The Horse-Dealer's Daughter
By D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Point of View
Plot Summary
Conflicts, Tone
What About Lucy?
Focus on the Eyes
Figures of Speech
Questions, Essay Topics
Biography of Lawrence
Complete Free Text
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2012.

Type of Work

.......“The Horse Dealer's Daughter” is a short story centering on the psychological effects of changing times on people in a small town rural England.  The story first appeared in the April 1922 issue of The English Review, a literary magazine published in London. 

.......The time is winter. The action takes place in the early 1920's in and around a home at the edge of a small English town. The landscape is dreary and cheerless. 


Mabel Pervin: Twenty-seven-year-old daughter of a deceased horse dealer. His death left Mabel and her brothers impoverished and jobless. 
Joe Pervin: At thirty-three, Mabel's oldest brother. He expects to get a job with the steward of a neighboring estate after he marries the steward's daughter.
Fred Henry Pervin: Mabel's second-oldest brother.
Malcolm: Mabel's youngest brother.
Dr. Jack Fergusson: Friend of the Pervins. 
Groom: Man who tends draft horses for the Pervins. 

Point of View

.......D. H. Lawrence wrote the story in third-person point of view, structuring the story as follows:

First part of the story: Omniscient third-person point of view focusing on all the characters.
Second part of the story: Omniscient third-person point of view from the perspective of Mabel Pervin.
Third part of the story: Omniscient third-person point of view from the perspective of Dr. Jack Fergusson.
Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2012
.......When Joseph Pervin died, he left financial ruin to his three sons and daughter. His horse-dealing business went bankrupt, apparently because of the advent of mechanized transportation. Now, the children sit around the breakfast table discussing what to do next. But they fail to develop a plan. 
.......The men sit smoking and reflecting. The woman, twenty-seven, looks sullen.
.......“She would have been good-looking,” the narrator says, “save for the impassive fixity of her face, 'bull-dog', as her brothers called it" (paragraph 3).
.......Joe Pervin the younger, thirty-three, looks out at the family's four draft horses passing on the road beyond the yard as the groom exercises them for the last time. It is as if the horses are part of Joe's body. Fortunately, his fiancée's father manages a nearby estate. He will give Joe a job. Then Joe will marry and become somebody else's "subject animal" (paragraph 7), the narrator says. Fred Henry, the second brother, is good with horses. But there will be no more horses now. He asks his sister, Mabel, what she will do. She does not answer.
.......Malcolm, the youngest brother at twenty-two, says she ought to go into nursing. Fred Henry suggests that she move in with her sister Lucy. Still, Mabel does not answer. Joe says she will have to make up her mind soon. Otherwise, she will have no place to lodge.
.......When a young physician named Jack Fergusson comes in wearing a cap, overcoat, and scarf, he exchanges greetings with the men. Mabel rises, collects the dishes, and takes them to the kitchen. Malcolm gets up to leave, saying will be catching an 11:40 train. After saying good-bye to Fergusson, he goes off with Joe, who is to drive him to the station in a carriage.
.......When Mabel returns, Fergusson asks whether she is going to her sister's. Mabel looks at him “with her steady, dangerous eyes, that always made him uncomfortable” (paragraph 76), the narrator says, then answers no. 
.......Fred Henry again asks her what she intends to do, and again she remains silent. Her attitude irks him. Fergusson and Fred Henry—who will be relocating to Northampton, an industrial town in the English Midlands—agree to meet in the evening at a tavern to socialize. Fergusson then leaves through the back door, which opens onto a yard and the stables beyond. 
.......At one time, the deceased Joseph Pervin had a thriving business in dealing horses. The house even had servants. But the business went sour and Pervin remarried “to retrieve his fortunes” (paragraph 95), the narrator says. When he died, he left his children nothing but debt.
.......Mabel had been the housekeeper for ten years. She was always confident and proud, for the money in the family made her feel secure. 
.......“The men might be foul-mouthed, the women in the kitchen might have bad reputations, her brothers might have illegitimate children," the narrator says. “But so long as there was money, the girl felt herself established, and brutally proud, reserved” (paragraph 96).
