A Horse is a Horse (Of Course, Of Course)
Yep, War Horse is told from the point of view of a horse. Namely Joey, "a spindly-looking half-Thoroughbred colt" (1.2). Talk about an interesting narrative technique, eh?
Drafted into World War I, Joey's story mimics that of many human soldiers from the time. But Joey's not just an anthropomorphic stand-in for a human. Nope—Joey's a horse. He walks like a horse, and doesn't talk like a horse. You know, because horses don't talk..
What does this all mean? Well, Joey doesn't act like humans do. He doesn't seem to care all that much that he's at war, so his emotions don't line up with those experienced by the humans in the story. While the men often lament the war and all the horrors and loss that go with it, Joey mostly just goes with the flow. Sure, there are times when he mentions the "excruciatingly painful" (12.7) sores on his legs, caused by spending days in damp fields and mud, but he's not complaining or even worrying about it. He's merely stating the facts.
When Albert and the vets fear that Joey will die of tetanus, Joey registers fear, but doesn't quite understand why. He just tells us, "every fiber of me was consumed by a totally inexplicable sense of fear and dread." (18.5) In fact, Joey does a lot of this kind of telling instead of showing. It may be contrary to Writing 101, but since Joey's a horse, it works. After all, his methods of expression are limited.
Oh, another reason Joey might not react to things the way a human would: he doesn't really get what humans are saying. He hears the words that they're saying, yes, but he doesn't really understand them.
Think about the conversation between Albert and other medics who think they might as well put Joey to sleep. If someone was talking about putting us to sleep while we were in earshot, we'd be a little on edge, to say the least. But it doesn't faze Joey. Even when he feels "sure each day might be [his] last" (18.24), he doesn't seem all that upset about it.
To a horse, it's all about the tone and body language. When Albert's father takes Joey away, he flat out tells him "I need the money, Joey" (3.11). This would set off warning bells to any human. Joey, though, is just enticed by the gentle, timid sound of his voice and the sweet, sweet oats in his hand. Albert's father could have said, "It's off to the Jell-O factory for you, Joey!" but as long as he said it nicely, Joey wouldn't panic.
Bottom line: Joey is a bit slow on the uptake—by human standards, at least. It's not until Albert's drunk father walks away from him that Joey realizes he's being sold. Only then does he "neigh, a high-pitched cry of pain and anxiety that shrieked out through the village" (4.14). This is one of the few times Joey expresses anguish, and these moments help us relate to our filly friend.
The Eyes of a Horse
Joey lives through the horrors of war and sees things that would cause lifelong trauma to many people: He's taken away from his home. His best friend, Topthorn, suddenly dies right before his eyes. He's briefly a prisoner of war. He ends up knocking on death's door himself. But through it all, he retains his innocence. His wild heart can't be broken, and his spirit is as strong as ever.
As with any good narrator, Joey makes us feel like we're riding along with him during the war, seeing things through his eyes. But because he doesn't offer much commentary on the horrific things he witnesses, we're allowed to draw our own conclusions. And you know what? We're not complaining.Joey's Timeline