The Rocking-Horse Winner Characters
The main characters in "The Rocking-Horse Winner" are Paul, Hester, Basset, and Oscar.
- Paul is a young boy who fulfills his mother's desire for more luck and money by betting on horses. He plays the role of an adult, but his sacrifices for his family are not appreciated.
Hester is Paul's greedy and irresponsible mother. She complains constantly about her lack of luck and is obsessed with acquiring material wealth.
Bassett is the family gardener who helps Paul carry out his money-making endeavor by placing the bets on Paul's behalf.
Oscar Cresswell is Paul's uncle, who uses Paul's luck to further his own wealth.
Last Updated on February 3, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1521
Paul is a young boy who is deeply troubled by his mother’s insatiable desire for more money. Though his mother, Hester, gives the appearance of being caring and devoted, Paul and his two sisters are aware that she does not really love them. The house they live in is stylish, but its atmosphere is permeated by an ever-present anxiety about money that particularly torments Paul. The children constantly seem to hear the house whispering, “There must be more money!” One day Paul asks his mother why the family doesn’t have a car; she replies that they are poor, and they are poor because they are unlucky. Without knowing why, Paul asserts that he is lucky and that he knows because God told him. His mother laughs this off and, angry and determined to prove himself to her, Paul sets out to locate the source of luck. He rides his rocking horse wildly, whipping it and commanding it to take him to wherever luck is. Eventually, Paul discovers that when he rides the nameless rocking horse hard enough, he somehow comes to know the name of the real horse that will win the next race. On his rocking-horse rides, Paul’s large, blue, close-set eyes are filled with an eerie fire. He becomes betting partners with Bassett, the gardener, and later with his Uncle Oscar, betting on horses only when he is certain they will win and anxiously hoping both men keep his betting secret. Eventually Paul is able to anonymously send his mother five thousand pounds, which she spends wastefully. Paul is terrified by the fact that the house now cries out for “more money” more than ever. Outside of studying Greek and Latin with his new tutor, Paul spends all his time with Bassett and begins betting even when he is uncertain of the winner, causing him to lose money and become ever more distraught. He begs his mother not to send him to the seaside to recover from his anxiety until after the Derby, on which he has placed all his hopes, and she agrees. When his mother comments that he is too old for a rocking horse, Paul—who has not divulged the secret of how he discovers the winners’ names to anyone—insists on keeping it. At the end of the story, Paul’s mother discovers him “surging madly” on the rocking horse. He yells out the name of the horse that will win the Derby, Malabar, and falls to the ground. Paul enters a feverish period of delirium in which he babbles about Malabar and tries to get back on his rocking horse, his eyes like “blue stones.” Finally Bassett comes to tell him Malabar has won. Paul excitedly explains his secret and exclaims to his mother that he is lucky after all, but she doesn’t remember him telling her about his luck the first time. He dies later that night.
Hester, Paul’s mother, is a deeply dissatisfied woman driven by an insatiable desire for money and success. She married for love rather than financial security, but now that the love between her and her husband has faded, she is left with a life much less luxurious than she would like. Though she gives the appearance of being a perfect mother, Hester and her three children are aware that she cannot really love them or anyone; the center of her heart is a “hard little place.” Though she believes in herself, Hester is unable to achieve the kind of success she wants, even when she discovers she has a talent for sketching draperies and goes to work for an advertiser. This sense of failure combined with her husband’s similar inability to succeed—and both of their expensive tastes—leads Hester to live in a constant state of financial anxiety, so much so that the children hear the house itself cry out for “more money.” Hester believes, as she tells Paul, that their family is unlucky and that luck is what causes people to have money. This leads her son to assert that he is lucky and to discover the ability to predict winning horses, which eventually leads to his death. Hester betrays no sign of happiness on receiving Paul’s thousand pounds in the mail on her birthday and asks the family lawyer if she can have the full five thousand immediately. Unsurprisingly, instead of paying off debts, she spends all the money on expensive home furnishings as well as tutoring and a future at Eton for Paul, leading the house to cry out for money more urgently than ever. Hester realizes that her son has become extremely distraught and wants to send him to the seaside to recover his nerves and forget about horse racing, but she gives in when he begs her not to send him away until after the Derby. She begins to feel terrible attacks of anxiety for Paul; this is perhaps the closest she will ever come to truly loving him. At a dance in town she is torn between her common sense and her anxiety for her child, eventually calling the governess in order to assuage her fear. When she arrives home to see Paul fall from his rocking horse to the ground, she sweeps him up, overcome by her “tormented motherhood.” As she sits at her son’s bedside, however, Hester feels that her “heart had gone, turned actually into a stone”; when he asks if he ever told her he was lucky, she doesn’t remember that he did.
