Horse Breath in Dickens and Chekhov

February 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Anton Chekhov’s short stories.

Reading next: The Body Artist, by Don DeLillo.

Chekhov has been one of those huge gaps in my reading, so I’m glad to start filling it in with this Norton edition of short stories.  The early stuff is clearly inferior to the later stories from 1887 onward — partly, I learn from the supplementary texts here, because the early stories were written for hire for comic literary magazines under strict space limitations — but still better than anything most writers will ever put down, and apparently these stories are still more beloved in Russia than a lot of his later work.

Anyway, a reminder of Dickens stood out in one of my favorite early stories, “Misery” (from 1886).  In “Misery,” the sleigh driver Iona carries fares through a snowy night, struggling to tell anyone of the recent death of his son.  Finally, he unburdens himself to the mare who drives his sleigh back at the stable as she eats.  The final paragraph: “The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master’s hands.  Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.”

So what is it about the breath of horses, anyway?  As I posted here, in chapter 15 of David Copperfield the villainous Uriah Heep breathes into the nostrils of a pony, “as if he were putting some spell upon him.”   Obviously horses were everywhere in nineteenth-century Europe, and the relationship between the species must have been complex and close.   But is there some traditional significance attached to the breath of the horse in particular?  In both Dickens and Chekhov a similar emotional or moral significance seems to be carried by the animal’s breath: Uriah’s apparent attempt to replace the breath of the pony with his own seems to David (and to the reader) a malevolent act; we are led to infer the sweetness and “goodness” (in one sense or another) of the pony’s breath by the uneasiness and wickedness we sense in Uriah.

In “Misery,” feeling the breath of his mare on his hands breaks the dam inside of Iona, and he unburdens himself to her.  Iona is closer to this animal than to any of the people he met that night, who cannot be bothered to hear about his troubles; she becomes a kind of therapist, patiently listening as she eats the hay which is all he can afford to feed her (not having earned enough for oats).  There’s an intimacy in feeling the breath of an animal that can be matched by very few human interactions, a willingness to touch and interact that an animal can provide that few humans would (just imagine the warmth of that breath on your hands on a cold, snowy night — the kind of astounding sensory detail that indicates the mastery of Chekhov).  And the unctuous, obsequious Uriah would never dream of breathing on another person, whereas he forces his breath on the pony when he believes he’s alone — betraying, perhaps, his repressed desire to conquer (or, past that, become intimate with) other creatures.

Apparently horse’s breath was once thought of as a cure for whooping cough, continuing the positive associations, but I find little else about it on a cursory glance.  I want to do some more digging into folklore: horses have been talismanic animals throughout the history of many of the world’s cultures, of course.  Many of us today have never interacted with a horse — have never touched or ridden one, much lest felt or smelt its breath — but horses would have generated a whole world of associations for the nineteenth-century reader that are more or less lost to us now, when horses are mostly status symbols, convenient gambling tools, or nostalgic transportation in tourist cities.  There’s something in each of these stories that points to the symbiotic relationship of horses and humans that has been dismantled in the past century, kept alive mostly by guilds and hobbyists.  Now, of course, there are our pets — our dogs and cats, our ferrets and parrots.  We unburden ourselves to them.  We react to their mistreatment in ways that surpass our insensitivity to human-on-human violence — we feel the wrongness of taking out human frustrations and acting out human desires on animals in ways that often surpass our reactions to with human-on-human crime.

There’s something in us — or some of us, at any rate — that requires interaction with animals.  And I do think that Chekhov intended the ending of “Misery” to be both comically ironic and sad — that this inarticulate, lonely, poor peasant, out of place in the cruel city, can only find sympathy and relief from an animal who cannot understand him, not from the humans who shy away when he mentions his dead son — but there is also something tender and natural in this ending, in this kind of benediction that’s felt in the breath on Iona’s hands, in the thawing of the heart to which it leads.

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