Of Horse and Man

Von Anja Müller

The topic of my paper takes cognizance of an intellectual paradigm that has recently been termed the ‚animal turn‘.[1] Studies in this field are concerned with the „cultural, philosophical, economic and social means by which humans and animals interact“, presupposing that „the […] idea  of the human […] is closely tied up with ideas about animals“ (Armstrong/Sim­mons 1). My test case is the horse, whose special relationship to man renders this animal particularly apposite to exemplify how ‚human nature‘ is perceived through differences to or similarities with animals. Literary representations of the horse testify to the animal’s significance as a cultural symbol in Britain and the United States.[2] Much of this significance evolves around the notion that the horse is simultaneously perceived as noble and subservient. The idea of horsemanship, i.e. the fusion of man and animal, has engendered symbolic dichotomies based on the idea of mastery over a powerful force through other than merely physical skills. The horse has, in consequence, come to epitomize the body, the passions, sexuality or savagery, which must be subjected to soul, mind, reason or civilization.[3] The master-servant relationship implied in the horse-and-rider dyad offers a popular metaphor for governmental relations. In Shakespeare’s history plays, for example, legitimate sovereignty is frequently expressed through the metaphor of skilful horsemanship (e.g. Richard II, V.5: Bolingbroke on „roan Barbary“).[4] Besides, the issue of horse-mastery has been employed to illustrate gender relations, e.g. in order to legitimate man’s domination over woman (cf. the ’scold’s bridle‘). In a broader application, the symbol has been used to oppose wild, untamed nature vs. culture and civilization. Within this conceptualization, the horse, more notably the feral mustang, has become a powerful signifier for the West in American discourse on the frontier.[5] As for a validation of the binary opposites, the horse can signify both good and evil: For example, it has been related to divinity as well as to demons; and its sexual connotations can either express a threat or the fascination of vigour and vitality.[6] Critical studies on representations of the horse in literature have dealt with this manifold symbolism, asking what the horse represents.[7] If one looks at the horse as a cultural object, one can argue that the figure of the horse, together with its different symbolic values, emerges at the intersection of discourses that are concerned with the relationship or distinction between man and animal.

To classify discourses on man-animal boundaries one can distinguish roughly between two major positions that are marked by anthropomorphism on the one hand and by an insistence on alterity on the other. The former position is strongly represented in humanitarian or animal rights discourses, and it seeks for continuity and analogy between man and animal (e.g. on cognitive, biological or ethic levels). The latter position highlights the difference between man and animal, either to prove man’s superiority (e.g. Enlightenment) or to insist on the distinctive identity of the animal, which is supposed to be paradoxically overwritten and ultimately lost in anthropomorphism, however strongly animals‘ rights may be asserted (e.g. posthumanist, post-structural critics).[8]

The three texts I am going to investigate cover a span of three centuries. They are Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) – more precisely the fourth book, the „Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms“ – Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877) and John Hawkes’s Sweet William (1993). My discussion will focus on the use of the horse figure at the intersection of discourses on man-animal relationships/boundaries, and I am especially interested in how the texts negotiate the question of alterity or identity of man and animal/horse.

1.) Gulliver’s Travels – „A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms“