.......After her Lucy (her sister) left, she had no female companionship. Only horse dealers and other men came by. Mabel's mother died when she was fourteen. When he was fifty-four, her father married again. “And then,” says the narrator, “she set hard against him” (paragraph 97). When she and her brothers became impoverished after her father's death, there were hard times. Now everything is gone. Only debt remains. But she is resolved to follow her own instincts; she will determine what is right for her. No longer will she have to look away in shame from passersby on the streets. No longer will she have to settle for the cheapest food at the grocery.
.......In the afternoon, she goes to the cemetery with a bag containing a brush, scissors, and sponge. There, she cleans her mother's tombstone and clips the grass. She takes satisfaction in this task. It connects her to her mother. Doctor Fergusson passes by on his way to consult with patients. When he sees Mabel, “some mystical element was touched in him” (paragraph 103). He stops to watch her. By and by, their eyes meet. He doffs his cap and walks on, carrying the memory of her look with him. 
.......After ministering to office patients and then visiting patients in their homes, he takes a walk. Going from house to house to tend to the needs of working folk—consisting mainly of ironworkers and coal miners—wears him out. But being part of the lives of the people stimulates him. He hates the work—and loves it.
.......When he passes by the Pervin home, Oldmeadow, he sees a woman in black in the cold grayness of the twilight. It is Mabel. She is going toward the pond beyond her home. Why is she going there? He stops on a slope and watches. She pauses momentarily on the bank, then wades into the water. When the water level is nearly up to her shoulders, he can no longer see her in the gathering darkness. He runs to the pond—through hedges, over a field. After arriving at the bank a few minutes later, he thinks he sees her black figure under the water. He enters the pond. The bottom is soft, and he cannot swim. He is afraid. When the water is up to his chest, he reaches for the figure. Grasping her clothing, he slowly pulls her to shore. He ministers over the unconscious woman until she begins breathing. After wrapping her in his coat, he carries her to the house and lays her before the kitchen hearth. Although no one else is in the house, a fire is burning in the grate. 
.......Her eyes open but she does not respond further. He gets blankets and wraps her in them after removing her clothing. Then he finds whisky, takes a swig, and pours some into her mouth. She awakens.
.......“What did I do?” she says (paragraph 125).
.......“Walked into the pond” (paragraph 126).
.......He begins to shiver. Perhaps his own health is now in jeopardy. His mind goes dark for a moment, but then he regains himself.
.......“Was I out of my mind?” (paragraph 127).
.......“Maybe, for a moment” (paragraph 128).
.......He asks where to find dry clothes.
.......She asks why he went into the water for her. He answers that he wanted to save her from doing “such a foolish thing” (paragraph 135). But she says she did the right thing. He wants to get into some dry clothes, but he cannot pull himself away. She sits up and asks who undressed her. He says it was necessary for him to do so.
.......“Do you love me then?” (paragraph 142). He can only stand and stare. He is in her spell.
.......She threw her hands around his legs, drawing him close and saying, “I know you love me, I know” (paragraph 145).
.......But he never before had notions of loving her. He saved her as a doctor and brought her into the house as a professional doing his job. He resents her imposition on him. Yet he does not move. He does not break away. She pulls him down to her. He both resists and yields. For a moment he looks away from her. When he returns his gaze, “the light was dying from her face, a shadow of terrible greyness was returning” (paragraph 151). Then he gives in, smiling and dropping down to her. She cries. He holds her close, feeling her tears on his neck.
.......“You love me?” (paragraph 157).
.......“Yes” (paragraph 158).
.......They kiss, and her eyes well with tears. She moves back and sits. He is uncomfortable with the newness of this love. 
.......“I love you!” he tells her (paragraph 166).
.......Now she feels uncomfortable, and she tells him she is going to get him some dry clothes. But she stays long enough to kiss him again, then goes upstairs. A moment later, she tosses down the clothes.
.......He goes to the fire and puts them on. 
.......It is 6 p.m. He should return to the office. He calls up to her that he is leaving. When she comes down, she is wearing her best dress and says she will make him tea. He insists he must leave but goes over and kisses her. She then says her hair smells bad.
.......“And I'm so awful, so awful. Oh, no, I'm too awful. You can't want to love me, I'm horrible” (paragraph 186).
.......He holds her in his arms and says he wants to marry her—“tomorrow if I can” (paragraph 187).
.......She tells him, “I feel I'm horrible to you” (paragraph 189).
.......But he insist that he wants her, speaking with “that terrible intonation which frightened her almost more than her horror lest he should not want her” (paragraph 190).
An Interpretation

