.
‘Ay—where’s it to be? Are we going over to Jessdale?’
‘I don’t know. I’ve got such a cold on me. I’ll come round to the Moon and Stars, anyway.’
‘Let Lizzie and May miss their night for once, eh?’
‘That’s it—if I feel as I do now.’
No one appears to know what “Jessdale” refers to—whether it is the name of a fabricated city or the name of an inn or a bar–-but I suspect that it is the name of a bordello and that Lizzie and May are prostitutes therein. If I am correct about this (and I am), Jack Fergusson is (initially) a rogue and a roué, someone who isn’t the least interested in marriage. What, then, draws Mabel to him in the first place? Could it be his relative freedom from convention and from the constraints of bourgeois society?
But so long as there was money, the girl felt herself established, and brutally proud, reserved.
Her father was once a well-off horse dealer. No more. Now comes the shame that is killing her.
She would follow her own way just the same. She would always hold the keys of her own situation. Mindless and persistent, she endured from day to day. Why should she think? Why should she answer anybody? It was enough that this was the end, and there was no way out. She need not pass any more darkly along the main street of the small town, avoiding every eye. She need not demean herself any more, going into the shops and buying the cheapest food. This was at an end. She thought of nobody, not even of herself. Mindless and persistent, she seemed in a sort of ecstasy to be coming nearer to her fulfilment, her own glorification, approaching her dead mother, who was glorified.
Suicide would be an authentically superhuman act, elevating her to the status of godhood. Self-drowning would be an act of freedom that would propel her beyond human-animal subjection. An act of radical individualism. Would it not be divine for her to take her own life? Unhappily, Jack Fergusson will (try to) take away her godlike freedom and subjugate her to the conjugal yoke.
It was a grey, wintry day, with saddened, dark-green fields and an atmosphere blackened by the smoke of foundries not far off.
As Martin Amis reminds us, D.H. Lawrence never took a breath without pain. Lawrence died of emphysema at the age of forty-four. He knew too well the colliers of Northampton, near where this story takes place. Could it be that the smoke from the foundries that are blackening the sky also blackened Lawrence’s lungs? Are the black billows that Mabel sees the same black billows that killed her creator?
It gave [Mabel] sincere satisfaction to [tidy her mother’s grave]. She felt in immediate contact with the world of her mother. She took minute pains, went through the park in a state bordering on pure happiness, as if in performing this task she came into a subtle, intimate connexion with her mother. For the life she followed here in the world was far less real than the world of death she inherited from her mother.
Here, I would like to make the rather obvious point that suicide, not merely the tiding of her mother’s grave, would bring Mabel into a subtle and intimate connection with her mother.
[Fergusson] slowly ventured into the pond. The bottom was deep, soft clay, he sank in, and the water clasped dead cold round his legs. As he stirred he could smell the cold, rotten clay that fouled up into the water. It was objectionable in his lungs. Still, repelled and yet not heeding, he moved deeper into the pond. The cold water rose over his thighs, over his loins, upon his abdomen. The lower part of his body was all sunk in the hideous cold element. And the bottom was so deeply soft and uncertain, he was afraid of pitching with his mouth underneath. He could not swim, and was afraid.
It is as if Jack Fergusson’s body were being liquefied, as if his body were being fluidified in the aqueous deeps of the pond. Or is his body being softened into clay? The clay suggests, perhaps, the amorphous clay of the golem. In Jewish mysticism, the golem is a clay figure that comes alive once a magical combination of letters is inscribed on its forehead: emeth (“truth” in Hebrew). If you erase the aleph from the word emeth, the golem will collapse into dust (meth means “dead”). (See Gershom Scholem’s seminal book On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, Chapter Five.)
And so doing he lost his balance and went under, horribly, suffocating in the foul earthy water, struggling madly for a few moments. At last, after what seemed an eternity, he got his footing, rose again into the air and looked around. He gasped, and knew he was in the world. Then he looked at the water. She had risen near him. He grasped her clothing, and drawing her nearer, turned to take his way to land again.
He went very slowly, carefully, absorbed in the slow progress. He rose higher, climbing out of the pond. The water was now only about his legs; he was thankful, full of relief to be out of the clutches of the pond. He lifted her and staggered on to the bank, out of the horror of wet, grey clay.
He laid her down on the bank. She was quite unconscious and running with water. He made the water come from her mouth, he worked to restore her. He did not have to work very long before he could feel the breathing begin again in her; she was breathing naturally. He worked a little longer. He could feel her live beneath his hands; she was coming back.
The pond is the uterine vessel through which Mabel undergoes her palingenesis, her renaissance, her second birth. It is as if some tellurian current were transferred within her. She dies in the pond and is brought back to the life upon the bank. Her body has been revived, and yet her consciousness is still slumbering. Her total revivification will take place in the house, now desolate, upon the hearthrug, by the fireplace.
