In D.H. Lawrence’s “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter,” Mabel, the only sister in a family of headstrong, condescending men, decides to drown herself in a pond out of despair. When she is saved by Jack, the local doctor, she surmises that he has feelings for her. While he has just saved her, Jack does not want to upset this fragile young girl, and accepts hastily before he changes his mind. However, Mabel simply cannot get past her own insecurities to accept his love, which may or may not be false in the first place. The short story speaks to me on a very deep level – I, like many people, have felt lonely and desperate from time to time, and as such I empathize greatly with Mabel’s situation. Her own self-esteem problems prevent her from accepting that anyone could love her, especially someone as amazing as Jack; these kinds of hang-ups are the sort of battle I experience all the time when opening up to someone.
In the beginning of the short story, Mabel is being teased by her brothers around the dinner table. Her relationship with the three men is strained to the point where they do not even register in her mind – “Mabel did not take any notice of him. They had talked at her and round her for so many years, that she hardly heard them at all.” (Lawrence, p. 136) She feels removed from the conversation, alienated due to her sex and relative plainness. In my interactions with friends and family, I will often feel like I might as well not be there, as I am not being paid attention to – this scene reminds me of this.
It is easy to see that Mabel is depressed in this dinner scene – once her brother Fred finally opens up to her and speaks to her, his questions are meet often with silence, and otherwise, she replies with quick, clipped sentences that merely relay the information that has been inquired. Otherwise, she goes about her day – when Fred asked her another question, “she only averted her head, and continued her work.” (Lawrence, p. 138) When I am depressed, I will barely, if ever, talk to someone, and I won’t want to be involved in the conversation, just like this. Mabel’s silence is also evidence that the only member of her family she cares about was her mother, who has passed on.
Later in the story, the narrator explains Mabel’s backstory – her family is impoverished, and her father died, leaving them in debt. This has made her feel empty inside; “Mindless and persistent, she endured from day to day….this was the end, and there was no way out.” (Lawrence, p. 138) The phrase ‘mindless and persistent’ is constantly referenced in terms of Mabel’s attitude towards her day to day life, something I identify with greatly. Often, I will just want to get through the day, as there is nothing to look forward to but bad things. She is suicidal, feeling there is no other choice but to kill herself in order to reconnect with her mother and join her in death. She looks at it as a blessing – “She need not pass any more darkly along the main street of the small town, avoiding every eye.” (Lawrence, p. 140)
Of course, new salvation may be on the way when Jack saves her from the lake – she begins to feel feelings for him as soon as she wakes up from his rescue. “She looked full into his face, as if she had been seeing him for some time, and yet had only just become conscious of him.” (Lawrence, p. 143) Once she is brought back to recover, she immediately decides that she loves him, telling him so repeatedly. I have also experienced this – that idea of a traumatic or dramatic event bringing two people together is a common one, and often you will feel a strong emotional attachment due to the circumstances, but it may not necessarily be real; these two characters find that out very quickly.
From Jack’s perspective, Mabel is coming on extremely strong – he only just saved her and “he had, really, no intention of loving her.” However, despite his best efforts, “her hands were drawing him towards her,” and he does not want to disappoint, recognizing just how fragile she is. (Lawrence, p. 145) He accepts this affection because it is there, not because it is wanted; when he says “yes” to her questions about loving her, “the word cost him a painful effort. Not because it wasn’t true. But because it was too newly true.” (Lawrence, p. 147) I have also been privy to one-sided relationships such as this. Typically, these relationships involve one party investing much more in the relationship than the other, and it can often lead to disastrous results.
Of course, immediately after this revelation, Mabel begins to recognize the signs that Jack does not love her, and begins to form an excuse to let him off the hook. She says she is “awful, too awful” and “horrible,” attempting to free Jack from her advances. Jack, however, is insistent that he wants her and is going to marry her, out of honor more than anything; those words only “frightened her almost more than her horror lest he should not want her.” (Lawrence, p. 149) It can be a very scary thing when someone is insisting that they love you, but the words ring false. This is what is happening for Mabel; the combination of the whirlwind nature of their romance and her own crippling insecurities, with Jack’s misplaced chivalry thrown in, is what makes their romance fall apart quickly.
Both Mabel and Jack are searching for love in all the wrong places; they seize an opportunity for affection, but they turn it down because the effort is being forced. Jack is loving her out of pity, and Mabel was dealing with her own insecurities, and could not successfully let Jack down easily. That is something I can most certainly identify with – relationships that have not worked out because of one person not feeling the same way, but they go along with it for the moment because the person wants to save face. The scenario these two characters face in “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” is certainly familiar – stumbling into misplaced infatuation, then having to awkwardly back out when neither party wants to be the bad guy.