.......At the end of the story, are Mabel and Jack truly in love? Or is there another reason for their amorous behavior?
.......One can argue that love has indeed struck them—like a thunderbolt, à la Romeo and Juliet. But a close examination of Lawrence's narrative suggests otherwise. 
.......Before their father died, the four Pervin children depended on him for work, security, and shelter. He provided everything, including servants. The children had only to follow, to comply, to obey. In this respect they were like the four draft horses (paragraphs 4-6) following their groom. But when their father died, they lost their source of security and income. Mr. Pervin's business probably declined and went bankrupt because of the advent of mechanized transportation (cars, trucks). 
.......As the story begins, the Pervins are without a guide—without a “groom”—and have no sense of direction. When Joe watches the draft horses go out for exercise for the last time, it becomes clear that he himself is a draft animal, a follower who depends on others. The narrator says, "The horses were almost like his own body to him. He felt he was done for now. Luckily he was engaged to a woman as old as himself, and therefore her father, who was steward of a neighbouring estate, would provide him with a job. He would marry and go into harness. His life was over, he would be a subject animal now" (paragraph 7).
.......Of course, he was always a “subject animal,” as were Fred Henry and Malcolm. They walked in the gait that their groom established. But Mabel sees herself as self-sufficient and sure of herself. She does not even answer when her brothers question her. But she is like them in one respect: she depended on her father—or, more specifically, his money. "However brutal and coarse everything was, the sense of money had kept her proud, confident," the narrator says. "The men might be foul-mouthed, the women in the kitchen might have bad reputations, her brothers might have illegitimate children. But so long as there was money, the girl felt herself established, and brutally proud, reserved.
.......But with her father gone, she cannot formulate a definite plan for her future. The job prospects for her are dismal in a town of coal miners and iron workers. Her only inclination is to visit the grave of her beloved mother. In the churchyard cemetery, the narrator says, “she always felt secure . . . Once under the shadow of the great looming church, among the graves, she felt immune from the world.” Now, without the security her father provided, she wants to return to the loving security her mother provided. And so she decides to drown herself in the pond. 
.......But, lo, young Dr. Jack Fergusson is passing by and rescues her. Fergusson is a reserved man enslaved to his work in the dull, working-class town. He hates the drudgery of it, but he also likes the excitement of being part of the people's lives. After he removes Mabel's wet clothes, wraps her in blankets, and revives her at the fireplace, she thinks he loves her. 
......."I know you love me, I know," she says.
.......She makes advances.  He does not know what to do. He had rescued her out of his sense of duty as a doctor. That is what doctors do: save lives. However, her advances do arouse him. The narrator assesses the situation: "He very much wanted to go upstairs to get into dry clothing. But there was another desire in him. And she seemed to hold him. His will seemed to have gone to sleep, and left him, standing there slack before her. But he felt warm inside himself. He did not shudder at all, though his clothes were sodden on him."
.......Soon his emotions take over, they embrace, and he ends up telling her he does in fact love her. 
.......After she gets dry clothes for him, she says, "My hair smells so horrible. And I'm so awful, I'm so awful! Oh, no, I'm too awful. You can't want to love me, I'm horrible.'
.......But he insists that he loves her, saying, “ 'I want you, I want to marry you, we're going to be married, quickly, quickly—to-morrow if I can.”
.......The doctor's emotions, it seems, have triumphed over his clinical, objective logic. So the horse dealer's daughter apparently ends up with a new “groom”—a bridegroom—who will provide for her as her father did, giving her security, money, a home, a purpose in life. And the staid, reserved doctor ends up acknowledging his primal instincts. 
.......People marry for many reasons; love is only one of them. Hence, we arrive at the main theme: the power of primal desires, discussed below. 




