What is the main conflict in the story "The Rocking-Horse Winner"?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There is a strange sort of conflict between Paul and his mother in "The Rocking-Horse Winner." Paul is the protagonist, and it is his story. He wants to please his mother, to make her happy, and to gain her love, all by winning money on the horse races and giving it all to her. But no matter how hard he rides his rocking-horse and no matter how much money he wins, she cannot be satisfied. When he sees to it that she receives the sum of five thousand pounds, her reaction is just the opposite of what he expected.

Then something very curious happened. 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!" 

Paul is trying what is obviously impossible. It is impossible to get anywhere on a wooden horse. It is impossible to foretell the future. And it is impossible for him to win his mother's love. She is incapable of loving her children, and she will never change. Mothers often expect their children to give them the things their husbands cannot provide. But Paul is only a little boy. It would be years before he could achieve the material success and social prestige she yearns for. No doubt if he had lived she would have pushed him into some career for which he wasn't suited, as mothers will do. He keeps winning money, and she keeps demanding more and more and more. The conflict has to end in disaster for the boy. He kills himself trying to satisfy her demands. Or it might be said that she kills him with those demands. This seems to be the main external conflict in "The Rocking-Horse Winner."

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amarang9's profile pic

amarang9 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The main conflict in the story is the mother's inability to accept responsibility for her own happiness and also her false belief that money will supplant love and provide happiness for her. 

She resents her children (although treats them with gentleness); and both she and the children know it: "They read it in each other's eyes." Everyone in the house beome brainwashed that only money will ensure their happiness and survival: "There must be more money!" Rather than looking inside herself and figuring out how to be a loving person, the mother looks outside toward material things in order to satisfy the void in her life. The impressionable Paul is affected by his mother's disappointment and deduces from his mother's words that luck, happiness, and money are equivalents. Therefore, he concludes that to be happy, the family needs money. (This is obviously false and this is Lawrence's point: to show how materialism is not the correct route to happiness, love, etc.) 

Paul takes it upon himself to find this "luck." He paradoxically reverts to a childlike practice (riding the rocking-horse) while taking on the role of the father in the family. Psychoanalytic interpretations of this story often refer to the Oedipus complex (wherein the child/boy desires to take the father's place; the "riding" takes on a sexual connotation but is still, paradoxically, childish). The main conflict is the mother's desire to substitute money for love, in order to gain happiness. But the resulting conflict is the effect her behavior has on Paul, whose maturation is both interrupted and sped up, his sexual maturation infantilized while his role advanced to that of the father. This is the psychological subtext of the story. How Paul "gets to" his knowledge of the winners is disputable; the point is that he should never have been put in this confusing position at his age: " . . . he's best gone out of a life where he rides his rocking-horse to find a winner." 

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