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Themes and Colors
Passion Theme Icon
Religion and Worship Theme Icon
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
Modern Society and Normality Theme Icon
Psychiatry, Repression, and Madness Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Equus, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Modern Society and Normality Theme Icon

The commercialized and mechanized society that we live in forms the backdrop to Equus, and the play offers a powerful critique of modern society’s effect on the individual. Whether one is Christian, agnostic or atheist, modern society is actually its own kind of religion—the religion of the “Normal.” As Martin Dysart explains, “The Normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes,” but also “the dead stare in a million adults.” In this religion, parts of us that are deemed unhealthy or abnormal must be cut away; our individuality is sacrificed in the name of health and happiness. Dysart comes to view himself as a “Priest” of this modern religion. As a psychiatrist, he treats individuals with abnormal behavior and, once they become normal, incorporates them back into society. But when Dysart compares Alan Strang’s strange life to his own sexless, passionless and boring life, he is no longer sure if it is better to live within the bounds of modern society or to disregard its restrictions.

Modern Society and Normality ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Modern Society and Normality appears in each act of Equus. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Modern Society and Normality Quotes in Equus

Below you will find the important quotes in Equus related to the theme of Modern Society and Normality.
Act 1 Quotes

You see, I’m wearing that horse’s head myself. That’s the feeling. All reined up in old language and old assumptions, straining to jump clean-hoofed on to a whole new track of being I only suspect is there. I can’t see it, because my educated, average head is being held at the wrong angle. I can’t jump because the bit forbids it, and my own basic force—my horsepower, if you like—is too little. The only thing I know for sure is this: a horse’s head is finally unknowable to me.

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker)
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

In this opening passage, the psychiatrist Martin Dysart is musing about his dissatisfaction with his life. Dysart believes that there is a "whole new track of being" somewhere, but he cannot live that way because he is shackled by the language and assumptions of his culture that dictate the way he lives. Dysart compares himself to a horse in that he believes he is naturally free, but bound (metaphorically) by a bit and reins, which represent the ways in which social expectations and assumptions limit the possibilities available to him. This is a surprising opening monologue from a psychiatrist, as it indicates his fundamental mistrust of the forces that define whether someone is normal or abnormal. Typically, a psychiatrist's job is to hew to a socially agreed-upon definition of normal and treat patients' abnormalities until they can be considered normal. This passage indicates that Dysart sees himself as potentially "abnormal" (clinically speaking), in that he lives a normal life but it's not the life he wants.


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You sit in front of that thing long enough, you’ll become stupid for life—like most of the population. The thing is, it’s a swiz. It seems to be offering you something, but actually it’s taking something away.

Related Characters: Frank Strang (speaker), Alan Strang
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

As Dysart begins his treatment of Alan, Alan begins to reveal tensions between himself and his father. Here, Alan recalls his father Frank's removal of the television from their home. Frank removes it because he believes that television is taking away individuality and making people stupid. He wants his son to be exceptional, not like "most of the population" who just sit in front of the television. This interaction takes on deep irony as the play delves deeper into Alan's story. Frank seems to want his son to be unlike others in only very specific ways, but not in the ways that Alan already is unlike others. Alan's passions, for instance, are unique, but Frank insists that they are pathological and must be treated. This passage begins to reveal the hypocrisies and contradictions of a social morality that declares some abnormalities good and others evil (as well as condoning some evil as normal). We begin to get the sense that these delineations are arbitrary, and modern morality cannot be considered wholly rational.

I wish there was one person in my life I could show. One instinctive, absolutely unbrisk person I could take to Greece, and stand in front of certain shrines and sacred streams and say ‘Look! Life is only comprehensible through a thousand local Gods. And not just the old dead ones with names like Zeus—no, but living Geniuses of Place and Person! And not just Greece but modern England! Spirits off certain trees, certain curves of brick wall, certain chip shops, if you like, and slate roofs—just as of certain frowns in people and slouches’ …I’d say to them—‘Worship as many as you can see—and more will appear!’ …If I had a son, I bet you he’d come out exactly like his mother. Utterly worshipless.

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Hesther Salomon
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Dysart is confessing a deep desire of his to his colleague Hesther, and, by implication, also confessing a deep dissatisfaction with his life as it stands. Dysart's dream of going to Greece is one that is nominally about travel, but is really about spirituality. Dysart feels a compulsion to worship beauty and individuality, which he talks about in terms of appreciating the specificity of particular places, and admiring the ancient Greeks who had many local gods. Dysart does not dream about a shared and all-consuming faith, but rather a spirituality that is particular to each individual. For Dysart, this is evoked by the beauty of differences and the specificity of all things that are true to themselves, not homogenized or existing in accord with social pressure. This passage reveals an affinity between Dysart and Alan that was less clear before; Alan has a specific, individual passion of a kind that Dysart admires but is not courageous enough to cultivate. 

The Normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes—all right. It is also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills—like a God. It is the Ordinary made beautiful; it is also the Average made lethal. The Normal is the indispensable, murderous God of Health, and I am his Priest. My tools are very delicate. My compassion is honest. I have honestly assisted children in this room. I have talked away terrors and relieved many agonies. But also—beyond question—I have cut from them parts of individuality repugnant to his God, in both his aspects. Parts sacred to rarer and more wonderful Gods. And at what length…Sacrifices to Zeus took at the most, surely, sixty seconds each. Sacrifices to the Normal can take as long as sixty months.

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Alan Strang, Hesther Salomon
Page Number: 64-65
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is a continuation of Dysart's explanation to Hesther of his troubles with his life and profession and his doubts about the incompatibility of contemporary morality with individuality. Dysart here positions himself as doing evil work, despite his good intentions. He says that by serving the "God of Health" he sometimes helps people, but he just as often takes from people their individuality and joy in the service of making them normal and acceptable in the eyes of their society. Dysart recognizes that the societal definition of normalcy that his profession serves is arbitrary; it is not a universal standard of health, but rather a confining standard that is particular to a place and time. By using his profession to manipulate people to be more like a socially agreed-upon definition of normal and less like themselves, Dysart fears that he is taking away the most precious parts of a person. He compares himself to someone carrying out human sacrifices, a practice that was once considered essential to society, and is now considered cruel and taboo.

Alan [ritually]: Equus—son of Fleckwus—son of Neckwus—Walk.
Here we go. The King rides out on Equus, mightiest of horses. Only I can ride him. He lets me turn him this way and that. His neck comes out of my body. It lifts in the dark. Equus, my Godslave! …Now the King commands you. Tonight, we ride against them all.
Dysart: Who’s all?
Alan: My foes and His.
Dysart: Who are your foes?
Alan: The Hosts of Hoover. The Hosts of Philco. The Hosts of Pifco. The House of Remington and all its tribe!
Dysart: Who are His foes?
Alan: The Hosts of Jodhpur. The Hosts of Bowler and Gymkhana. All those who show him off for their vanity!

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Alan Strang (speaker)
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Dysart hypnotizes Alan and then convinces him to perform the ritual that he practices with the horses at night. What Alan then reveals is that he strips down in the middle of the night and rides the horses, whom he believes embody Equus, Alan's god. It's significant that Alan calls Equus his "Godslave" and that he compares himself to Equus by wearing his "manbit." This is Alan's acknowledgement that Equus, in some ways, is a way for Alan to make sense of himself. Alan feels within himself the possibility of being free, which means, to him, being true to himself, but Alan also powerfully feels the constricting morals and norms of the society he lives in that limit him and even torture him. Alan feels constricted and insulted by brand-names, which represent the homogenizing force of contemporary culture, and Equus, similarly, feels constricted and insulted by equestrians who subvert and control Equus's true nature in order to stroke their own vanity. This passage gives an idea of the morality Alan has constructed for himself. 

Act 2 Quotes

A child is born into a world of phenomena all equal in their power to enslave. It sniffs—it sucks—it strokes its eyes over the whole uncomfortable range. Suddenly one strikes. Why? Moments snap together like magnets, forging a chain of shackles. Why? I can trace them. I can even, with time, pull them apart again. But why at the start they were ever magnetized at all—just those particular moments of experience and no others—I don’t know. And nor does anyone else. Yet if I don’t know—if I can never know that—then what I am doing here? I don’t mean clinically doing or socially doing—I mean fundamentally! These questions, these Whys, are fundamental—yet they have no place in a consulting room.

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Alan Strang
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

In this opening to the second act, Dysart tries to account (to himself and Equus) for how a person comes to be who they are, and, specifically, for how Alan might have come to develop such a strange religion. Dysart's beginning with a child using its basic senses to comb through the world shows the influence of psychoanalysis on his understanding of the world, but the fundamental question at which he arrives feels distinctly non-psychiatric. Dysart knows that experiences "snap together...forging a chain of shackles" and he knows that he sometime can, through his practice, "pull [the shackles/moments] apart again," but the real question he puzzles over is what gives those moments their power in the first place. For Dysart, this is the question that most bothers him, and he is distressed that he has found himself in a profession in which this question has no place. Dysart feels himself to be an agent of societal norms, but he doesn't believe that those norms are necessarily good or just. This passage shows how deeply Dysart is doubting his life and profession.

Hesther: I mean he’s in pain, Martin. He’s been in pain for most of his life. That much, at least, you know.
Dysart: Possibly.
Hesther: Possibly?! …That cut-off little figure you just described must have been in pain for years.
Dysart [doggedly]: Possibly.
Hesther: And you can take it away.
Dysart: Still—possibly.

Hesther: Then that’s enough. That simply has to be enough for you, surely?
Dysart: No!
Hesther: Why not?
Dysart: Because it’s his.
Hesther: I don’t understand.
Dysart: His pain. His own. He made it.
[Earnestly.] Look…to go through life and call it yours—your life—you first have to get your own pain. Pain that’s unique to you…. He’s done that. All right, he’s sick. He’s full of misery and fear…. But that boy has known a passion more ferocious than I have ƒelt in any second of my life. And let me tell you something: I envy it.
Hesther: You can’t.
Dysart [vehemently]: Don’t you see? That’s the Accusation! That’s what his stare has been saying to me all this time. ‘At least I galloped! When did you?’ …[Simply.] I’m jealous, Hesther. Jealous of Alan Strang.