The Power of Primal Desires

.......Mabel desires what all humans have desired since the age of cave dwellers: security, a place to live, a caring presence. These are fundamental, primal desires. Deprived of them, Mabel attempts suicide. After Dr. Fergusson rescues her, she realizes that he can provide her needs. She then uses her whiles to play to one of his primal desires: the desire for sexual fulfillment. Moments later, he vows his love for her and wants to marry her. 

The Effect of Heavy Industry and Technology on a Rural Town

.......The coal and mining industries apparently industrialized the small town where the Pervins live, perhaps driving some of the genteel families away and attracting farmers and other workers to the factories. Meanwhile, the automobile began displacing horses, forcing many horse dealers, blacksmiths, and saddlers out of business. The townspeople then had to retool their lives. Many families, like the Pervins, no doubt had difficulty readjusting. Some chose to relocate. Women like Mabel were not sure what to do. Dr. Fergusson hints at the upheaval in the town when he says of the Pervins, "Another resource would be lost to him, another place gone: the only company [companions] he cared for in the alien, ugly little town he was losing. Nothing but work, drudgery, constant hastening from dwelling to dwelling among the colliers [coal minders] and the iron-workers."
.......Mabel thought her only option was to commit suicide. But after the doctor saves her, she sees marriage in her future.

Lack of Drive and Ingenuity

.......Joe Pervin is still young. He could welcome the challenges of the future. Instead, when the draft horses go out for the last time, "Joe watched with glazed hopeless eyes," the narrator says. "The horses were almost like his own body to him. He felt he was done for now. Luckily he was engaged to a woman as old as himself, and therefore her father, who was steward of a neighbouring estate, would provide him with a job. He would marry and go into harness. His life was over, he would be a subject animal now." He is satisfied to put on his father-in-law's feedbag. As for Malcom and Fred Henry, the author does not say what awaits them. But like Joe, they are ineffectual (paragraph 3).


.......Mabel is in conflict with the circumstances arising from her father's death. There is no money. There is no security. There is, she thinks, no future for her. Fergusson suffers a conflict between his emotions and his intellect. His intellect urges him not to become involved with Mabel. As the narrator says, “He had no intention of loving her: his whole will was against his yielding. It was horrible.” But his emotions conquer. “With an inward groan he gave way,” the narrator says, “and let his heart yielded towards her."

Tone and Atmosphere

.......The tone is serious and, at times, tense. The atmosphere is like the weather and the unpromising future of the Pervins, bleak and cheerless. The atmosphere is less dreary at the end of the story, when Dr. Fergusson asks Mabel to marry him.


.......The climax occurs when Dr. Fergusson yields to his emotions and vows his love for Mabel. 

What About Lucy?

.......The fifth Pervin child, Lucy, lives elsewhere. Lawence does not explain why she moved, but her name may hold a clue. Lucy comes from the Roman name Lucia, derived from the Latin word for light, lux. It may be that Lucy saw the light—that she and the other Pervin children were becoming draft horses following their groom (as stated in the third paragraph of An Interpretation) and decided to strike out on her own. 

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Focus on the Eyes

.......Much of the narration and communication in the story centers on the eyes. For example, in describing Joe, the narrator says, "His face was red, he twisted his black moustache over a thick finger, his eyes were shallow and restless . . . Now he watched the horses with a glazed look of helplessness in his eyes, a certain stupor of downfall."
.......In paragraph 7, the narrator says of Joe, "Then, with foolish restlessness, he 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. Then a faint grin came on his face, and in a high, foolish voice he said:
......."You won't get much more bacon, shall you, you little b - - ?"
.......Here are other passages focusing on the eyes.

