D. H. Lawrence’s The Horse Dealer’s Daughter is a haunting tale about the complex, almost mysterious, ways of love and human relationships. Like his fellow modernist writers, viz. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, Lawrence was also very fond of a symbolic way of expression and his short stories and novels are usually veritable powerhouses of symbols. Lawrence used a huge variety of symbols in his works drawing from a great multiplicity of sources.
These symbols serve to evoke a range of additional meanings beyond and usually more abstract than their literal significance, thereby helping the author to introduce complex ideas and increase the depth of his work. This paper is intended to analyze a contextual symbol, a cultural symbol and a universal symbol used in Lawrence’s short story, The Horse Dealer’s Daughter. It also aims to shed light upon the complexity of meanings evoked through the use of these symbols in the short story.
A contextual symbol in a work is one that maintains its literal significance while evoking other meanings within the context of the story. The meanings evoked by such a symbol in the context of the story are limited within the story itself and need not be universally true or applicable. In this sense, the symbol of water as used by Lawrence in the short story under consideration can be taken to be a contextual symbol. Water in the short story is explicitly associated with coldness, lack of warmth, lack of life and even death.
The association of death with water is hinted at from the very setting of the suicide. When Mabel goes to visit her mother’s grave, she “she took an empty jar from a neighbouring grave, brought water, and carefully, most scrupulously sponged the marble headstone and the coping-stone” (46) and this work “gave her sincere satisfaction to do this” (46) since she felt in immediate contact with the world of her mother. Then an afternoon “moist” with “heavy coldness” Mabel walked to the pond and “waded slowly into the water” (48) to commit suicide.
The pond is again and again described in terms of death in the story. When the young doctor reaches the spot to save Mabel, “His eyes seemed to penetrate the dead water” (49) and as he wades in after Mabel, “the water clasped dead cold round his legs” (49). The instances can be multiplied: “he could smell the cold, rotten clay that fouled up into the water”(49), “his body was all sunk in the hideous cold element” (50), “he lost his balance and went under, horribly, suffocating in the foul earthy water”(50).
When he came out of the pond, “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” (51). The imagery persists in the climactic scene of the story as the water, its smell, the coldness it evokes death in more than one sense. In the suicide episode, it was a physical death, while in the following episode, the coldness and “horrid smell” of water comes again and again between the two protagonists threatening death for a newly blooming relationship: “he smelt the horrid stagnant smell of that water.
And at the same moment she drew away from him and looked at him” (54). In the short story under consideration, Lawrence uses a variety of animal imagery and these images too work as symbols to reveal certain traits of a character or to throw a light on their nature. This kind of symbolism is more universal than that of the specific contextual meanings the author derives out of ‘water’ in the story. For instance, when Mabel, the female protagonist in the tale is compared to a bulldog, the symbolic meaning of the comparison is immediately comprehendible.
She appears impassive to the extent of being almost without emotions. Indeed her brother’s comment about her - “The sulkiest bitch that ever trod” (41) – seems to be quite justified at this point of the story. The brothers are also described similarly with animal symbolism. The first, Joe, is himself, "Marrying, and going into harness. His life was over. He would be a subject animal now" (38). When he rises, he does so in a "horsey fashion "(40). Fred Henry "was an animal that controls, not one which is controlled" (38).
The third brother, Malcolm, has the bovine characteristics. He stares, "out of the window aimlessly" (39). Lawrence tells us that he has a fresh jaunty, museau, which sounds flattering in the English, but translates as "snout" in French. The symbolism reveals the deeper natures of the family members but at the same time points at the social descent that has taken place in the family for the last few years finally revealing the animals in them struggling for bare survival.
The mother’s grave in the story also functions as a symbol and it is a cultural symbol representing death. Mabel lost and bewildered in her life’s struggle goes to find sanctuary in the graveyard. Her passionate tending of her mother’s grave is used by the author to foreshadow her forthcoming actions. Lawrence makes it quite explicit in the story, the relation between the mother’s grave and her own death wish: "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." (48)
However, it might be argued that the mother’s grave is more of a universal symbol than a culture specific one. Another instance of a cultural symbol can be found in the hearth, which spread warmth in the climactic episode. The house is empty and the brothers gone, but a fire is burning in the hearth when Jack carries Mabel inside the house rescuing her from the cold water.
Both the protagonist feels a physical burning sensation as their passion and love tries to find expression fighting the coldness and death represented by the water: “A flame seemed to burn the hand that grasped her soft shoulder”(55). From the above analysis it might be concluded that Lawrence used diverse symbols drawing from a great variety of sources in his short story The Horse Dealer’s Daughter and he was as competent in using conventional symbols as in using symbols which are specific to the context but that invests the story with meaning beyond what is literal nevertheless.