The Rocking-Horse Winner Questions and Answers
by D. H. Lawrence

The Rocking-Horse Winner book cover
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How does D.H. Lawrence build an atmosphere of gloom at the opening of "The Rocking-Horse Winner"?

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"The Rocking-Horse Winner" is a peculiar short story by D.H. Lawrence about a young boy, Paul, trying to lessen his family's financial strain by betting on horse-races. Paul's bets are generally good, and he wins a lot of money, which he then gives to his mother to pay down her debts. Alas, the money is never enough to satisfy his mother, who lives far beyond her means; so Paul continues to bet at greater odds to win larger sums. He becomes obsessed with horse-racing, and by the end of the story he has won £80,000 (about $6.5 million in today's money). However the stress of trying to win more and more money makes Paul ill, and eventually kills him.

There is a supernatural element to this story: Paul determines which horses to bet on by riding his rocking-horse until he has a kind of psychic revelation about the winner of the next big race, which he calls "being sure." The physical effort of rocking back and forth takes a toll on Paul, who must rock longer and harder each time he "races" his rocking-horse in order to "be sure." By the climax of the story, Paul "hardly hear[s] what [is] spoken to him, he [is] very frail, and his eyes [are] really uncanny." Upon winning his biggest bet (at 14-to-1) in the Derby, he collapses from exhaustion, and dies shortly thereafter.

Despite the supernatural element, the story is really the tragedy of how selfish parents unwittingly burden their children with their needs and frustrations. Paul's family is outwardly well-to-do, but inwardly dysfunctional. The mother "started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck." She does not love her husband, and she does not love her children; in fact,

she herself knew that at the centre of her heart was a hard little place that could not feel love, no, not for anybody.

Her children know she does not love them, and although they look like a happy, well-off family,

...they felt always an anxiety in the house. There was never enough money ... There was always the grinding sense of the shortage of money, though the style was always kept up...

And so the house came to be haunted by the unspoken phrase: There must be more money! There must be more money! The children could hear it all the time though nobody said it aloud. They heard it at Christmas, when the expensive and splendid toys filled the nursery. Behind the shining modern rocking-horse, behind the smart doll’s house, a voice would start whispering: “There must be more money! There must be more money!” And the children would stop playing, to listen for a moment. They would look into each other’s eyes, to see if they had all heard. And each one saw in the eyes of the other two that they too had heard. “There must be more money! There must be more money!”

Yet nobody ever said it aloud. The whisper was everywhere, and therefore no one spoke it. Just as no one ever says: “We are breathing!” in spite of the fact that breath is coming and going all the time.

This is the atmosphere in which the children live, and it's this atmosphere Paul is trying to buy his way out of with his winnings. His mother is bitter and cold, but he thinks maybe if he can quiet "the whisper" in the house, everything will get better.

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