Oscar Cresswell, or Uncle Oscar, is Hester’s brother and Paul’s uncle. Wealthier than Hester since she married her supposedly unlucky husband, he allows the family to borrow his car but appears to do little else to help them. Oscar is delighted to discover his nephew’s interest in horse racing and asks the family’s gardener, Bassett, whether Paul ever places bets. When Bassett, who had been Oscar’s batman (a kind of assistant) during the war, suggests Oscar ask Paul about it himself, Oscar takes Paul for a drive to his own house in Hampshire. Curious and somewhat unsettled by discovering his nephew’s certainty that a horse called Daffodil will win the Lincoln derby, Oscar determines to take Paul with him to the race. When Daffodil comes in first, Oscar decides to become betting partners with Paul and Bassett. He encourages his nephew’s gambling, agreeing to keep it a secret. He also helps Paul deliver his five thousand pounds of winnings to Hester by giving them to the family lawyer to be paid out in thousand-pound increments every year on Hester’s birthday, though he doubts this will make his sister any happier. Hester asks the family lawyer if the whole five thousand can be given to her at once, and Oscar signs the agreement at Paul’s insistence. When Paul begins to lose money and show signs of acute distress, Oscar urges him to forget the races—but when his nephew lies delirious with fever after discovering the name of the horse that will win the Derby, Oscar places a bet on Malabar “in spite of himself.” Oscar’s shallowness is fully revealed in the last lines of the story when he tells his sister, “ ‘My God, Hester, you're eighty-odd thousand to the good, and a poor devil of a son to the bad. But, poor devil, poor devil, he's best gone out of a life where he rides his rocking horse to find a winner.’ ”
Bassett is the family’s young gardener, described as a shortish man with small brown eyes and a brown mustache. He was hired by Oscar Cresswell after serving as Oscar’s batman during World War I, where Bassett was injured in the left foot. The horse races are Bassett’s passion and he answers all Paul’s questions about them, eventually becoming the boy’s betting partner. Having seen Paul’s uncanny ability to predict the winning horse, the gardener displays a solemn loyalty to the boy, guarding Paul’s secret and handling his winnings for him. It is with Bassett that Paul spends his “intense hours” outside of studying. At the end of the story, Bassett comes to Paul’s deathbed to assure him that Malabar came in first, earning the boy seventy thousand pounds. “Master Paul” now has over eighty thousand pounds’ worth of winnings. When Paul asks Bassett if he bet all he was worth on Malabar, the gardener replies that he bet a thousand.
Paul’s father appears only as an unspeaking background character in the text, but the reader learns that he is very handsome, went to Eton, works in an office in London, is burdened with the same small income and expensive tastes as his wife, and has “good prospects” that never seem to materialize. Hester married her husband, who she believes is unlucky, for a love that didn’t last, and the two are at pains to maintain their social position in spite of their financial difficulties.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1003
Bassett is the family gardener who helps Paul place bets on horses. He used to work around horses and racing and he talks about racing all the time, so it seems reasonable that Paul would seek his advice. He takes the boy seriously and follows all the boy's instructions in placing the bets. He also keeps Paul's money safely hidden away, at least until Uncle Oscar gets involved. He is the only adult who treats Paul with a serious respect. It is Bassett's seriousness that convinces Uncle Oscar that Paul's gift for picking winners is real. He is trustworthy and kind, but is also a servant, so once Uncle Oscar takes over, he respectfully withdraws from the action.