As is well known, the fourth book of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels reverses the traditional binary opposition of rational man vs. irrational horse as it juxtaposes the rational, fascinating Houyhnhnms (horses) with the physical, repulsive Yahoos (human beings). Yet whereas the plot is thus constructed around the alterity of man and animal, Swift’s satire simultaneously asks its readers to identify the animals with ideas held by human beings. Accordingly, critics have read Swift’s horses as symbols of an exaggerated rationalism (Dircks), a naïve believe in Cartesianism, deism (Kallich) etc., i.e. they have identified the horses with ideas or positions of human beings. In the majority of these readings, however, the Houyhnhnms could have been any kind of animal – so, why are they horses?[9] Traditional symbolism – e.g. master-servant relation or body-mind dichotomy – may certainly serve as an explanation. Apart from this, the figure of the horse occurred frequently as a test case in contemporary discourses defining the boundaries between man and animal. Betsy Bawden states „Contemporary Latin textbooks on logic […] often oppose rational humans to non-rational horses“ (38).[10] The distinctive feature in this respect is the ability to think and judge. The Cartesian position – as it is well known – denied this capability to animals, defining man as ‚rational animal‘. Bernard Mandeville, on the other hand, contended that the nature of both man and horse had to be subdued by training. „Man himself is an animal, a sentient machine, whose reason is little more than a spectator of and a commentator in his deterministic life. Horses think, too, ‚though in a Degree of Perfection far inferior to us.'“ (Parsons 190). A less pessimistic position was held by William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle (1592-1676), governor and riding master to the later Charles II, who had published a book on La Methode et Invention Nouvelle de Dresser les Chevaux in 1658. This book was highly popular on the Continent and in Britain, and after his return to England, Cavendish published an equally widely-read English version in 1667.[11] Cavendish writes that a horse can only be taught by using reward and punishment, because the horse „thinks of it, and retains it in his memory (for memory of thought) and forms a judgment by what is past of what is to come (which again is thought;) insomuch that he obeys his rider not only for fear of correction, but also in hopes of being cherish’d“ (qtd. in Bowden, 38). This is precisely the cognitive pattern outlined by John Locke for human beings in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690): sensual impression, memory, thought, judgment. For Cavendish these faculties were not distinctive for a human being, but could be attributed to the horse, as well. According to Cavendish, the difference between man and horse consisted in language: horses lack language as an abstract means of communication but respond immediately to impressions; therefore, they cannot feign. Swift’s own modification of the Cartesian ‚animal rationale‘ into an ‚animal rationis capax‘ (‚animal CAPABLE of reason‘ – but not necessarily using it), that is so eloquently illustrated in Gulliver’s Travels, also seems to express a severe doubt in the clear distinction of man and animal on grounds of thought and reason. His Houyhnhnms, no matter whether one reads them in a positive or in a negative light, form part of a discourse that challenges the Cartesian boundaries between man and animal, and the uncertainty about these borderlines adds poignancy to the satire.

2. Black Beauty

The question whether a horse can think is vigorously affirmed in Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. The novel is written in form of an autobiography of the eponymous horse, who, after a happy ‚youth‘ with gentle owners, passes through the hands of different masters, kind and cruel, suffers from mistreatment and physical decline until he is eventually saved by kind friends of his first masters. Due to its genre, Sewell’s novel clearly endorses anthropomorphism, and due to its fervent attacks against the mistreatment of horses (esp. the conditions of cab-horses and bearing rein) it has been considered one of the prime literary examples of the humanitarian discourse on/against cruelty to animals.[12] According to this discourse, the relation between man and animal is no longer determined by the faculties of thought or reason:

What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?[13]

