The Horse: Beloved Metaphor of Your Favorite 19th-Century Novelists
How One Animal Came to Symbolize Love and Broken Marriages
The word “metaphor” comes from the Greek metaphorein, meaning to carry, to transport, which refers, in this sense, to the act of transferring something from here to there; for example, the transference of meaning from what is literally said to what is actually meant. In other words, the wealth of a metaphor consists in an intellectual shuttle service between contexts that are sufficiently vaguely defined to allow such an excursion to be made. Among all the historical protagonists who were capable of taking on this transportation role, the horse had an idiosyncratic double talent to offer. Indeed, it was already distinguished in the real world by being able to carry something and, secondly, to transport this “something” elsewhere, to another place or another level. It was not to be outdone by any other living thing in this functional duality; no other creature carried out the services of transporting, and raising to another level, with anything like the same reliability, speed, and grace.
Added to this was the metaphorical power of the horse in the symbolic realm, that is, its capacity to lend a tangible, memorable form to ideas and feelings. The horse could carry not only humans and other loads, but also abstract signs and symbols; it was, in the words of Polish philosopher and historian Krzysztof Pomian, not only a phoros, a carrier of something, but also a semiophoros, a semaphore, a carrier of signs.
The practical history-making capacity of the horse is balanced with a corresponding literary story-telling capacity. Both capacities are reflected in one another and mutually augment the singular metaphoric strength of the horse, to transcend real and imaginary contexts with a leap or to bring something to collapse, as if with a thwack of its hoof. And therefore we cannot go wrong if we describe the horse as the metaphorical animal par excellence, though we must stress that the metaphorical animal, the figurative animal, and the signifying animal always remain an inalienable part of the tangible, material reality. And the physical can always rematerialize when you least expect it, just like the metaphorical lion that appears one night to the philosopher and metaphorologist Hans Blumenberg in Sibylle Lewitscharoff’s eponymous novel Blumenberg: “tactile, furry, yellow.” The horse, for all its sublimations and projections, remains a snorting, nodding, hoof-scraping, warmly fragrant reality. You can criticize a metaphor or an image, but how do you criticize a rich, composite natural phenomenon?
The focus of a considerable number of the major social novels of the 19th century is on illegitimate love and broken marriage. In the subtitle of Wolfgang Matz’s subtle study of the three most famous adulteresses—Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Effi Briest—he adds the phrase “and their men.” Is it too much to claim that the subtitle could also have been “Emma, Anna, Effi and their horses”? Indeed, these celebrity romances, like those of many of their fictional contemporaries, are shot through with haunting horse-riding and carriage scenes. It’s when riding and driving that the intrigue unfurls; it’s when driving and riding that intimate relations unfold. Love finds its way into the hidden space of a closed cab; fate finds its messenger on horseback; death finds its pale steed.
In itself, this is no sensational discovery. After all, horses and carriages were the transport mode of the time, and if we consider the importance of the automobile in the novel and especially in the cinema of the 20th century, then we might see the presence of horses and carriages in the narrative work of the 19th century as trivial. Yet, what is less trivial is observing how writers like Flaubert, Tolstoy, and Hardy made use of the horse. They exploited horses deliberately as a symbol and a substitute for something that simultaneously called for discussion and for silence, as a veiled reference to the unspoken element at the heart of their novels. The horse therefore stands between amorous women and their husbands as a living metaphor of love and death. In this world of corsets and muslin, the horse is the only being that can represent the moment of nudity: “tout nerveusement nu dans sa robe de soie” (“nervously nude in her dress of silk”), as Degas put it in a sonnet to a thoroughbred mare. The horses reveal what the people do not voice. They are the means of expressing the inner emotion of lovers and the guide that leads them around the perilous bends of the novel, the chevaux fatals of the 19th century.
The manner in which a person sits on horseback and moves with the animal says everything about his inner sensitivity, his sense of his body, his skills and qualities as a lover or a loved one. Charles Bovary may have completed his intellectual studies as well as “any dressage horse,” but when it comes to riding and driving, the clumsy fellow cuts a poor figure. When he first visits Les Bertaux, the estate of his future father-in-law, his horse slips on the wet grass, shies, and effects “a great leap.” His first, accidental physical contact with Emma comes when he is looking for something that he has mislaid. Comme il faut, it’s his riding crop, and as both bend down to look for it at the same time, his chest brushes against her back. “She straightened up, red-faced, and looked at him over her shoulder, handing him his riding crop.” Bovary’s life’s journey through the awkwardness that begins at a Norman prep school leads him eventually to the market at Argueil where, rapidly falling apart after the death of his wife, he sells his horse, “the last resource.”
