“The Rocking-Horse Winner” relates the desperate and foredoomed efforts of a young boy to win his mother’s love by seeking the luck that she bitterly maintains she does not have. By bringing her the luxurious life for which she longs, Paul hopes to win her love, to compensate her for her unhappiness with his father, and to bring peace to their anxious, unhappy household. He determines to find luck after a conversation with his mother, in which she tells him that she is not lucky, having married an unlucky husband, and that it is better to have luck than money because luck brings money. In response, Paul clearly accepts the unspoken invitation to take his father’s place in fulfilling his mother’s dreams of happiness. His purpose seems to be fulfilled when, with the help of Bassett, the gardener, he begins to win money betting on horse races. Shortly thereafter, he confides in his uncle Oscar, whom he also considers lucky because Oscar’s gift of money started his winning streak.
Paul, Oscar, and Bassett continue to bet and win until Paul has five thousand pounds to give his mother for her birthday, to be distributed to her over the next five years. When she receives the anonymous present, she does not seem at all happy but sets about arranging to get the whole five thousand pounds at once. As a result, Hester becomes even more obsessed with money, increasingly anxious for more. Also, the house, which previously seemed to whisper “There must be more money! There must be more money!” now screeches the same refrain.
Paul, unable to perceive that his mother is insatiable, redoubles his efforts to win more money for her. He hides himself away, alone with his secret source of information on the outcome of the races. This secret, which he has shared with no one, is his mysterious, nameless rocking horse, which he rides frenziedly until he gets to the point at which he knows the name of the winner in the next big race. Desperate to know the name of the winner in the derby, he urges his parents to take a brief vacation. Summoned back to Paul by a strange sense of foreboding, Hester returns to see Paul fall from his horse after a frenzied ride, stricken by a brain fever from which he never recovers. While Bassett runs to tell Paul that he has successfully guessed the derby winner and is now rich, Paul tells his mother, “I am lucky,” and then dies. Thereupon his uncle comments, “he’s best gone out of a life where he rides his rocking-horse to find a winner.”
In a London suburb in the mid-1920’s, a woman who maintains what most people would regard as quite a comfortable manner of living in a well-furnished house with several retainers is convinced that she has “no luck.” Hester is beautiful and youthful, but her husband has not succeeded in advancing beyond a routine position in the city, and her children can sense that, in spite of the attention and care she offers them, she does not really love them. She herself is deeply troubled by what she feels is a “hard little place” at the center of her being that prevents her from loving anybody.
Hester’s son Paul, a very sensitive boy who adores her and who is her favorite among the three children, understands on an instinctual level that his mother is not happy. He is on the threshold of adolesence, eager and energetic, and becoming increasingly curious about the ways of the adult world. Paul inquires as to why the family does not own a car but must take taxis or borrow the car of Hester’s brother Oscar Cresswell. Hester tells Paul that his father has “no luck.” Paul does not fully understand what this statement means, but his mother suggests that it is inextricably connected to money and, in the case of their family, its insufficiency.
While Paul and the other children are not familiar with the economics of their household, they have a grasp of the ways in which their mother’s concerns have permeated every aspect of their lives. The house itself seems to echo Hester’s conviction that “There must be more money.” Paul ponders the problem, and, while he is taking an imaginative ride on his treasured toy rocking horse, he makes a kind of abstracted connection between the condition of consciousness he develops amid the rhythms of the ride and an entrance into another realm where some secrets of the universe are revealed to him. He becomes convinced that his beloved toy can carry him to a solution to his mother’s unhappiness and, since money is at the core of the problem, enable him to provide what is missing in the household.
Paul’s uncle Oscar, whom he admires and who loves him like a son, asks him the name of his horse. Paul is not entirely sure what to say, since he has begun to think of his horse with the names of the champion racers of the day. Paul has learned these names from conversations with Bassett, the family’s young gardener, a devoted turf fancier who was Oscar’s batman (or personal aide) during World War I. Oscar is fascinated by Paul’s account and is startled to find that Paul and Bassett have been placing winning bets on the horses whose names Paul chooses for his toy. They have already accumulated a private account of some substance, and Cresswell becomes a sort of senior partner to their enterprise, encouraging Paul by taking him on his first visit to an actual racetrack. The boy is enthralled by the setting, his eyes becoming like “blue fire.”
Not all of Paul’s picks have been winners, but when he has said that he was absolutely sure about a horse, he has never been wrong. Cresswell is somewhat unsettled by the large sums that are accumulating, but Paul explains that he must continue his endeavors since he is so anxious to make his mother happy and to stop “the house whispers like people laughing at you behind your back.” Still, although the racetrack winnings have made more money available to the household, the increase in funds seems to have led to an implicit demand for ever greater sums. Paul’s mother becomes concerned about her son’s overwrought behavior and plans to send him away from the house to the sea coast, but Paul insists that he must stay—to be close to his rocking horse—until after the running of the Derby. He intends to put all of their winnings on one last bet in an attempt to finally amass enough money to quiet the whispers of discontent and distress.
Two nights before the Derby, Paul’s parents are at a party when his mother is struck by an instinctual feeling of anxiety about her son. When she rushes home, she finds him in his room, in a frenzy of motion on the rocking horse. “It’s Malabar,” Paul shouts as he falls off the horse and descends into a semiconscious state. His uncle and Bassett, although worried about Paul, place a winning bet on Malabar that pays at fourteen to one. For three days, Paul remains in critical condition, reviving momentarily when Basset tells him the horse has won to proudly proclaim to his mother that he has brought luck to the house. However, he then lapses back into a coma and dies during the night. In a summary of the situation, Cresswell observes that the family has gained a fortune and lost a son, but that perhaps it is for the best considering the degree to which Paul drove himself in his efforts to give his mother what she lacked.