These lines from Jeremy Bentham’s Limits between Private Ethics and the Art of Legislation (1789) have become a key quotation for humanitarian discourses on man-animal boundaries, which shift the focus from intellectual or cognitive properties to sensual, emotional and/or moral ones. A feeling, suffering animal could no longer be regarded as a machine – an insight of particular urgence in a period when horse and engine had become direct competitors.[14] With her plea to treat horses humanely, and not as unfeeling engines, Sewell’s novel inscribes itself into this discourse, which had already produced a number of other texts (esp. poems) that used the unscrupulous exploitation of wilfully serving horses to attack man’s cruelty.[15] Sewell transforms these traditional plots of a horse’s decline in the hands of man into a narrative of life’s ups and downs, finally ending in salvation. This transformation also owes to other discourses: Sewell’s own Quaker background surfaces as the stolidly enduring, placid Black Beauty is juxtaposed with his untractable, rebellious friend Ginger, who is not saved but dies from her sufferings (a constellation that may remind one of other Victorian novel plots, e.g. Jane Eyre vs. Bertha Mason). Following Dorré, one can also argue that Sewell’s novel displays a general Victorian tendency to anthropomorphism, that had been fuelled by the uncertainties concerning man-animal boundaries in the wake of Darwinism, and that provided a means to notionally re-integrate man into nature (hence the eventual restoration of harmony between man and horse).[16] Besides, Sewell raises class issues, as she extends the master-servant relation, pertinent to the discourse of the horse, to the world of human beings. Black Beauty’s masters come from different ranks in society, and the closest identification of horse and man occurs in the section where Black Beauty is owned by the cab driver Jerry, i.e. when both horse and owner belong to a subjected class that suffers from inhumane conditions.[17] „‚If there is any thing in the world of nature that seems clear, morally‘, asserted Philip Hamerton in 1874 [Chapters on Animals (Boston: Roberts Brothers), 74 …] ‚it is that man has an authentic right to require reasonable service from the horse'“ (qtd in Ritvo 20). Sewell’s novel appeals to her readers to rethink such accepted moral tenets. Her anthropomorphized horse becomes a veritable testing ground for humanity, as it not only raises questions about the treatment of animals, but also about that of other human beings – her plea for a better treatment of cab horses, for instance, does not come without an equal concern for the working conditions of cab drivers. A benevolent cab customer becomes the mouthpiece of the novel’s general moral: „‚My doctrine is this, that if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt'“ (164).[18] If the horse is man’s other, it is only so to reflect the better on man himself; the alterity of man and animal becomes subservient to the goal of identification.[19]

3. Sweet William

Over a century later, John Hawkes takes up and transforms these issues in his Sweet William. Hawkes’s novel about the American thoroughbred Sweet William uses the autobiographical genre and plot structure with some modifications. The first section follows the horse’s decline from the paradisiacal farm Millbank[20] over his training and successful performance at the race course to its exploitation as a hack in the hands of a sadistic, horse-hating woman. In the second part, Sweet William is rescued by ‚Master‘[21] – a man full of good will, full of talk, but utterly lacking horsemanship. He even returns to the now ruined Millbank, but his physical decline continues, and he meets his end by the hands of ‚Virginia the vet‘.

Sweet William can be read as an ‚anti-Black Beauty‚, because Hawkes’s novel ironizes its Victorian predecessor in many ways. Despite his name, Sweet William is a declared misanthropist, whose decline is partly brought about by the horse’s own viciousness that is stirred by his (over-)sensibility: „Crude currying, rough rubbing – to me these simple matters could prove intolerable. Thin skin was mine, and because of it, present bad temper aside, I could kick, I could bite, I could cause injuries […]“ (45). On the other hand, the horse’s decay is also flanked and caused by human beings who mistreat and, most notably, misunderstand the horse entirely. Whereas Sewell’s anthropomorphism sought to reapproach man and animal, Hawkes’s novel is construed around an unbridgeable gap between the horse and the surrounding human beings. Man corrupts nature, which is in itself prone to corruption, and this corruption cannot be restored.[22]

Although the autobiographical form of the novel suggests an anthropomorphic stance, it only does so to undermine the general tenets of this position. Hawkes’s novel may remind one of Cavendish’s treatise – because Sweet William thinks, has a memory and forms judgments. But contrary to Cavendish, who believed the horse to be incapable of lying. Sweet William, is very much inclined to make-believe:

The world approved of good horses, and most of all I wanted the world’s approval. To be admired, to be given preferential treatment, to be if anything more appreciated than the average horse – such was my ambition. Well I understood the power of my secret malevolence, and use it and to its fullest I surely would, but only when circumstances warranted what in its extreme form would prove to be my viciousness. When the time came that fortune once more treated me adversely, I would retaliate in small ways and large. But until then I would be well behaved, cooperative, trustworthy – or feign to be. I would come as close as I could to that fine line that separates a sensitive high-spirited horse from a malefic, downright dangerous horse. I would conceal my true colors, so to speak, as best I could“ (36).

In narratological terms, Sweet William proves an unreliable narrator who, instead of presenting the reader with an animal consciousness, raises questions and doubts about it. Juxtaposing the unreliable horse with man’s false projections onto it, the novel leaves the reader as uncertain about the horse’s true nature, as the horsey narrator is baffled about the nature of man.[23] These mutual uncertainties are not compensated for[24] but remain unresolved. The horse is man’s Other, and vice versa, yet unlike in Sewell’s novel, this alterity is sustained.

4. Conclusion

Let me sum up, at this point, with an attempt at categorizing roughly the three texts here discussed. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels engages with and challenges Enlightenment discourses on man-animal boundaries. While foregrounding the alterity of man and horse, based on the distinctive faculty of thought and reason, the satire also hints at the caveats of such a distinction. The Victorian novel Black Beauty, strongly influenced by humanitarian discourses, employs anthropomorphism to pursue its moral (and economic) goals. Sweet William, finally, can be regarded as an example of so-called post-humanist discourse on man-animal boundaries. Presupposing that man no longer holds the central position, such discourses insist on the alterity of the animal as an ‚Other‘, whose identity ought to be asserted as different, even if its ‚true‘ nature ultimately remains as uncertain as that of man himself.


Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. 1726. Ed. Paul Turner. Oxford: OUP, 1986.

Sewell, Anna. Black Beauty: His Grooms and Companions. The Autobiography of a Horse. Translated from the Original Equine. 1877. London: Penguin, 1994.

Hawkes, John. Sweet William: A Memoir of Old Horse. 1993. New York: Penguin, 1994.

Bowden, Betsy. „Before the Houyhnhnms: Rational Horses in the late Seventeenth Century.“ Notes and Queries 237 (1992): 38-40.

Burns, Allan. „Extensions of Vision: The Representation of Non-Human Points of View.“ Papers on Language and Literature 38.4 (2002): 339-350.

Dircks, Richard J. „Gulliver’s Tragic Rationalism.“ Criticism 2 (1960): 134-149.

Dorré, Gina M. Victorian Fiction and the Cult of the Horse. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.

Fielitz, Sonja. „‚When Bolingbroke rode on roan Barbary‘: The Horse as Cultural Signifier in the Early Modern Period.“ Anglistentag 2005 Bamberg. Eds. Christoph Houswitschka et al. Trier: WVT, 2006. 159-168.

Hollindale, Peter. „Plain Speaking: Black Beauty as a Quaker Text.“ Children’s Literature 28 (2000): 95-111.

Kallich, Martin. „Three Ways of Looking at a Horse: Jonathan Swift’s ‚Voyage to the Houyhnhnms‘ Again.“ Criticism 2 (1960): 107-124.

Lawrence, Elizabeth A. „Rodeo Horses: The Wild and the Tame.“ Signifying Animals: Human Meaning in the Natural World. Ed. Roy Willis. London: Unwin Hyman, 1990. 222-235.

MacLean, Hugh. „Time and Horsemanship in Shakespeare’s Histories.“ University of Toronto Quarterly 35.3 (1966): 229-245.

Parsons, Coleman O. „The Progenitors of Black Beauty in Humanitarian Literature.“ Notes and Queries 192 (1947): 156-158; 190-193; 210-212 and 230-232.

Ritvo, Harriet. The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.

Rowland, Beryl. „The Horse and Rider Figure in Chaucer’s Works.“ University of Toronto Quarterly 35.3 (1966): 246-259.

Simmons, Laurence and Philip Armstrong. „Bestiary: An Introduction.“ Knowing Animals. Eds. Laurence Simmons and Philip Armstrong. Leiden: Brill, 2007. 1-24.

