Black Beauty novel summary and theme

 Black Beauty novel summary and theme

Black beauty Summary 

Black Beauty was written by English novelist Anna Sewell, and published in 1877. It quickly became extremely popular, and led to increased activism and public concern for the humane treatment of horses and other animals. It went on to become one of best-selling novels of all time, and has been adapted numerous times into films and theatre productions. Sewell used her novel to explore themes such as kindness and responsibility, and to critique social problems such as alcohol abuse, animal cruelty, and the impacts of the Industrial Revolution. This guide references the Oxford World Classics edition. Abusive treatment towards animals is referenced in the guide.

Black Beauty is set in England in the 19th century, and is narrated in the first-person by a horse named Black Beauty. Beauty begins his life by describing a happy childhood growing up on a farm with a loving mother. When he is old enough, he is trained to carry a rider, or pull a cart or carriage. While some aspects of this training are stressful, Beauty is trained to be confident, patient, and calm. He is determined to always work hard, and to do his best to please his owner.

Once his training is complete, Beauty is purchased by a well-off man named Squire Gordon. He lives some of the happiest years of his life on Squire Gordon’s estate. John Manly, a wise groom, cares for him, and he makes friends with the other horses there, including Ginger and Merrylegs. He has many adventures, including being ridden one night for a doctor to save Squire Gordon’s wife’s life.

The Squire's wife eventually becomes sick, which forces the family to leave England. Black Beauty is one of the horses that are all given to new owners. Beauty is not treated well at his new residence, and he ultimately suffers a serious injury due to a drunken groom riding him. Black Beauty is sent from his comfortable life on country estates to a new life as a working horse in more urbanised areas because the scars left by his wounds are no longer regarded as fashionable.

Black Beauty experiences pain and adversity, but things seem to turn around for him after being bought by Jerry Barker. Jerry is a kind and compassionate taxi driver who works in London. Black Beauty remains with Jerry for three years during which time she works hard but is also shown respect and love. Tragically, when Black Beauty runs into Ginger, he discovers that hard work and negligence have destroyed her life. Jerry eventually gets sick, and after he heals, he and his family decide to relocate to the countryside from London. Black Beauty is promoted once more.

Since he is older, and his health is becoming more and more fragile, Beauty quickly passes from owner to owner. He is treated worse and worse each time. One day, Black Beauty collapses while attempting to pull an overloaded cab. He nearly dies, but is purchased by a kindly farmer who can see that Beauty was once a beautiful and elegant horse. After being nursed back to health, Black Beauty becomes a gentle and reliable horse, and is sold to a pair of ladies. He is reunited with a former stableboy whom he knew during his time with Squire Gordon, and lives a happy and quiet life at last.

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Black Beauty Character Analysis

Black Beauty is the protagonist and narrator of the novel. He is a handsome and elegant black horse with “a sweet good-tempered face and such a fine intelligent eye” (17); his appearance is so aesthetically appealing that it earns him the name Black Beauty, and is noted by many characters throughout the plot. Black Beauty comes from a good pedigree of notable horses: his mother tells him that, “your father has a great name in these parts, and your grandfather won the cup two years at the Newmarket races” (4). In addition to his handsome appearance, Black Beauty is hard-working, loyal, and brave. He often comments on wanting to do his best, and please people; for example, after John urges him to run as fast as possible to get to the doctor, “I wanted no whip nor spur, and for two miles I galloped as fast as I could lay my feet on the ground” (63).

Because the plot follows the entirety of his life, readers see how Black Beauty’s character is formed and developed during his early life. Black Beauty takes to heart messages from his mother, such as her advice to “do your best wherever it is, and keep up your good name” (12), and he is also shaped by the shrewd practices of his first master. For example, Black Beauty recalls how he is “as fearless at railway stations as in my own stable” (12) because of how his first master gradually exposed him to trains. Because he is exposed to gentleness and affection at an early age, Beauty longs for friendship and affection throughout his life, and always responds well to it. For example, when little Dolly affectionately pets him, Beauty marvels at “how good it felt!” (120).

