Man of Steel debuted this past weekend to shatter all previous box office records for a June release. The overwhelming success of this newest installment in the Superman franchise capitalizes upon our need for a hero, for good in the midst of bad, and for hope in the midst of despair. Though comic books and superheroes are a fixation of more recent years, the art of creating characters that portray redemptive qualities is not a new one.
Such is the case with D. H. Lawrence’s “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter. Within the confines of this short story we are granted a look into the troubled life of a young woman who has long since died emotionally and the seemingly simple yet almost tragic interaction that arouses her back to life. When we are first introduced to Mabel Pervin, we are made aware of a young woman who, though she should be in the prime of her life, is emotionally cold and distant. She is given little value, as evidenced by her brothers talking at her rather than to her in the opening sequence about what choices she should make for her future.
Even when company presents itself in the form of the young Doctor Ferguson, she is scarcely noticed due to how withdrawn and repressed she is. As the story unfolds we are fed pieces of the puzzle that have led to Mabel’s inability to connect emotionally. At the tender age of 14 her mother passed away and now she merely “[lives] in the memory of her mother” (Lawrence, 705). Her mother’s passing has left her with only males in the household, her father and three brothers. “She [… loves her father, too, in a different way, depending upon him, and feeling secure in him, until at the age of fifty-four he marries again. And then she [… ] sets hard against him” (Lawrence, 705). To further exasperate her fragile view of family and shatter her sense of security her father passes away leaving them “hopelessly in debt” (Lawrence, 705). What self-pride she had managed to preserve “[suffers] badly” (Lawrence, 705) from the imposed poverty, further forcing her into her own emotional grave.
As her brothers make other arrangements for their own lives now that poverty has come upon them, Mabel “refuses this kind of death-in-life, preferring to follow her beloved mother into death” (Herbert, web) through attempting suicide by means of drowning. The very mention of the pond shows the dismal atmosphere in which Mabel finds herself by using “recurrent references to death in the grey wintry afternoon, blackened by industrial smoke and the grey clay beneath the black water of the pond: the afternoon is referred to as ‘deadened’ and ‘deadening’ as well as ‘dead,’ the word repeatedly used of the cold water” (Herbert, web).
As happenstance would have it, Dr. Ferguson is passing by as Mabel is approaching what she believes is her destiny. As he witnesses her entrance to the water, he rushes to save her despite his inability to swim. Within this scene we see the struggle between life and death, fear and bravery, taking place in the murky waters. Though Dr. Ferguson “[can] not swim, and [is] afraid” (Lawrence, 707) he does not yield in his efforts to save Ms. Pervin.
At one point he even seems to succumb to the dark waters as “he [loses] his balance and [goes] under, horribly, suffocating in the foul earthy water, struggling madly for a few moments” (Lawrence, 707). But just as the overtly religious themes would suggest, life triumphs over death and he is able to pull her out of the water and resuscitate her (Herbert, web). The themes of life versus death continue to play themselves out as we see the good doctor “thankful, full of relief to be out of the clutches of the pond” (Lawrence, 707) which so closely resemble the clutches of the grave.
As he carries Mabel out of her watery grave, much as Lazarus came forth from his earthly tomb (Holy Bible, New International Version®, John 11:44), Dr. Ferguson then later “[removes] her saturated, earthy-smelling clothing” (Lawrence, 708) just as those standing nearby were commanded to remove Lazarus’ grave clothes (Holy Bible, New International Version®, John 11:44). At last we see a portrait of someone who is physically alive but is about to be resuscitated emotionally as well.
What Dr. Ferguson does for Mabel is to arouse her not only from near death physically but to also restore her to life emotionally as well. As they yield to one another and the feelings that are both evident and those that are ambiguous, Mabel experiences “a resurrection, a rebirth she shares with the doctor” (Herbert, web). Though Dr. Ferguson is somewhat hesitant, fully understanding the price he will pay, a certain death almost, he willingly lays down his own life yet again for the “triumph of affirmation to make this not a story of death but of new life, through new love” (Herbert, web).
Throughout this sweetly tragic tale, we see the toll that time and circumstance can take on a soul. We also, however, see the regenerative power of hope that does not give up and the redemptive qualities of laying one’s life down for another. As with superheroes and literary characters alike, we are drawn to the tragedy we so easily relate to and at the same time the selfless qualities of nobility and honor that we so desperately long for.