Black Beauty
Anna Sewell
Contributed by Machelle Schuler
Themes are described as ideas that dominate a particular piece of literature. In almost all cases, pieces of literature will be centered a theme or a number of them.
Animals Feel Pain

One of the main messages Sewell attempts to portray through Black Beauty is that animals feel pain just as humans do, and thus abusing animals is an unacceptable practice. However, as she demonstrates in the book, this practice is nonetheless widespread. All of the trials and torture which Black Beauty and his friends have to bear--the pain of the first breaking-in process, the unnatural feel of the bit in one’s mouth and the saddle on one’s back, the torturous check rein, the struggle of pulling overloaded carts and injustice of getting whipped despite one give’s ones best efforts—all of these are examples of abuse which the horses of the story face and which are widespread in society. In order to condemn this cruel behavior, Sewell has the heroes of the story constantly oppose this behavior. She also illustrates how it will be better of for both owner and horse to have a more peaceful co-existence. Finally, she asks the underlying question of the book: what would a horse say if it could speak? Multiple times in the book, the labeling of horses as "dumb animals" occurs. Yes, they are "dumb" in that they cannot speak. But that does not mean they feel no pain, it just means they have no way to express that pain. Here Sewell is giving them a voice, and is hoping that such an expression will be enough to change society’s behavior for the better.

Religious Education

In addition to this moral education of having good character and not treating animals with cruelty, Sewell includes religious education in her book. She references Christian values throughout the book, and many of the story’s heroes are practicing Christians. Scattered throughout are references to Biblical stories, like the various characters with Biblical names whose characters reflect their namesakes’ stories, or the narrating of the Biblical account of God creating everything. In several key conversations, Sewell has some heroes of the story express their support for religion. Jerry in particular expresses such sentiments, refusing to work on Sundays to not break the Sabbath and insisting on going to Church and defending religion when his fellow cab drivers denounce it. Through these characters, Sewell is not defending all religious practice. Instead she attempts to encourage a sincere practice that creates good in society. As John Manly argues, if religion does not bring good, then it is doing wrong. And as Jerry argues, if people are not sincerely following the religion’s rules, they will not be achieving success nor will they be representing religion. So she does not defend all people practicing religion. Instead, she critiques those who claim to practice religion while they do not create good and they instead create corruption. As a note, while Sewell never mentions a specific denomination and never goes beyond the more general practices, this brand of religious education is markedly Christian.

Coming of Age

In connection to this theme of education is the theme of coming of age. The coming of age process takes place for multiple important characters throughout the book. James, Joe, and John are the early coming of age characters. Each one goes through certain trials which test his character and which, when they successfully face that trial, lead to maturation. This is perhaps most clear when Joe Green stands up for the horses when their carter—the brick porter—beats them. In a single hour Joe goes from being timid to being a confident young man. Beauty himself notes that it is as if he became a man after that. The coming of age does not take place only through trial but also through a dialogue between the elder and the one coming of age. Through this dialogue, the younger person is the student of the elder and learns from his wisdom. So both Joe and James benefit many times from the wise lessons of John. Much later on, when Harry is involved in political fights, his father tells him to see beyond outward political slogans and rhetoric and instead concentrate on the actual moral value of politicians and to judge them based on conscience. These two processes of trial and transferal repeat many times throughout the story. Of course the whole narration is also a coming of age story. Beauty begins his story with his birth and continues until his death and he is constantly maturing throughout, constantly growing and learning new things. Despite living to an old age he remains the life-long student, which suggests that he is still coming of age even then.

Reviling Usage of Alcohol

A recurring theme of the story is the evil of drunkenness. Many important characters in both the earlier and later parts of the book are impacted by the consumption of alcohol. Reuben Smith loses his job multiple times because he cannot stop himself from drinking bouts every now and then. The second time he is caught in such a state on the job, he ends up making reckless decisions and causing Black Beauty grave injury and eventually getting himself killed and Beauty permanently scarred. Sewell has such drastically negative results occur to emphasize the evil consequences of drinking. Because of these injuries Beauty is taken from his pleasant home and his living condition begins a downward spiral as he is traded from master to master. Sewell also connects cruel behavior to drink, as in the example of Samson. In the later parts of the story, Jerry says that the drink devil is the worst. It ruins a man’s relationship with his family and eats up all his money. Having provided all sorts of examples why it is bad, Sewell then provides a model to help people by having Jerry explain how he stopped. His plan of determination and prioritizing worked and for ten years he has not comsumed alcohol. If he can do it, Sewell suggests, then so can others.