Black Beauty's personality does not significantly change throughout the course of the book; despite all the hardships he faces, he primarily maintains his optimism, loyalty, and trustworthiness. For instance, Beauty remembers laying down "thinking I was going to be happy" (120), which is significant given that by this time, Beauty has been mistreated and abused by numerous individuals. While occasionally bordering on bitterness, Beauty does become upset when he witnesses or hears about injustice. For instance, when he learns that horses and dogs are having their tails clipped, "a bitter emotion towards men [rose] up in my mind that I had never had before" (35). He's amenable to sarcasm and

Eventually, when Beauty has endured a great deal of suffering, he does fall into despair, and even thinks “my life was now so utterly wretched, that I wished I might, like Ginger, drop down dead at my work, and be out of my misery” (180). However, Beauty does recover his spirit and become optimistic again: when he sees men inspecting him at the horse-fair, he thinks that “there were others that I would have willingly used the last of my strength in serving” (183). In the end, Beauty’s resilience and hard-working nature are rewarded with a happy home at last.


Ginger is an important secondary character who functions as a foil to Black Beauty. Ginger is a chestnut colored mare, and like Beauty, she is well-bred and striking in appearance. Unlike Beauty, however, Ginger is quick-tempered, volatile, and aggressive. When she revolts against the tight bearing-rein at Earlshall, Black Beauty describes how “she was a match for them, and went on plunging, rearing, and kicking in a most desperate manner” (81). Ginger can also be curt with other horses, as well as aggressive with humans; when she first meets Beauty, she snidely tells him, “it is a very strange thing for a colt like you, to come and turn a lady out of her own house” (14). Ginger’s aggressive and embittered behavior is attributable to how she was abused and mistreated when she was young; as she explains to Beauty, “I never had any one, horse or man, that was kind to me, or that I cared to please” (22).

Ginger is a complex character whose flaws result from her previous mistreatment, and who is shown to be capable of positive change. During her time at Birtwick Park, “she grew much more gentle and cheerful” (28), and Squire Gordon comments that “you are a good bit happier than when you came to us” (29). Ginger’s ability to change in positive ways when she is treated kindly and respectfully reflects the theme of the Inherent Goodness of Animals. However, Ginger’s overall character development is more negative; she begins to act out again when she is mistreated at Earlshall, and she falls into the hands of many bad owners. When Black Beauty runs into Ginger in London many years later, her spirit has been crushed, and she has fallen into despair. She tells Beauty that “men are strongest, and if they are cruel and have no feeling, there is nothing that we can do, but just bear it, bear it on and on to the end” (154). Even though Ginger starts off as an assertive and independent character, she becomes resigned and submissive. Her tragic death shows the helplessness and vulnerability of horses who are at the mercy of human beings.


John Manly is a man who works as a groom and coachman at Birtwick Park. He has worked there since he was a young boy, and is very devoted to the Gordon family, who helped him and his sister after they were orphaned as young children. John is well-respected by Squire Gordon, and is paid good wages. John has great love and respect for animals, and comments one day that “he thought people did not value their animals half enough” (44). John values fairness and hard work, telling James Howard that “work and I are very good friends; I never was afraid of work yet” (59). However, he is also very compassionate and generous, and always tries to be kind, telling James that “there’s nothing like doing a kindness when ‘tis put in your way” (60).

John’s character remains stable and consistent throughout the novel; in fact, he takes pride in remaining morally consistent. John has a very strong sense of integrity and kindness; he tells James that “if [religion] does not teach them to be good and kind to man and beast, it is all a sham” (48). John becomes angry whenever he witnesses cruelty and ignorance, telling Tom Green that “don’t you know that [ignorance] is the worst thing in the world, next to wickedness?” (68). However, John is self-aware and capable of reflecting on his actions and admitting when he was wrong. Even when John is worried that Beauty might die due to Joe Green’s ignorance, he concedes that “if you think I am hard on the boy, I will try to give him a good word” (68). John parts with Beauty and Ginger after they move to Earlshall, and the separation marks one of Black Beauty’s early griefs.


