What is the horrible secret Paul's mother carries with her?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The narrator explains Paul's mother's terrible secret in the opening chapter of "The Rocking Horse Winner." She is unable to feel love for her children or for anyone else. Only the children seem to understand this.

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. Everybody else said of her: "She is such a good mother. She adores her children." Only she herself, and her children themselves, knew it was not so. They read it in each other's eyes.

Paul senses intuitively that his mother does not love him, but he thinks it must be possible to win her love somehow. The problem seems to relate to his father. His mother no longer loves his father because his father has not lived up to his mother's expectations. She is socially ambitious, but she needs money to keep up the aristocratic mage which is so important to her. Her husband does not make enough money. She tells Paul that his father's problem is that he is unlucky.

"Mother," said the boy Paul one day, "why don't we keep a car of our own? Why do we always use uncle's, or else a taxi?"

"Because we're the poor members of the family," said the mother. 

"But why are we, mother?" 

"Well—I suppose," she said slowly and bitterly, "it's because your father has no luck." 

Paul gets the idea that if only he were lucky he could make a lot of money and then his mother would love him—although this of course is an impossibility. He is so strongly motivated to be lucky that he starts riding his rocking-horse as a desperate expedient to get to where the luck is.

"Now!" he would silently command the snorting steed. "Now take me to where there is luck! Now take me!" 

Paul finds that if he rides his rocking-horse long enough and hard enough he can somehow predict the winning horses in important races. The horses' name seem to pop into his head. He goes into partnership with Bassett, their gardener, and subsequently with his Uncle Oscar. All three of them start making large sums of money betting on the horses whose names mysteriously occur to Paul when he is riding his horse to get to where the luck is. But because of his mother's inability to love, Paul is never able to get the one thing he really wants regardless of how much money he accumulates. He is killing himself trying to win his mother's love, something which any child ought to be able to receive unconditionally.

Through his Uncle Oscar, Paul gives his mother a gift of five thousand pounds out of his accumulated winnings without her learning where the money came from. This does not achieve the hoped-for result. She quickly spends the money on a variety of vanity purchases and commitments, but she is no happier, and Paul does not receive any of the love he craves. Instead, he can hear the voices in the house crying for more and more money.

The voices in the house suddenly went mad, like a chorus of frogs on a spring evening. There were certain new furnishings, and Paul had a tutor. He was really going to Eton, his father's school, in the following autumn. There were flowers in the winter, and a blossoming of the luxury Paul's mother had been used to. And yet the voices in the house, behind the sprays of mimosa and almond-blossom, and from under the piles of iridescent cushions, simply trilled and screamed in a sort of ecstasy: "There must be more money! Oh-h-h; there must be more money. Oh, now, now-w! Now-w-w - there must be more money! - more than ever! More than ever!" 

This small boy is up against a problem of monstrous proportions. His incessant rocking on his wooden horse seems to symbolize the anxiety that motivates him to satisfy his mother's insatiable need for more and more money. Eventually his exertions bring on something like a stroke. On his death bed he reveals his secret:

"I never told you, mother, that if I can ride my horse, and get there, then I'm absolutely sure - oh, absolutely! Mother, did I ever tell you? I am lucky!" 

"No, you never did," said his mother. 

But the boy died in the night.

Read the study guide:
The Rocking-Horse Winner

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