‘A horse is no machine’: character in Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven

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Jane Smiley’s novel Horse Heaven (2000) presents a diversity of human and equine characters related to the world of American thoroughbred racing. The text, which gives equal weight to each species, emphasising their co-dependent nature, delineates human characters primarily by their treatment of horses, revealing moral strengths and weaknesses. Actions related to ‘touching’ and ‘breathing’ enhance characterisation. Two key themes are mediated through this strategy. Firstly, respect and compassion, fostered through interspecies communication, benefit both animal and human. Secondly, insight into oneself leads to insight into nonhuman animals, creating a reciprocal exchange that enhances life and can promote psychological healing. The appropriateness of these actions and implicit metaphors related to them, focused around harmonious relationships that encourage a sense of hybridity or transcendence, has a basis in Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy. This analysis of Horse Heaven suggests how social science and scientific research can illuminate literary texts.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)21-34
Number of pages14
JournalNew Writing
Issue number1
Early online date14 Jan 2020
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • interspecies communication
  • metaphor
  • practice-led research
  • Smiley


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