Jerry Barker is a man who works as a cabdriver in London; he buys Black Beauty, who works for him for about three years. Jerry is good-humored, cheerful, and hardworking; Black Beauty describes him as “kind and good, and as strong for the right as John Manly” (130). Jerry is a very loving husband and father; he works hard, and only earns a modest living, but never complains, and always shows integrity and a sense of justice. Jerry is thoughtful and religious; he is never afraid to debate and discuss ideas with other people, but he also stands up for his own sense of what is right. For example, Jerry refuses to capitulate to a customer’s request that he drive his cab on Sundays, even though it would be lucrative for him to do so.

Jerry’s character remains consistent throughout the novel, but readers do learn about a key event in his development that took place prior to the start of the plot. Jerry used to drink heavily, but he recognized that he needed to get sober, and he worked hard to do so. Jerry explains that, “my chains were broken, and now for ten years I have not tasted a drop” (166). Jerry’s character development reflects the theme of the Destructiveness of Alcohol Abuse, and also shows that characters are capable of growth and change. Jerry almost dies due to the selfish behavior of some wealthy customers, but once he recovers, he and his family move to the country. Jerry is too sick to say goodbye to Beauty, but Beauty does get to see his family before he is sold to a new owner.

Black Beauty Themes


The inherent goodness of animals is a key theme in the novel, and Sewell uses it as compelling evidence to support her argument that animals should be treated with kindness and care. By showing that animals are inherently good, loyal, and inclined to try to please humans, Sewell makes it almost impossible for anyone to justify mistreating them. The portrayal of the goodness of animals also makes the cruelty they experience even more horrifying because the theme creates contrast and highlights the injustice of the way animals are often treated. Sewell develops the theme of the inherent goodness of animals by showing animals displaying intuitive intelligence. 

For example, Black Beauty refuses to cross a river where a bridge has flooded and washed away; Squire Gordon later reports that “if your Black Beauty had not been wiser than we were, we should all have been carried down the river” (44). This example is important because when he refuses to cross the bridge, Black Beauty might be perceived as being stubborn or rebellious, but he is actually acting in the best interest of the humans. Squire Gordon and John are wise enough to appreciate Beauty’s intuitive intelligence, and later talk about “many stories […] of dogs and horses, and the wonderful things they had done” (44), but other humans might have misunderstood, and even punished Beauty.

Sewell further develops the theme by showing animals performing heroic feats and also trying their best even under very challenging circumstances. When he goes to get a doctor for Lady Gordon, and then later for Lady Anne, Beauty pushes himself to the limits of his physical stamina because he knows that the circumstances are urgent. When he learns that “my young mistress was now out of danger, and would soon be able to ride again” (89), Beauty thinks that, “ […] this was good news to me” (89). While Beauty can perform heroically to save a life, he also shows a more quotidian heroism by never shirking work, and always trying to do his best. When Beauty is struggling to pull an overloaded cart up a steep hill, he describes how “I started the heavy load, and struggled on a few yards; again the whip came down, and again I struggled forward” (175). This quiet resilience and heroism reveals how unfair it is for humans to beat and abuse animals that are trying to do their best.


Sewell wrote her novel in order to implore her readers to advocate for horses to be treated with more kindness; within the world of the novel, she consistently shows individuals intervening to prevent cruelty. Squire Gordon calls out any man who he sees using a bearing-rein, or beating a horse; Black Beauty also notes that the Squire “was just as free to speak to gentlemen of his own rank as to those below him” (40). This qualifier is important because as a wealthy and high-ranking man, Squire Gordon can easily intervene with lower-ranking individuals, but it is notable that he also calls out fellow gentlemen. John and Joe Green likewise intervene when they see animals being abused, and John praises Joe for standing up for an animal who was being hurt: “with cruelty and oppression it is everybody’s business to interfere when they see it; you did right, my boy” (71). This comment shows how it can be easy and convenient for individuals to claim that it was not their business to get involved, but also makes clear Sewell’s viewpoint that everyone is interconnected, and possesses a shared moral responsibility.