Smith, Julie Ann. „Resisting metaphor: John Hawkes’s Sweet William: A Memoir of Old Horse.“ Papers on Language and Literature  38 (2002): 413-428.

Suits, Conrad. „The Rôle of the Horses in ‚A Voyage to the Houyhnhnms‘.“ University of Toronto Quarterly 34.2 (1965): 118-132.

Wolfe, Cary. „Introduction.“ Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2003.

[1] According to Armstrong/Simmons 1 (n.1), the phrase was coined by Sarah Franklin, on the conference of the Cultural Studies Association of Australasia in 2003. This year’s Anglistentag in Münster paid hommage to this paradigm shift, with a section on „The Animal Turn“, chaired by Stefan Welz and Anne-Julia Zwierlein.

[2] BELEG AUS DORRÉ. In a recent monograph, Gina M. Dorré has outlined a veritable „Cult of the Horse“ in the Victorian period.

[3] See Plato’s Phaedrus; Christian symbolism; or Enlightenment discourses.

[4] „GROOM:

O, how it yearn’d my heart when I beheld
In London streets, that coronation-day,
When Bolingbroke rode on roan Barbary,
That horse that thou so often hast bestrid,
That horse that I so carefully have dress’d!


Rode he on Barbary? Tell me, gentle friend,
How went he under him?


So proudly as if he disdain’d the ground.


So proud that Bolingbroke was on his back!
That jade hath eat bread from my royal hand;
This hand hath made him proud with clapping him.
Would he not stumble? would he not fall down,
Since pride must have a fall, and break the neck
Of that proud man that did usurp his back?
Forgiveness, horse! why do I rail on thee,
Since thou, created to be awed by man,
Wast born to bear? I was not made a horse;
And yet I bear a burthen like an ass,
Spurr’d, gall’d and tired by jouncing Bolingbroke.“

One may also think of Richard III’s loss of his horse in the Battle of Bosworth. Statues depicting kings on horses in perfect posture also incorporate this idea.

[5] E.g. the significance of the untamed mustang (see Hidalgo!). Elizabeth A. Lawrence has explored the different degrees of the nature vs. culture dyad in an essay on the significance of various types of rodeo horses. The wild horse is also a pertinent symbol in Australian literature. Dorré points out that whereas horses tend to symbolize wild nature and hence liberty in American discourse, discourses on the horse in England rather accentuate the aspect of subservience and mastery.

[6] For the former see Shaffer’s Equus; for the latter see D.H. Lawrence’s St Mawr.

[7] Such an approach owes much to the fable tradition, in which the animal embodies human characteristics and concerns.

[8] With regard to literary representations of animals, Allan Burns concludes from this polarization that a writer who intends to represent an animal consciousness by writing in a first-person perspective risks to blur the boundaries of man and animal. Contrariwise, an anthropocentric perspective, written in third person, ultimately denies the existence of such a consciousness. Burns therefore considers the figural perspective the most adequate one for animal narratives; but I hope to show, in what follows, that the options offered by Burns are by far not the only ones.

[9] An exception is Conrad Suits, who suggests: „The whole point of inverting the normal man-animal relation is not to elevate animals at the cost of humanity, as Montaigne might have done, but to deflate man’s notion of himself by stripping him of his proudest possession.“ (127)

[10]; in a footnote she adds additional secondary literature on this topic (fn. 1).

[11] A New Method and Extraordinary Invention to Dress Horses (London, 1667). I am indebted to Betsy Bowden’s article „Before the Houyhnhnms“.

[12] Incidentally, Sewell was born in 1820, four years prior to the foundation of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

[13] Jeremy Bentham, Limits between Private Ethics and the Art of Legislation [1789, Oxford: Clarendon, 1907; ebook: http://www.econlib.org/library/Bentham/bnthPML0.html%5D, ch. 17, §1, paragr. 4,  Footnote 122).

[14] Treating horses like machines is explicitly chastised in Black Beauty’s reflections on the „steam-engine style of driving“: „these drivers were mostly people from towns, who never had a horse of their own, and generally travelled by rail. They always seemed to think that a horse was something like a steam-engine, only smaller. At any rate, to go just as far, and just as fast, and with just as heavy a load as they please. […] – on, on, on, onen must go at the same pace, with no relief and no consideration“ (115).

[15] See, for instance, the popular song on „The High-Mettled Racer“ in Charles Dibdin’s light opera „Liberty Hall“: The melodramatic poem traces the heyday and decline of a race horse who, once lame and ill, becomes a hack and finally ends at the knackers: „And now, cold and lifeless, expos’d to the view, / in the very same cart which he yesterday drew, / While  pitying crowd his sad relics surrounds, / The High Mettled Racer is sold for the hounds.“ (Parsons 193).

[16] See Dorré 7, who wuotes James Turner, Reckoning with the Beast, 30: „such impulses ‚reflected the worries and psychological stresses of a once-agrarian society suffering the trauma of modernization. The essence of that trauma was the gradual tearing of man out of the fabric of the natural world.'“

[17] Seedy Sam’s lament and fate (166-168) is perhaps the best example.

[18] The idea that cruelty to animals is a „violation of moral duty“ (Thomas Paine, 1795, The Age of Reason) was already fervently expressed in the eighteenth century; see also the first two plates to William Hogarth’s Four Stages of Cruelty.

[19] Hence, the Rights of Man found their equine equivalent in John Lawrence’s claim for the horse’s „’natural rights … his claims as an animal endowed with fellow feeling, on the moral justice and the Rights of Beasts‘.“ (Parsons 210).

[20] It is certainly more than a coincidence that Sweet William’s first owners are also called Gordon.

[21] It is telling for the man-animal relation in Hawkes’s novel, that Sweet William’s ‚Master‘ only goes under this name, whereas Black Beauty makes a difference between the horse’s perception (referring to its owners as ‚Master‘) and the narrator’s voice which gives the horse owners their proper names.

[22] This is most vividly, if partly ironically, illustrated in the scene when a female groom forces Sweet William to witness his sire’s copulation with a bound mare – a scene which to the horse signifies his „loss of innocence“, and results in a deep distrust to human beings (39-43).

[23] See, for instance, the incident, when Master spends his first night in Sweet William’s box: The horse is offended by the intrusion but ultimately overcome as Master offers to share apples with him. „On went the crunching of Master’s teeth, the grinding of mine. Then swift as a bird Master stopped his eating, took hold of my head, put his nose to mine, and – oh rage and shame! – drew into his lungs loud expressive breaths of the very air that I was exhaling. But not for long, for no sooner did Master thus destroy my simple pleasure than I jerked away, yanked up my head. Stood fuming. Quivering. Had I no right even to this purest of the natural functions? Was my very breath not mine? Justified was my anger now, and not easily appeased. ‚You see, Petrarch,‘ Master said to himself in the darkness, ‚the crab apple that you have eaten is the crab apple that I love best! The sweetest scent is carried on the horse’s breath“ (195).

[24] Hawkes’s novel thus does not fulfil what Allan Burns suggests for animal stories that retain the animal’s alterity: For Burns, „Animal narratives, at their imaginative best, are not invitations to anthropomorphic sentimentality, but rather literary extensions of natural history and a potentially potent ethical force. By imagining the minds and lives of other animals, the writer of such a narrative extends the concept of Keatsian ’negative capability‘ [= accept that not everything can be resolved; to be capable of being in uncertainties] in a remarkable way and attempts to draw the reader beyond impoverished and stereotypical views of animals toward a recognition of the possible – and we must now say probable – complexity and fullness of other lives“ (350). Hawkes, however, eschews such a romantic notion and insists on unbridgeable differences. In so doing, his novel also rejects totemistic views of man-animal relations that would assume a continuity of man and animal.


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