Three of D. H. Lawrence’s most important themes are prominent in “The Rocking-Horse Winner”: the corroding effects of acquisitive behavior on English society, the requirement for a truly loving relationship to achieve happiness and fulfillment, and the existence of forces in the natural world that humans might access if they were not limited by social and cultural conventions. These themes structure and inform the narrative, intertwining so that the presentation and development of each theme is connected to the others. Taken together, they offer a view of the philosophical positions that Lawrence worked toward in his most memorable writing.
Lawrence’s father was a coal miner. He made an adequate living, but his wife had aspirations to a more comfortable and refined social setting. Lawrence himself was more concerned with aesthetic and romantic matters than with monetary ones, but as he began to write about British society he became increasingly displeased with what he felt was an economic system that placed an emphasis on things that he felt were not crucial for human well-being. As he wrote in Apocalypse (1931), “What we want is to destroy our false, inorganic connections, especially those related to money,” a sentiment similar to many others that he expressed throughout his life. The advent of World War I forced Lawrence and his wife, who was of German descent, to move away from the Cornwall coast. Lawrence was living at the time primarily on borrowed funds and, in the words of his wife, was “a walking phenomenon of suspended fury.” In addition, as he became a professional author, dependent on the income his writing produced, he was increasingly involved in negotiations regarding remuneration for his work.
Lawrence wrote “The Rocking-Horse Winner” for a collection of ghost stories being compiled by Lady Cynthia Asquith (who was partially the basis for Hester’s character). He was paid fifteen pounds for the story’s English publication rights and fifty pounds for the American rights. To put this payment in perspective, Virginia Woolf in her 1929 “A Room of One’s Own” recommended a sum of five hundred pounds as minimal to secure an artist’s independence. The sums that Paul’s sure winners return, then, are far beyond what would be required to sustain an upper-middle-class family, and enough to place a family within the reaches of “real money,” if not fabulous wealth. The family’s final winnings of more than eighty thousand pounds would be equivalent to several million pounds in the twenty-first century.
Lawrence chose these impressive sums, far beyond what most of his readers could even contemplate, to demonstrate the futility of seeking ever-larger amounts of money in a futile quest for the elusive satisfaction of being rich. The corrosive effects of such a quest are strikingly illustrated by the ultimate sacrifice that Paul makes. The sacrifice is particularly pathetic, since the love he hopes to give his mother...
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