How might one apply a feminist reading on "The Rocking-Horse Winner" by D.H. Lawrence?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There are at least two ways to apply a feminist reading to D.H. Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner." Because feminism has undergone many changes over the years, there are several approaches to literary feminist critique. The first approach examines how the female characters (in this case just Hester) are portrayed; the second considers the gender roles (masculinity and femininity) as portrayed in the story.

From a feminist viewpoint, Hester is portrayed as a true villain--the only villain--in this story. She does not love her husband and her children as women are expected to do, and she is consumed with greed. These two things alone are responsible for figuratively killing her husband and literally killing her son.

Hester marries for love but her love "turned to dust." Even worse, she has no love for either of her children, and all three of them know that. 

This troubled her, and in her manner she was all the more gentle and anxious for her children, as if she loved them very much.  Only she herself knew that at the centre of her heart was a hard little place that could not feel love, no, not for anybody.

This inability to love is shown throughout the story; for example, near the end, Hester learns about the money and Paul reminds her that he told her he was lucky. She does not remember because she did not listen. She is hard-hearted and cannot even manage to grieve when her son dies. Society views this careless disregard and callousness as the epitome of evil for a woman, thus Hester is villainized.

Her greed is depicted as the second great evil of the story. Hester is never satisfied, never has enough money, and even her house echoes the cry of her insatiable need: "There must be more money!" Her lust for money supersedes every other motivation and emotion in her hard heart, and of course this hunger for money is directly correlated to her son's death. Even more, when she does get money, either from her job or Paul's anonymous gift, she is portrayed as an irresponsible spendthrift. 

In short, the female villain in this story is dissatisfied with her husband and kills their love; she kills her son because she can never get enough money. She is to blame for all woes. A feminist reading says that Lawrence unfairly portrayed Hester as a destroyer of every good thing in her life and in her family's life with her harden heart and excessive greed. 

Another kind of feminist literary analysis examines how gender roles are portrayed in the selection. In this story, of course, the gender roles are confused, at best, and perhaps even completely reversed. Hester is clearly the dominant presence in this home, and she displays none of the traditional gender traits and characteristics of a woman. As mentioned above, she does not love her husband and she has no maternal love for her children. She is the one who goes out and gets a job, and she is the one who does all the spending (which only in more modern times has been considered a female trait). To be blunt, she is not what a woman is supposed to be; because of this, she has virtually emasculated the men in her family. Her husband is rather a non-entity in the home, and Paul has become his mother's constant nurturer--and none of this is positive or healthy for this family. In fact, someone even dies because of it, which brings us back again to Hester as a villain.

A feminist reading of any kind can only conclude that Lawrence hated women and thus portrayed Hester as a selfish, greedy, devourer.

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