Oscar Cresswell is Paul's uncle and Hester's brother. He is in a better financial position than Hester, since he owns his own car and a place in Hampshire. This is because he inherited the entire family fortune, leaving Hester to depend on her husband for support. It is Uncle Oscar who stumbles upon Paul's secret of earning money through gambling, but he does not at first believe in Paul's gift. He thinks that Paul is not serious and treats the boy as if he were merely playing a game. After Oscar realizes that Paul's tips are dependable, he encourages the gambling. Oscar arranges for a lawyer to funnel money to Hester. He also bets his own money, using Paul's tips for his own profit.
Although Uncle Oscar seems harmless at first, the reader becomes aware that he is using Paul for his own benefit. He makes no effort to teach Paul about being careful with money or the dangers of gambling. Oscar does nothing to help Hester and her family, neither by giving money nor by helping Hester budget what money she does have. Because Oscar only uses Paul for his own financial gain, he is revealed to be shallow and selfish.
Hester is Paul's mother, who is incapable of loving others. She is not only obsessed with money, but she is also irresponsible with the money she does get. When Paul arranges through his attorney to give her a thousand pounds a month from his winnings, she immediately begs the attorney for the entire amount. However, instead of paying her debts, she spends the money on new things for the house. This results in an even greater need for more money. She also does not express any thanks for this sudden windfall, depriving Paul of the joy of providing the much-needed income for his family.
Although at the end of the story Hester becomes increasingly concerned about Paul's deteriorating health, she still does not love him, even when he dies. At the beginning of the story, it is stated that "at the center of her heart was a hard little place that could not feel love, no, not for anybody." This image is repeated at the end of the story, when Hester sits by her son's bedside "feeling her heart had gone, turned actually into a stone." Before he dies Paul asks, "Mother, did I ever tell you? I'm lucky." She responds, "No, you never did." However, the reader remembers that Paul did, indeed, tell her that he was lucky earlier in the story. Since she pays little attention to him, she does not remember this.
When Hester finally receives the financial fortune she has always wanted but loses her son in the process, the reader realizes that Hester will probably not feel the loss of her son and will probably waste all that money in record time. All of these details show Hester to be cold, unfeeling, wasteful, and shallow.
See Oscar Cresswell
Paul is the young boy in the story who tries desperately to find a way to have "luck," meaning money, for his mother. He begins to ride his rocking horse furiously, even though he has outgrown it, because when he does so, he somehow is given the name of the horse that will win the next race. He makes an astounding amount of money this way with the help of the gardener Bassett (who places his bets for him), and later with the help also of his Uncle Oscar. For the final big race, the Derby, he rides himself into a feverish delirium, but he is sure of the winner. His uncle places a large bet for him. Just as his uncle arrives to tell him of the fortune he has made, he dies from the fever. Paul dies for the sake of making money for the family, particularly his mother, even though her "heart was a stone."
Paul seems completely unaware that he has overtaken responsibilities that are rightly his parents'. He seems only concerned with relieving the anxiety he perceives in the house caused by a lack of money. He tries to understand why there is not enough money by asking his mother, but she only says that his father "has no luck." He directly associates luck with money, so the gambling seems like a natural solution to the problem. He is so innocent in his enthusiasm for the game he begins playing with Bassett that even when his uncle discovers that he has been gambling, he does not stop Paul from gambling further. Even though Paul is still a child, all of the adults, Bassett, Uncle Oscar, and Paul's mother, seem to treat him like an adult. No one anticipates that Paul will pay a huge price for playing this game. No one even questions Paul's ability to pick the winners of the horse races, or wonders how in the world Paul is able to pick winners so accurately.
Throughout the story Paul remains innocent, as well as desperate, to help his mother, who seems oblivious to Paul's concerns. Although it is clear to the reader that Paul is very intelligent and sensitive, no one in the story seems to notice or appreciate Paul's gifts until it is too late.
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