“Flaubert, Tolstoy, and Hardy. . . exploited horses deliberately as a symbol and a substitute for something that simultaneously called for discussion and for silence, as a veiled reference to the unspoken element at the heart of their novels.“
The girl on horseback observed by the farmer Gabriel Oak, protagonist of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, looks as though she must have grown up with her horse. When she rides under the low hanging branches of a tree, she drops weightlessly backwards “flat upon the pony’s back, her head over its tail, her feet against its shoulders, and her eyes to the sky. . . The performer seemed quite at home anywhere between a horse’s head and its tail, and the necessity for this abnormal attitude having ceased with the passage of the plantation, she began to adopt another. . .” Bathsheba Everdene, as the young woman—in fact still a girl—is called, does not only ride like an Amazon, she also speaks like a horseback warrior from Herodotus, when she says to the love-struck farmer: “‘It wouldn’t do, Mr. Oak. I want somebody to tame me; I am too independent; and you would never be able to, I know.’” Indeed, the rest of the novel turns out to be the long, painful story of the domestication of an unruly woman, who breaks two strong, tough men, until at last she finds her way to Mr. Oak, who is flexible, contrary to what his name would suggest, and is always waiting nearby for her. This scene with the acrobatic Amazon on horseback not only opens his eyes to her, but also opens up an unusual way into the sphere of the narrative.
The author of Anna Karenina draws a correlation between the body of a coveted woman and that of a mare. Against the advice of the English groom, Vronsky goes in to see the nervous Frou-Frou in her stall just before their big race: “‘Oh, you beauty, you!’ said Vronsky, moving up to the mare and trying to soothe her. But the nearer he came, the more excited she grew. . . The mare’s excitement had infected Vronsky. He felt the blood rushing to his heart and that, like the horse, he, too, wanted to move about and attack.” The link is further reinforced when after this visit to see his racehorse, and just before his big race, Vronsky goes to see Anna on the terrace at her house, where she is awaiting the return of her son. Anna confesses that she is pregnant. He leaves her, “looking at her with ecstasy,” having just caught her “rapturous smile of love,” both of them having agreed in a whisper to meet again that night, and returns to the stable where his mare excites him in just as sensual a way as his lover shortly before. “Vronsky cast another look at the exquisite lines of his favorite mare, who was quivering all over, and tearing himself with an effort from the sight of her, he went out of the stable.”
Both Tolstoy, who once calculated that he had spent about seven years of his life in the saddle, and Hardy had strong links to the countryside. In their depictions of country life, both writers emphasize a second contrast: they demonstrate the penetration of machinery into the provinces, presented as a kind of pastoral idyll for all its bleakness (Hardy) and stifling monotony (Tolstoy). In Tolstoy, it is the classic example of the railways, the “machine in the garden” which forces itself into the bucolic realm.
Vronsky’s rise “with a powerful, agile movement” onto the “supple back” of his mare, again described as excited and jumpy, is the prelude to an event depicted as an act of perfect love-making between man and mare, over the three-mile steeplechase course, accompanied by Vronsky’s inner exclamations—“Oh, you beauty!”—until the vivid moment when the rider seems so sure of his success: “His excitement, his happiness, and his affection for Frou-Frou grew keener and keener.” It is shortly after this that the fatal moment comes, when Vronsky makes a jockey’s error. The mare falls and is unable to get up again, “fluttering on the ground at his feet like a wounded bird. Vronsky’s clumsy movement had broken her back.” Anna, following the action from the stands, is unable to retain her composure and unconsciously reflects the desperate movements of the mare: “She began fluttering like a caged bird, at one point getting up to go, at the next turning to Betsy.”
Karenin, witness to his wife’s despair, comprehends at this moment how things stand between her and the officer. The carriage ride home brings confrontation and Anna’s passionate confession. And so fate takes its course. In the stands at the racecourse, Anna meets her social death; she simply does not know it yet. The following months will reveal it to her, slowly and bitterly. It will be several hundred pages before Tolstoy, towards the end of the novel, describes Anna’s suicide under the wheels of an oncoming freight car. Her real death replicates the fate of the unfortunate racehorse. Anna, “looking in the shadow of the truck at the mixture of sand and coal dust which covered the sleepers,” misses the first opportunity, but then, before the next comes, she “threw aside the red bag and drawing her head down between her shoulders dropped on her hands under the truck, and with a light movement, as though she would rise again at once, sank onto her knees.” As she crouches on her knees, in an animal pose, the truck’s wheel hits her and breaks her back.
The railway accident at the beginning of the novel, where a guard is hit by a train and killed, has a deep emotional impact on Anna and has been interpreted as a blueprint for the heroine’s demise. “‘It is a bad omen,’ she said.” Yet this accident, as striking as it is, provides only a sort of abstract model for Anna’s eventual suicide. It is not until Vronsky’s accident on the racetrack that we see a true “omen” complete with blood and pulsing with life. The beautiful mare is the novel’s living metaphor; her death is a glimpse, a preliminary sketch, of the fate that awaits Anna at the end of her journey.
From Farewell to the Horse: A Cultural History. Used with permission of Liveright. Copyright © 2018 by Ulrich Raulff. Translation Copyright © by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp.