Black Beauty

Black Beauty Summary and Analysis of Part I, Chapters 11-21


Black Beauty soon comes to realize how beautiful and just a master and mistress he has in Birtwick—which is the name of Squire Gordon’s hall. They would, for example, actively campaign against the use of checkreins; these were people not afraid to stand up for the rights of the weak. Black Beauty recounts one instance where he and his master came across a builder named Sawyer lashing his overburdened horse. The master rebukes the man, pointing out that beating the horse will not improve the situation at all; in fact, it will not only injure the horse but also injure the man’s reputation. One another occasion, the master argues with a friend of his—Captain Langley--who insists on using checkreins in the name of fashion. He compares horses to soldiers, who would not fight effectively if they had to maintain parade formation and wear their parade uniforms during the heat of battle.

In Chapter 12, Black Beauty recounts the story of the stormy night. One night, John and the master had to travel a ways on business and they took Black Beauty as their carthorse. On their return journey a heavy storm was raining down on them. As they continued on their road, an oak tree came crashing down—torn up by its roots—right in front of the cart. To his credit, Black Beauty did not dash away or lose control, but only trembled a little. The tree blocked the main road so they had to take another, more dangerous road, which crossed over a large river. As they approached the bridge crossing over the river, Black Beauty hesitated. He did not want to go onto the bridge. His master nudged him on, gave him a little whip then a sharp cut but still Black Beauty did not move forward. Something was not right with the bridge and in a few moments they found out what that was: the bridge had collapsed and anyone who attempted to get on the bridge would fall into torrent below. The master, realizing his error, expressed great pleasure with Black Beauty. He pointed out that God gave humans reason but gave animals insight, and the one compliments the other. Furthermore, upon their return he praised Black Beauty as the reason why he and John and the whole cart had not sunk in the river.

Black Beauty narrates another story of mistreatment in Chapter 13. In this case, a young boy is attempting to drive his pony to jump over a high gate. When the pony refuses to jump he starts thrashing the poor thing, driving it to such a point that it throws him off. John—as a witness to this—tells the boy he got what was coming to him and then makes sure the boy’s father knows that he was abusing his pony. Later on John mentioned the incident to James, who confirmed that the boy was indeed a bully, known for his habit of torturing little bugs. James recounts one incident when the boy was taking flies and pulling their wings off. When the teacher found out he punished the boy severely and warned the students against cruelty, labeling it as “the devil’s trade-mark.” Anyone who loved cruelty belonged to the devil. Upon hearing this, John reaffirms the teachers message, advising James that religion is in large part to love and be kind to man and beast and if it does not contain those then it is a sham.

Time passes and soon it is time for James Howard to move on. One day, the master asks John about James’s character and work ethic. He explains that Sir Williams of Clifford Hall—his brother-in-law—wrote him requesting that he find a capable, good groom that Sir Williams could hire. The pay and opportunity would be considerably higher at Clifford Hall compared to Birtwick Hall, and so the master encourages young James to seize this chance. James decides to accept, despite his love for Birtwick Hall and its people and horses. Before leaving though, he is supposed to learn how to drive a carriage under John’s careful tutelage.

However, as it turns out, Black Beauty is to have one more adventure with James before his departure. The master and mistress decide to visit friends some distance away, and the drive will take a few days. On the way the stop by in a town for the night, and the stablemen are to take care of Black Beauty. Their stay their goes quite well at first. The head stablemen is quite adept—having worked 40 years taking care of horses—and he mentions that Black Beauty is a fine horse and has clearly received a good upbringing. The behavior of the horse can be directly tied to the quality of upbringing its masters gave it.

Later that night, another man pays a visit to the stables to gossip with a stableman. He forgets his pipe there to devastating consequences. Hours later, in the late watches of the night, Black Beauty awakens and cannot breathe. A fire has spread in the barn, and will soon burn the whole structure down! The stableman bursts in and attempts to lead a horse out but to no avail—the horse will not budge. He goes to each horse in turn desperately trying to lead it out but each horse is too frightened to budge, even Black Beauty. Giving up hope the man turns and runs out of the stables. Soon though, James comes, putting on a cheery face as always. He is able to coax Black Beauty out of the stables and then returns to save another horse. Then the fire engine arrived and the fire was eventually put out, not before two horses were burned to death though. Their shrieks could be hard in the distance during those dark hours of the night and Ginger and Black Beauty could not help but hear those terrible cries. All because one man forget his little pipe as he went on his way to gossip with a buddy.

The group returns to Birtwick, and soon James is making preparations to leave. He inquires about his replacement at the hall, and John tells him about little Joe Green, who is to take James’s job once he is gone. James points out that he is too young and little to be of much use but John argues in his favor, saying his has the right heart for the job. He also explains his own story: how he was once a young orphan and he had a crippled sister to look after. The master took him in as a stable-hand for the old stable-master of that time—Norman. Now Norman could have turned up his nose at this young inexperienced plow-hand but instead he took John in like a son and patiently taught him the job. So how could John not do the same for little Joe Green, he asks?

James leaves soon after and Joe begins his new job, taking great pains to learn and master all this new information. Even with all his effort, it was impossible for him to not make any mistakes. This is nowhere clearer than in the aftermath of one harrowing adventure. One night, the mistress becomes dangerously ill. Without a doctor the fear she will lose her life. John’s mission, then, is to take Beauty and bring word as fast as possible to Dr. White in the distant town. So in that crisp, moonlit night, Beauty gallops faster and farther than ever before, riding for his mistress’s life. They arrive and give word to the doctor, who then immediately sets out on Beauty back to the hall. Black Beauty manages to make it back quickly, despite his exhausting nightlong dash. When he arrived the doctor went to help his patient and Beauty was left sweating and steaming all over, in the sole care of little Joe—for John had been left behind in the distant town. Joe did the very best he could—as Beauty explains—but he did not know how to take care of a horse in this situation. Of course, he gave him food and water and rubbed him down. But he forgot to put any blankets or warm coverings on Beauty, thinking it would be too hot. So the horse soon began to shake and shiver and became deadly cold. When he returns home, John is furious to find Beauty thus, and soon the horse becomes severely ill.

Days pass and Beauty’s health does not improve. John fears he will die and--as Beauty himself admits—he fears the same thing. As for Joe, he is not eating meals, not smiling and cannot stop blaming himself, though he did try his best. Tom Green—Joe’s father—comes by and asks John to give the boy a kind and encouraging word to tell get him out of his depression. The boy did not mean anything wrong, Tom argues. It was only ignorance, he says. At this, John becomes furious. Only ignorance? Ignorance is one of the worst things on earth, he argues, it causes as much mischief as wickedness, despite the good intentions of the ignorant.

Despite this incident, Joe progresses in his work well. He learned and worked efficiently and kindly, and John placed more and more trust in him. His development reached a significant milestone one day when riding with Black Beauty back to the hall they encountered a cart. The driver was lashing his two horses because they could not drag the brick-laden cart out of a muddy hole. Joe, feeling sympathy for the horses, shouts at the man to stop lashing and to let Joe help get the cart out. The man refused all attempts to stop him though, and so Joe left him and quickly went to a neighbor to report the man to the authorities. When the case was brought up in court, the magistrate asked Joe to come as a witness and the young man—usually of such a quiet and gentle demeanor—showed confidence and firmness in dealing with the case. The case went well, the man was found guilty of cruelty to his horses and the softhearted Joe’s newfound confidence became a permanent feature. It was as if he went from being a boy to being a young man in a day.

This happy phase of Beauty’s life came to an end and for a while his affairs were to take a turn for the worse. The mistress could not recover fully from her illness, and the doctors recommended that she leave the country for a warmer climate. The master sells Ginger and Beauty to the Earl of W---. Merrylegs is to go to another owner who will employ Joe as well. On the day of farewell, the servants shed many tears, sorry to see such a kind couple as the master and mistress leaving. They said their final farewells next to the train, then Joe and John and the two horses made their way back to the Hall, never to see their gentle masters again.


One of the main motifs of this section is coming of age. There are four primary characters that go through this coming of age process, and each one’s story provides a deeper characterization to that individual. The first three are the three horse-caretakers: John, James and Joe. It is no coincidence that their names are all similar; they all share the same defining characteristics of good character and capable work ethic. Their stories are interwoven in a way that emphasizes that similarity. When John is telling James about his choice of Joe as a replacement, he mentions his own story. He too was once an inexperienced poor boy and the old caretaker decided to take him in. It was under the care of that old man—Norman—that John learned how to be a gentle and wise stable-hand. Now he in turn is doing two things that echo that past experience of his: he is agreeing to take on Joe and teach him, and he is narrating his story to James. John is not simply telling James his story for entertainment’s sake; instead he is telling him in order to teach him as well—to teach him why you ought to look out for others, why selfishness is not the way. While we might read this section and think little Joe Green is the student here, in reality James and the reader are in that same position of student. By witnessing how John treats Joe, James is learning how to treat others in the future; and we are supposed to take James as a model and learn by witnessing as well.

In more specific detail, each of the three characters goes through a moment of crisis. John becomes an orphan and must now take care not only of himself but also of his crippled sister. As for James, he must save the horses from a burning barn and proves himself to be a hero. Joe, after witnessing a man oppressing his horses, faces the choice of keeping quiet or standing up for the weak, and he chooses the latter.

As for the fourth character who goes through a coming of age, that is Black Beauty. Multiple times in this section his mettle and character face a critical test and through it all he performs spectacularly. In, for example, the story of the collapsed bridge, Black Beauty refuses to obey his master and instead follows what he knows by instinct to be right, thus saving his own life and the life of his passengers. This demonstrates that Beauty not only has a special inner wisdom and insight, but that he also has the courage and determination to trust that insight against the wishes of others. In another occasion his determination and effort enable the doctor to reach the ill mistress, very likely saving her life. These two incidents represent the outwardly manifest actions that enable an outsider to recognize Beauty’s heroism, but as a reader we also have insight into the inward thoughts of Beauty, which also are proof of his good character. Two examples of this are his forgiving of Joe Green and his empathy for the overworked horses. As for the first example, when Joe Green fails to take care of Beauty properly after the horse’s midnight dash, Beauty becomes dangerously ill and nearly dies. Despite that, Beauty does not blame Joe but instead insists on saying that he knew the boy really was doing the best he could with the best of intentions. This sort of clemency and forgiveness is a hallmark of noble character. As for the second example, Black Beauty feels empathy for the bricklayer’s horses as their driver whips them. His empathy for those worse off than him and his desire to stop their oppression further characterizes him as a noble and giving creature.

As a foil to the theme of coming of age and education, Sewell also includes in this section a focus on ignorance and its great harms. Through two key stories Sewell outlines the danger of ignorance and expresses her own hatred of ignorance. The first of the two is the story of the fire in the barn and its disastrous consequences. The person who caused the fire did not do so intentionally. Instead the fire ignited because a man forgot his pipe in the barn. So this was not at all sinister, only ignorant. By stating that the man came just to gossip further highlights the outrage of the situation. Not only did this man act irresponsibly when he came but he also had no good reason for coming at all. It was his ignorance, Sewell suggests, that burned the whole barn down and killed two horses.

She leaves aside the topic of ignorance for a few chapters though, and does not return until the incident of Joe’s treatment of Beauty. Here, having provided a few evidences of the harms of ignorance in the preceding chapters, Sewell gives voice to her thoughts on ignorance using the tongue of John Manly. She uses the example of Joe—who is perhaps the least culpable of the ignorant ones because of his good intentions and his strong effort—to emphasize that ignorance even in the best of cases is bad and must be fought. John’s outburst upon hearing Tom Green’s excuse that it is only ignorance expresses one of the book’s central goals: to serve as a strong and general condemnation of ignorance and neglect. In the chapter immediately after this incident, Sewell turns Joe’s fortunes completely around and narrates to us his coming of age story with the porter’s poor horses. Through this stark and immediate contrast between the ignorance / neglect and the education / success, Sewell suggests that if the reader is ready to change himself or others and is willing to take up this struggle against ignorance, then success will come faster than imagined. In this way these two themes, coming of age and ignorance, act as foils and Sewell reinforces each with the other to strengthen her stand against ignorance and for care and education.

The capstone is the motif that those with high character and a good work ethic do find immediate worldly success. Thus, this section incorporates the book’s main examples of this motif: James and Joe. In this section, James learns that the master has recommend him to a friend, and that James can now find work as a groom in a prestigious hall with the prospect of high pay and comfortable living. The suggestion is that he received this opportunity because of John’s high trust in him, and he only received John’s trust because of his own good work ethic and trustworthiness. It is only natural then, Sewell suggests, for such a capable person to move up in the world. Joe Green too, after putting in the effort, receives the trust and forgiveness of John. He too progresses in his job. So the author’s overall message of this section is clear: be ready to learn, fight against ignorance and be of good character and you will naturally succeed.