Sewell shows individuals from all different social classes intervening when they encounter cruelty, and she also shows women as well as men intervening. Black Beauty describes how Lady Gordon would always intervene in examples of cruelty, and reflects that, “I don’t think any man could withstand our mistress. I wish all ladies were like her” (39). Much later, when Black Beauty is himself being beaten while struggling to pull a heavy load, a lady stops to intercede for him. She is able to persuade Beauty’s driver to take off his bearing-rein because the driver concedes, “anything to please a lady” (176). Sewell shows confident, assertive female characters who are not afraid to speak their minds in a public space; while these character traits were not common for Victorian ladies, the notion of intervening to prevent cruelty reflected Victorian ideals of a caring and nurturing femininity. The episode where a woman intervenes to help Black Beauty while he is working as a carthorse shows how he has descended the social ladder; rather than watching other horses suffer, he is now the one who requires aid.

The theme of the importance of intervening to prevent cruelty allows Sewell to depict striking and often upsetting episodes within her novel, heightening its effectiveness. However, she could simply have chosen to represent scenes of horses being abused without showing humans intervening on their behalf; the development of this theme creates an optimistic note in the novel and encourages readers to imitate the characters whom they see intervening in the face of cruelty. This theme reminds readers that it is everyone’s responsibility to act in service of the greater good, and to do whatever they can to make the world a better place.


While Sewell’s social message is primarily about treating horses in a more humane way, she inserts an important theme about the destructiveness of alcohol abuse into the novel. Sewell depicts several characters, including Reuben Smith, the cabman nicknamed the Governor, and Jerry Barker who have past or present experience struggling with alcohol abuse and addiction. Sewell develops the theme by showing the suffering and destructive consequences associated with alcohol abuse, but she also shows nuance and compassion in her portrayal of characters who drink heavily. By showing characters who die as a result of alcohol abuse, and characters who successfully achieve and maintain sobriety, Sewell demonstrates that it is never too late for an individual to change their actions. Since all of the characters who struggle with alcohol abuse are working-class men with a responsibility to provide an income for their families, Sewell establishes a connection between the difficulties of living as a working-class man in Victorian England, and the temptations of the escapism offered by alcohol.

Reuben Smith is the first character whom Sewell uses to explore the theme of alcohol abuse in her novel. Reuben Smith is a very talented and intelligent man, who is described as “gentle and very clever […] a handsome man, a good scholar, and had very pleasant manners” (90). However, Reuben’s problems with alcohol make it hard for him to stay sober: “he would break out […] and be a disgrace to himself, a terror to his wife, and a nuisance to all that had to do with him” (90).By showing that Reuben Smith is effectively a different man when he is drinking, and when he is not, Sewell shows that alcohol addiction is a complex problem that is not the fault of a specific individual. However, she also makes it very clear that drinking leads to reckless behavior, and serious consequences. Because he is drunk, Reuben causes a serious accident that costs him his life, and ruins the life of his wife and children. It also sets Black Beauty on the path to ruin: because his knees are scarred, Beauty is no longer valued, and has to live a much more difficult life as a common working horse. Reuben’s wife clearly sees the link between alcohol and these tragedies when she laments, “why will they sell that cursed drink?” (96).

The theme of the destructiveness of alcohol crops up again amongst the cabmen working in London; Governor admits that he struggles with drinking, and asks Jerry how he was able to get sober: “I tried once for two days, and I thought I should have died: how did you do?” (165). Jerry admits that, “till I tried to break the habit, I did not know how strong it was” (165), and explains that he was motivated by his deep religious faith and his loving relationship with his wife. This conversation, and the revelation that Jerry used to be a heavy drinker helps to develop the theme by providing further evidence that good men, like Jerry, can fall prey to heavy drinking. Jerry’s experience is juxtaposed against Reuben’s tragic fate to show that is possible for individuals to overcome alcohol abuse. Sewell advocates for individual reform as well as social reform, and believes that people can lead better lives if they make better choices.


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