Ignorance is as Bad as Cruelty

A key theme of the book’s moral message is that ignorance is as terrible as wickedness. This sentiment is introduced early on by John Manly in an incident of life-and-death importance. As Joe Green’s ignorance nearly costs Beauty his life, Sewell emphasizes the importance of fighting against ignorance and understanding it to be a destructive force. She acknowledges the argument that ignorance is innocent by having Joe’s father say so, but then she fires back against it with John’s fiery response that ignorance causes nearly as much harm as wickedness. She includes many other examples of the harms of ignorance throughout the story. The hunting accident which kills Beauty’s brother Roy is probably the first such incident: the rider did not intend any evil, but he was senseless in attempting to make such a difficult leap, and that resulted in him and his horse losing their lives. When Beauty is describing various bad drivers, the common trait throughout is ignorance. He is forced to ride along with a sharp stone lodged in his shoe because of ignorance. Ginger becomes so bitter because her old master was so senseless and cared little about her and left her to the cruel groom. Smirk’s negligence leaves them dangerously ill and at the same time the ignorance of his owner leaves him at the mercy of people like Smirk and Filcher.

Lifelong Friendship

Because the story spans from Beauty’s birth to his old age, Sewell is able to demonstrate the lifelong nature of his friendships. The friends that he meets when he is a young remain his dear friends till his dying days. Sewell has him meet many of these friends again later in the future and he remembers them and still loves them. The friendship between Ginger and Beauty in particular is very strong and beautiful. These two horses meet, become friends, then both leave their home together and both face the same hardships of becoming ruined. Their being ruined is made easier by the fact that they are with friends and have each other’s company. The two are eventually separated and years go by; yet despite the passage of time, Beauty is able to recognize Ginger when he sees her next, and the love between them is still there. So when he sees Ginger in such a wretched condition he grieves because she is his friend. And the same is true for his friendship with Merrylegs. That is so vivid in his memory that when—years after having last laid eyes on Merrylegs--Beauty sees a horse that bears a resemblance to him, he worries that this might be Merrylegs. Even at the very end of the story, when Beauty is in his last few years of life, those lifelong friendships remain. He finds Joe Green again, who recognizes him as Beauty despite all the horses he must have seen since then as a groom. They parted when both were young, but they found each other once more. Both went through so many experiences and saw so much of life,yet both remembered each other and both were still friends. Finally, the last sentence of the book emphasizes the key role of lifelong friendship to the ethos of the book. Beuaty concludes by saying he sometimes fancies he is still with his friends under the apple tree talking. Those are the words of a dying soul remembering his dearest memories. His dearest memories are thus of his lifelong friendships.

Rewards of Doing Good

One of the earliest themes of Black Beauty, and perhaps the most often repeated, is the idea that one ought always to do good, and that those who do good will receive good. Black Beauty hears this idea from his mother. Her repeated advice to him is to do his best and then hope for the best in return. Black Beauty never ceases to do just that, nor do the many other heroes of the story. Each of these characters acts with good character, and each reaps the reward of that. Possessing good character is what results in James’s promotion; it gets Joe an education; it gets John a good reputation. It is what enables Jerry to acquire a happy job in a fine cottage while his fellow drivers who used to mock his principles fail to advance. In that single incident of kindness where he helped that young lady, he receives a huge reward. Farmer Thoroughgood’s goodness in buying Beauty is rewarded when Beauty recovers splendidly and the famer makes a significant amount of money selling him. All these examples are meant to serve as evidence, one after the other, proving why one should have good character and be just. Finally there is the lifelong example of Beauty, who always gave his best, just like his mother advised. Where did he end up after all the trials, all the ups and downs? He ended up in happiness and peace, in a beautiful land with his old beloved groom and caring masters and a young willful friend. Now he can dream about old times and nearly imagine he is there because they taste so similar.

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