Who dwells within the house? Consider the following: Mabel’s father has died. Her three brothers have evacuated the house. Her sister is long gone. The dog and the horses are gone.
No one is alive in the house except for the spirit of her dead mother.
‘Do you love me then?’ she asked.
He only stood and stared at her, fascinated. His soul seemed to melt.
She shuffled forward on her knees, and put her arms round him, round his legs, as he stood there, pressing her breasts against his knees and thighs, clutching him with strange, convulsive certainty, pressing his thighs against her, drawing him to her face, her throat, as she looked up at him with flaring, humble eyes, of transfiguration, triumphant in first possession.
Emerging from the pond an amorphous mass of clay, Jack will now be resculpted by Mabel into her own creature. He will be completely reconstructed. His body was already likened to clay when it was immersed in the pond. Now his soul, too, is melting into the shapeless stuff of the pond-clay. Note that Mabel’s eyes are “of transfiguration”: It is she who is transfiguring Jack into her own effigy. She is the creator; he is the golem.
He had 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 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 to have her there embracing his knees. It was horrible. He revolted from it, violently. And yet—and yet—he had not the power to break away.
There is indeed something horrible going on in this passage, given that Jack is powerlessly being shaped, rounded, molded into something that is not of his own making.
‘You love me,’ she repeated, in a murmur of deep, rhapsodic assurance. ‘You love me.’
Her hands were drawing him, drawing him down to her. He was afraid, even a little horrified. For he had, really, no intention of loving her. Yet her hands were drawing him towards her.
I only want to underline something in the text: She is drawing him toward her. Repeatedly, it is emphasized that Jack is being reconstructed against his own will into something that is not of his own creation.
The assertion “You love me” is a performative speech act. But is it an illocutionary or perlocutionary speech act? If it were an illocutionary speech act, “You love me” would be a description of what is being done, such as, “I now pronounce you man and wife” or “I move that we adjourn the meeting.” And yet Mabel is not saying, “I seduce you” or “I make you love me.”
It is, rather, a perlocutionary speech act: that is, a speech act that is designed to have an effect on someone’s thoughts, feelings, or actions.
Every human being you meet will want to impress one’s fingerprints upon you, as if you were a ball of clay. A perlocutionary speech act is the attempt to mold someone else’s thoughts, feelings, or actions through words.
‘You love me?’ she said, rather faltering.
‘Yes.’ The word cost him a painful effort. Not because it wasn’t true. But because it was too newly true, the saying seemed to tear open again his newly-torn heart. And he hardly wanted it to be true, even now.
D.H. Lawrence has been called a “misogynist” for over a century now, most recently on Wikipedia. (Thankfully, the sensationalist accusation of misogyny has been redacted.) I don’t think that the paper Lawrence is misogynistic at all, except in his titanic, uncomfortable novel The Plumed Serpent.
However, there might be a kind of misogyny in this passage. There is a kind of love-violation going on, a tearing-open of the heart, a violation of interiority. Here we have a woman who is metaphorically violating a man.
Much in the way that letters inscribed on the forehead of the statue bring to life the golem, the words “You love me” form a perlocutionary performative speech act that gives Jack Fergusson a second birth. Mabel Pervin has destroyed and recreated him.
‘And my hair smells so horrible,’ she murmured in distraction. ‘And I’m so awful, I’m so awful! Oh, no, I’m too awful.’ And she broke into bitter, heart-broken sobbing. ‘You can’t want to love me, I’m horrible.’
‘Don’t be silly, don’t be silly,’ he said, trying to comfort her, kissing her, holding her in his arms. ‘I want you, I want to marry you, we’re going to be married, quickly, quickly—to-morrow if I can.’
But she only sobbed terribly, and cried:
‘I feel awful. I feel awful. I feel I’m horrible to you.’
‘No, I want you, I want you,’ was all he answered, blindly, with that terrible intonation which frightened her almost more than her horror lest he should not want her.
There are two “horrors” intimated in these words, the final words of the story. The first horror is the horrified apprehension that Mabel will become her mother. That is to say, Mabel is horrified that she will be mired in the same soul-deadening stupidity in which her mother was steeped and in which her brothers are steeped. We return, then, to the opening moments of the text: to the image of the yoked horses (which figures marriage as subordination and subjection to the will of another). The second horror is that she will be undesired or no longer desired.
Consider this: Mabel has created a golem that will desire her, a male Pygmalion, a Frankensteinian monster. And now, her creation desires her too much. Golem-making is dangerous, as Scholem reminds us, but the source of danger is not the golem itself, or the forces emanating from the golem, but rather the conflict that arises within the golem-maker herself. It is a conflict between the horror of being desired by one’s creature and the horror of not being desired enough by one’s creature or the horror of not being desired at all, the horror of undesirability. It is a conflict between the horror of being-desired and the horror of the absence of being-desired.