  1. The dog faintly wagged its tail, the man stuck out his jaw and covered his pipe with his hands, and puffed intently, losing himself in the tobacco, looking down all the while at the dog with an absent brown eye. The dog looked up at him in mournful distrust. (paragraph 22)
  2. He was of medium height, his face was rather long and pale, his eyes looked tired. (paragraph 43)
  3. "Not as I know of. Damn your eyes, I hope not. Why?" (paragraph 53)
  4. Mabel looked at him with her steady, dangerous eyes, that always made him uncomfortable, unsettling his superficial ease. (paragraph 76)
  5. Fred Henry stared after her, clenching his lips, his blue eyes fixing in sharp antagonism, as he made a grimace of sour exasperation. (paragraph 82)
  6. She need not pass any more darkly along the main street of the small town, avoiding every eye. (paragraph 98)
  7. As he hurried now to attend to the outpatients in the surgery, glancing across the graveyard with his quick eye, he saw the girl at her task at the grave. She seemed so intent and remote, it was like looking into another world. 
  8. She lifted her eyes, feeling him looking. Their eyes met. And each looked again at once, each feeling, in some way, found out by the other. He lifted his cap and passed on down the road. There remained distinct in his consciousness, like a vision, the memory of her face, lifted from the tombstone in the churchyard, and looking at him with slow, large, portentous eyes. It was portentous, her face. It seemed to mesmerize him. There was a heavy power in her eyes which laid hold of his whole being, as if he had drunk some powerful drug. (paragraph 104)
  9. Below Oldmeadow, in the green, shallow, soddened hollow of fields, lay a square, deep pond. Roving across the landscape, the doctor's quick eye detected a figure in black passing through the gate of the field, down towards the pond. (paragraph 107)
  10. He seemed to see her in the midst of such obscurity, that he was like a clairvoyant, seeing rather with the mind's eye than with ordinary sight. Yet he could see her positively enough, whilst he kept his eye attentive. He felt, if he looked away from her, in the thick, ugly falling dusk, he would lose her altogether. (paragraph 108)
  11. He stood on the bank, breathing heavily. He could see nothing. His eyes seemed to penetrate the dead water. Yes, perhaps that was the dark shadow of her black clothing beneath the surface of the water. (paragraph 112)
  12. She was breathing regularly, her eyes were wide open and as if conscious, but there seemed something missing in her look. (paragraph 119)
  13. He had begun to shudder like one sick, and could hardly attend to her. Her eyes remained full on him, he seemed to be going dark in his mind, looking back at her helplessly. (paragraph 126)
  14. "Was I out of my mind?" she asked, while her eyes were fixed on him all the time. (paragraph 127)
  15. She felt the blankets about her, she knew her own limbs. For a moment it seemed as if her reason were going. She looked round, with wild eye, as if seeking something. He stood still with fear. (paragraph 138)
  16. "Who undressed me?" she asked, her eyes resting full and inevitable on his face. (paragraph 139)
  17. She looked up at him with flaring, humble eyes, of transfiguration, triumphant in first possession. (paragraph 144)
  18. He had been staring away at the door, away from her. But his hand remained on her shoulder. She had gone suddenly very still. He looked down at her. Her eyes were now wide with fear, with doubt, the light was dying from her face, a shadow of terrible greyness was returning. He could not bear the touch of her eyes' question upon him, and the look of death behind the question. (paragraph 151)
  19. A sudden gentle smile came on his face. And her eyes, which never left his face, slowly, slowly filled with tears. He watched the strange water rise in her eyes, like some slow fountain coming up. (paragraph 152)
  20. Then, as it were suddenly, he smelt the horrid stagnant smell of that water. And at the same moment she drew away from him and looked at him. Her eyes were wistful and unfathomable. He was afraid of them, and he fell to kissing her, not knowing what he was doing. He wanted her eyes not to have that terrible, wistful, unfathomable look. (paragraph 155)
  21. When she turned her face to him again, a faint delicate flush was glowing, and there was again dawning that terrible shining of joy in her eyes, which really terrified him, and yet which he now wanted to see, because he feared the look of doubt still more. (paragraph 156)
  22. After the kiss, her eyes again slowly filled with tears. (paragraph 160)
  23. She looked up at him, and behind her tears the consciousness of her situation for the first time brought a dark look of shame to her eyes. (paragraph 163)
  24. She looked at him again with the wide, strained, doubtful eyes. (paragraph 185)
.......D. H. Lawrence's attention to the eyes helps to convey the inmost feelings of characters in some instances. In other instances, it enhances the mysterious and sometimes unsettling behavior of Mabel. In addition, it calls attention to the fact that a good deal of communication between human beings is nonverbal and that glaring eyes can sometimes communicate more meaning than words.

Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the story. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.


The three brothers and the sister sat round the desolate breakfast table, attempting some sort of desultory consultation. (paragraph 2)

She would have been good-looking, save for the impassive fixity of her face, "bull-dog", as her brothers called it. (paragraph 3)

Every movement showed a massive, slumbrous strength, and a stupidity which held them in subjection. (paragraph 6)

The men might be foul-mouthed, the women in the kitchen might have bad reputations, her brothers might have illegitimate children. (paragraph 96)

She went regularly to church, she attended to her father. And she lived in the memory of her mother, who had died when she was fourteen, and whom she had loved. She had loved her father, too, in a different way, depending upon him, and feeling secure in him, until at the age of fifty-four he married again. And then she had set hard against him. (paragraph 97)

Still she would not cast about her. She would follow her own way just the same. She would always hold the keys of her own situation. (paragraph 98) 

A flame seemed to burn the hand that grasped her soft shoulder. (paragraph 150)
Comparison of Dr. Fergusson's sensation to a burn.
Then, in perpetual haste, he set off again to visit several cases in another part of his round, before teatime. (paragraph 105)
Use of cases to represent patients
It was a grey, wintry day, with saddened, dark-green fields. (paragraph 99)
The fields are sad.
The horses were almost like his own body to him. (paragraph 7)
Comparison of the horses to Joe's body

He watched the strange water rise in her eyes, like some slow fountain coming up. (paragraph 152)
Comparison of the rising water in her eyes to a fountain


causeway (paragraph 99): Raised road or path; paved road.
chenille (paragraph 79): Thick, soft fabric of cotton or silk. 
colliers (paragraph 106): Coal miners.
coping-stone (paragraph 101): Stone sloped to carry water away.
fender (paragraph 8): Screen in front of a fireplace.
foundries (paragraph 99): Factories for melting and casting metals.
groom (paragraph 6): Person who tends horses.
museau (paragraph 17): Snout; nose and jaws.
post (paragraph 2): Mail.
rhapsodic (paragraph 149): Ecstatic; enthusiastic.
sang-froid (paragraph 11): Coolness; composure.
scullery (paragraph 176): Room off the kitchen for cleaning and storing pots, pans, dishes, and utensils and for preparing food.
shire horses (paragraph 4): Draft horses; horses that pull loads.
skivvy (paragraph 14): British term for housemaid.
steward (paragraph 7): Person who manage a large estate or household.
trap (paragraph 58): Two-wheeled carriage.

Study Questions and Essay Topics

  • Write a short psychological profile of Mabel. Include passages from the story—as well as Internet and library research wherever necessary—to support your thesis.
  • Write a short psychological profile of Dr. Fergusson. Include passages from the story—as well as Internet and library research wherever necessary—to support your thesis.
  • To what extent did D. H. Lawrence base the setting of the story on the environment in which he grew up?
  • Does Dr. Fergusson feel obligated to marry Mabel in order to prevent her from again attempting suicide?
  • Do you believe Mabel and Fergusson will live happily ever after?