“The Rocking-Horse Winner” relates the desperate and foredoomed efforts of a young boy to win his mother’s love by seeking the luck that she bitterly maintains she does not have. By bringing her the luxurious life for which she longs, Paul hopes to win her love, to compensate her for her unhappiness with his father, and to bring peace to their anxious, unhappy household. He determines to find luck after a conversation with his mother, in which she tells him that she is not lucky, having married an unlucky husband, and that it is better to have luck than money because luck brings money. In response, Paul clearly accepts the unspoken invitation to take his father’s place in fulfilling his mother’s dreams of happiness. His purpose seems to be fulfilled when, with the help of Bassett, the gardener, he begins to win money betting on horse races. Shortly thereafter, he confides in his uncle Oscar, whom he also considers lucky because Oscar’s gift of money started his winning streak.
Paul, Oscar, and Bassett continue to bet and win until Paul has five thousand pounds to give his mother for her birthday, to be distributed to her over the next five years. When she receives the anonymous present, she does not seem at all happy but sets about arranging to get the whole five thousand pounds at once. As a result, Hester becomes even more obsessed with money, increasingly anxious for more. Also, the house, which previously seemed to whisper “There must be more money! There must be more money!” now screeches the same refrain.
Paul, unable to perceive that his mother is insatiable, redoubles his efforts to win more money for her. He hides himself away, alone with his secret source of information on the outcome of the races. This secret, which he has shared with no one, is his mysterious, nameless rocking horse, which he rides frenziedly until he gets to the point at which he knows the name of the winner in the next big race. Desperate to know the name of the winner in the derby, he urges his parents to take a brief vacation. Summoned back to Paul by a strange sense of foreboding, Hester returns to see Paul fall from his horse after a frenzied ride, stricken by a brain fever from which he never recovers. While Bassett runs to tell Paul that he has successfully guessed the derby winner and is now rich, Paul tells his mother, “I am lucky,” and then dies. Thereupon his uncle comments, “he’s best gone out of a life where he rides his rocking-horse to find a winner.”