The Many Ways of Miss Mabel Pervin
In D.H Lawrence’s “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter,” Mabel Pervin and her three brothers are left with debts to pay after the death of their father. To pay these debts, the Pervins are forced to sell every horse that they own. Then, they must separately create new lives elsewhere. Although Mabel’s brothers have decided where they will be going and what they will be doing, as the story opens, Mabel’s fate seems undetermined. Her apparent inability to plan her future is initially a source of tension and conflict. However, the events that unfold make clear that the life that Mabel has led for the past twenty-seven years has molded her into a determined and independent woman. Through these characteristics, Mabel finds her strength. Yet ironically these qualities also make her see the horror of the loss of self-sufficiency that seems inevitable with the family’s breakup. When a young woman experiences isolation her critical faculties take a secondary role and her feelings dominate her actions.
At first, Mabel’s strength isn’t very apparent. The initial scene, presented from her brother Joe’s point of view, makes it appear that Joe may be a strong, dominating voice in the story. Furthermore, Joe and his brothers speak harshly to Mabel. The three brothers know what they’re going to do now that they have to leave; Mabel does not. When Joe and Fred Henry question Mabel about her plans, she has little to say. In her silence, she seems small and weak. Ironically, it is in her silence, however, that Mabel gains her independence and strength.
These qualities emerge through the image motif of horses Lawrence uses in the story. Like a horse, Mabel is very powerful. For years she has been a workhorse of the family, especially since her father’s death: “For months, Mabel had been servant less in the big house, keeping the home together in penury for her ineffectual brothers” (Lawrence, 567). However, now unlike the horses, Mabel refuses to “go into harness” as Joe is doing (567). She will not allow her brothers to persuade her to live with her sister Lucy. She will not allow herself to be taken into another household in which she will not be heard. In this abstinence she stands in marked contrast with her brothers and displays her independence. While they are described as “subject animal” in the face of their future (567), Mabel’s “bulldog” face shows her determination (568). She fights stubbornly for her independence. Her determination and power are manifested when the doctor, Jack Ferguson, comes to visit. Notably, Jack is immediately made uncomfortable by the way she looks at him. Even in her silence, she wields a power that intimidates Jack.
This idea of Mabel being intimidating may seem counter to later events in the story. When Mabel visits her mother’s grave, she tends it gently and softly. Mabel feels most at home at the graveside because there is no danger of rejection from the dead. Knowing that death will not reject her, Mabel shortly thereafter walks out into the middle of a pond. Everything about the pond suggests death. It is referred to as the “dead water,” the “dead cold,” and the “dead cold pond” (569). Since there is no rejection from the dead, Mabel embraces this acceptance by attempting to be consumed by death.
However, the ironic power of her attempted suicide is reflected in the sudden action she inspires in Jack. The moment that Jack sees Mabel in the water he is strangely stricken; he cannot understand what Mabel is trying to do or why, but he is drawn into action. Fighting his fear, Jack walks out into the water to save Mabel. Once Jack gets her on the bank, he sees that she is “running with water” (570). Because the water suggests death, clearly Mabel is “running” with death. If Jack had not intervened, she would have succeeded in her suicide.
Seeing that Mabel is still alive, Jack tries desperately to pull her from death’s grip by making “the water come from her mouth” (570). The deadness created by the water gradually leaves Mabel’s body. However, at first Mabel doesn’t fully recuperate; she is alive but emotionally lifeless. Mabel is filled with deadness, not just because of the water, but because of the loss of life at home. Everything that she had lived with for years is now gone. All she had is dead. Jack tries to remedy her problems by putting “spirits” into her (570). Although literally Jack gives her whiskey, he is also symbolically putting life back into Mabel as well.
In these melodramatic events, Mabel may seem without strength and helplessly depressed. After all, a person who is strong and independent would not be trying to welcome death the way that Mabel does. Ironically, Mabel’s attempted suicide actually reveals her strength. At the beginning of the story, Mabel didn’t want to go live with her sister even though her brothers keep insisting that she should. In her suicide attempt, Mabel has devised a scheme or a plan that will allow her to remain in a place that she wants to be. This plan involves Jack and a pond. If Mabel can get Jack to “save” her, then she will be secure. She will have a place to go. Mabel’s independence and determination not only proves her the strength for her to go through with the plan but also the power to manipulate Jack once they are back at her house.
With the power and strength that she possesses, Mabel convinces Jack that he loves her. As Jack sees and feels the strength in Mabel, he experiences an epiphany and realizes that he truly loves her. Earlier, Jack had mused upon the excitement he feels from his “contact with the rough, strongly-feeling people” he serves; it was a “stimulant applied direct to his nerves” (568). Because Mabel possesses the characteristics that Jack desires, her plan is made even easier.
Oddly, once Jack has “fallen under her spell,” Mabel becomes a bit frightened. Of course, she sees Jack as an opportunity to stay away from her sister’s house, and she fears that her plan won’t work the way that it’s supposed to. More importantly, though, she has a fear that her plan will work. If her plan does succeed, then she will no longer be completely independent because she will be with Jack. If she loses her independence she loses her strength, and that ultimately will be her real death. Thus, to Mabel’s ears, Jack’s insistence that “I want you” is a “terrible intonation which frightened her almost more than her horror lest he should not want her” (573).
D. H. Lawrence’s story, then, offers a subtle and complex psychological portrait of “The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter.” Mabel Pervin is both a manipulator of others and a victim of social circumstance. She is at once powerful and vulnerable. Perhaps these complexities and paradoxes are what make her seem so real and so human.
Lawrence, D.H. “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter.” 1922. One World of Literature.
Lim, Shirley Geok-Lin, and Spencer, Norman A. Houghton Mifflin
Company, Boston, 1993.