Marxist literary criticism, as the name implies, interprets literature through the prism of Karl Marx’s (and Friedrich Engels) theories of economics and class struggle. The purest form of applied Marxism has never existed, because it is inherently anti-materialistic, and the majority of all societies covet material goods. In D.H. Lawrence’s 1926 short story “The Rocking-Horse Winner,” the family at the center of the story, including Paul, the young boy whose “gift” for picking the winners of horse races, and his mother Hester, suffers from what Marx would consider the sickness of capitalist depravity. Hester seems to suffer from an inordinate, if not entirely unusual, degree of materialistic excess. Unfortunately for her, her husband, Paul’s father, is a failure with respect to Hester’s psychotic need for wealth. The family’s situation, and Hester’s affliction, is described by Lawrence in the following passage from “The Rocking-Horse Winner”:
“Although they lived in style, they felt always an anxiety in the house. There was never enough money. The mother had a small income, and the father had a small income, but not nearly enough for the social position which they had to keep up. The father went into town to some office. But though he had good prospects, these prospects never materialised. There was always the grinding sense of the shortage of money, though the style was always kept up.”
Marxism views materialism as a weakness and an unnatural state of being that would ultimately disappear in favor of a socialist society where every individual would produce in accordance with the notion of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Lawrence’s story is clearly in conflict with that objective or presumed end-state of human civilization. There is nothing subtle about Lawrence’s Marxian perspective in his story. This family is craven in its pursuit of material wealth, and its inability to fund its lifestyle is slowly killing it. Even the story’s symbol of proletarian virtue, the gardener Bassett, is stricken with this sickness, which permeates the house and all those within. As Lawrence describes the atmosphere:
"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!'"
“The Rocking-Horse Winner” requires no Marxian analysis; it is already an indictment of materialism and the way the pursuit of wealth as an end in itself erodes mankind like a disease. Hester is the ultimate manifestation of that sickness, but Paul’s death stands as a warning against unbridled materialism and insidious effect Marx suggested it would have on civilization.