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Hesther Salomon (speaker), Alan Strang
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 81-82
Explanation and Analysis:

This exchange between Hesther and Dysart is one of the most morally complex of the book, because it delineates two opposed moral positions that both have compelling ideas to support them. Hesther, who represents the prevailing ideas of psychiatry and social norms, believes that it is morally imperative to treat Alan until he no longer worships Equus, because that is the only way to relieve his pain. Obviously, Alan has tremendous pain that has become, for him, wrapped up in his worship, so Hesther's position is reasonable. On the other hand, Dysart's position is that Alan's pain is what makes him an individual, and a way to take control over one's life is to claim pain that is uniquely yours and grapple with it yourself instead of being told what kinds of pain are acceptable. Dysart explains that Alan's pain enables him to have a passion unlike anything Dysart has seen before, and that it would be cruel to take that away under any circumstances. Here, we see the interweaving of pain and pleasure again, and this time Dysart posits that it is pain and pleasure that make a person who he or she truly is, so it's often unwise to untangle them at all. Society then becomes equated with the flattening of pain and pleasure, which certainly reduces suffering, but also reduces joy.

Poor old sod, that’s what I felt—he’s just like me! He hates ladies and gents just like me! Posh things—and la-di-da. He goes off by himself at night, and does his own secret thing which no one’ll know about, just like me! There’s no difference—he’s just the same as me—just the same—

Related Characters: Alan Strang (speaker), Martin Dysart, Frank Strang
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes after Dysart has given Alan a "truth pill" that enables him to talk about the experience with Jill that led up to him mutilating the horses. Alan and Jill went on a date to a pornographic film and Alan saw his father there, which ushered in a new understanding of and sympathy for Frank. It's significant that Alan's prevailing reaction is more relief than shame. Alan's father, who was the single most controlling and repressive force in Alan's life, is revealed to be someone with secrets of his own and with desires and rituals that he feels the need to hide. Instead of resenting his father's hypocrisy, Alan instead finds sympathy for Frank. This shows an incredible generosity and maturity in Alan, qualities that seem at odds with his subsequent behavior towards the horses. This passage shows, more than anything, that social norms cause everybody to repress and keep secrets. Social norms do not tell us much about who people are, but rather they represent an arbitrary standard of behavior that some are able to approximate better than others.

All right! I’ll take it away! He’ll be delivered from madness. What then? He’ll feel himself acceptable! What then? Do you think feelings like his can be simply re-attached, like plasters? Stuck on to other objects we select? Look at him! …My desire might be to make this boy an ardent husband—a caring citizen—a worshipper of abstract and unifying God. My achievement, however, is more likely to make a ghost!

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Alan Strang, Hesther Salomon
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is part of Dysart's concluding monolgue, in which he surrenders to Hester's voice telling him to cure Alan instead of allowing Alan to continue to worship Equus, as Dysart had wanted. Even while Dysart acquiesces, his bitterness and uncertainty bubble over. He rants here that to take away the object of Alan's passion might be to take away that passion altogether. In other words, Dysart fears that Alan's passion won't necessarily find another outlet, let alone a "proper" outlet like marriage or good citizenship. More than likely, Dysart suggests, Alan will be made "a ghost," by which he means someone void of passion, which is what made him most alive. This is a tragic and ambivalent ending to the story, in which Dysart is in despair over Alan's future and the implications of his own actions in Alan's treatment. In addition, the fact that Dysart gives into social pressure despite his awareness of its problems shows that social pressure has an overwhelming power, which is itself a tragic message on which to end the play.

And now for me it never stops: that voice of Equus out of the cave—‘Why me? …Why me? …Account for me!’ …All right—I surrender! I say it! …In an ultimate sense I cannot know what I do in this place—yet I do ultimate things. Essentially I cannot know what I do—yet I do essential things. Irreversible, terminal things. I stand in the dark with a pick in my hand, striking at heads!

I need—more desperately than my children need me—a way of seeing in the dark. What way is this? …What dark is this? …I cannot call it ordained of God: I can’t get that far. I will however pay it so much homage. There is now, in my mouth, this sharp chain. And it never comes out.

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Alan Strang
Related Symbols: Horses, Hoof-pick
Page Number: 108-109
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is the last one of the play, and it is one of doubt, despair, and hopelessness. Dysart is confessing his greatest uncertainties, and even his fear that he is doing evil. Dysart acknowledges his inability to know the meaning of his life or the morality of what he does, and he feels deeply that it is wrong, in light of his own unknowing, to tell anyone else (particularly in a way that is irreversible) who or what they should be. In this sense, he compares his own work to the crime for which he treated Alan: standing in the dark, blinding people violently (with a horse "pick," no less), irreversibly mutilating them by estranging them from themselves. Dysart ends the play by hoping for "a way to see in the dark" but acknowledging that, instead, he is guided through the dark by the bit in his mouth, which represents the social norms and pressures that dictate his life. It's an ending that leaves little hope for Dysart, or anyone else, to find their way to the "whole new track of being" that Dysart described at the outset.