drawing of a young boy riding a rocking-horse

The Rocking-Horse Winner

by D. H. Lawrence

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Overview of “The Rocking-Horse Winner”

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"The Rocking-Horse Winner" belongs to the group of stories D. H. Lawrence wrote in the last years of his life. During this period, critics have noted, he abandoned the realism that characterizes his mid-career work, and turned toward a style of short story that more closely resembles the fable or folktale. In the words of Janice Hubbard Harris, in The Short Fiction of D. H. Lawrence, "The Rocking-Horse Winner" and other stories of the period, represent the "desire of a fierce and dying man to prophesy, sum up, assess the world he is leaving rather than present or imitate it." The story also presents several themes that held Lawrence's attention throughout his career.

The style and tone of "The Rocking-Horse Winner" reveal immediately that this story comes from the world of fable and legend. The distant, solemn tone of the narrator: "There was a woman who was beautiful," signals us that this is an old story. Quickly it becomes apparent that this is a quest narrative of some sort. The boy hero will try to win the love of the distant queen/mother. The object of the quest is to gain access to "the centre of her heart [that] was a hard place that could not feel love, no, not for anybody." The hero rides off, captures the treasure, and returns home to present the riches to his love. But the opening of the story is also foreboding, because "undercutting this fairy tale, however, is another, which forms a grotesque shadow, a nightmare counter to the wish-fulfillment narrative," in Harris's words. The quest is hopeless, Harris points out, because the mother can never be satisfied and "every success brings a new and greater trial."

Given the stylized characterization and the symbolic landscape that Lawrence creates in "The Rocking-Horse Winner," we can read the meaning of the story on several levels. In the first place, Lawrence seems to be offering a broad satire on rising consumerism in English culture. In particular, this story criticizes those who equate love with money, luck with happiness. The mother with her insatiable desire for material possessions believes that money will make her happy despite the obvious fact that so far it has not. For Lawrence she represents the futility of the new consumer culture in which luck and lucre mean the same thing. Paul, who learns from his mother to associate love with money, represents the desperate search for values in a cash culture. The force of Lawrence's satire is directed at a society that is dominated by a quest for cash, and at those who buy into the deadly equation of love equals money.

This fable about a boy's doomed attempts to satisfy his mother's desires and win her love also provides Lawrence the opportunity to work out one of the themes that dominate his entire body of work, the relationship between mothers and sons. Lawrence's theory, which is the central concern of one of his most famous novels, Sons and Lovers, is that mothers mold their sons into men who are the opposites of their undesirable husbands. Since mothers know that they cannot change their husbands, they throw all their passion into creating desirable sons, whom, of course, they cannot possess. In "The Rocking-Horse Winner," the husband's inadequacy is explicit. The narrator describes him as "one who was always very handsome and expensive in his tastes, [and] seemed as if he never would be able to do anything worth doing." Making her feelings very clear to her young son, the mother "bitterly" characterizes her husband as "very unlucky." When she confides in her son that she is dissatisfied with her husband, the mother sets in motion the boys futile quest to please her, to be the man she wants him/her husband to be. After this, the father is hardly mentioned in the story, let alone seen. The mother's desire to make and possess her son constitutes another dark counter-narrative to the story's wish-fulfillment theme.

Both Paul's desire to win his mother's love as well as her desire to make him into the image of an ideal husband are doomed to futility. This kind of misdirected and frustrated sexuality is a persistent theme in Lawrence's fiction and nonfiction writing, and the fable-like quality of "The Rocking-Horse Winner" gives Lawrence an opportunity to dramatize some of theories about sexuality on a symbolic level. The course of Lawrence's career demonstrates the evolution of his theories on sexuality and gender. By the end of his life, when "The Rocking-Horse Winner" was written, Lawrence's ideas had evolved into his theory of polarity, which is based on the premise that maleness and femaleness are absolute opposites and that men and women cannot have any attributes of the opposite sex. The theory of polarity, which is derived in part from Lawrence's acquaintance with Freudian psychology, asserts that an individual achieves wholeness by balancing his or her energy against another individual's. For Lawrence, this balance is achieved by a flow of energy, like an electric current, which is usually rendered as sexual desire in his fiction.

Critics have noted the connections between Lawrence's published ideas about sexuality, particularly in the essay "Pornography and Obscenity," and in "The Rocking-Horse Winner." In "A Rocking-Horse: The Symbol, the Pattern, the Way to Live," an influential article written in 1958, W. D. Snodgrass analyzed the psychosexual dimensions of the story through the lens of Lawrence's published writings. Snodgrass summarizes Lawrence's thesis as the argument that pornography is "art which contrives to make sex ugly … and so leads the observer away from sexual intercourse and toward masturbation." Paul's rocking horse riding, then, represents masturbation, "the child's imitation of the sex act, for the riding which goes nowhere." Lawrence's point, however, is not that Paul's "secret of secrets" kills him. What is unnatural from Lawrence's point of view is that Paul and his mother are locked into a pattern of mutually frustrated desire. Neither one of them is directing their energy at an appropriate "polarity." Significantly, however, they do not share equal responsibility for their situation. Lawrence, through his narrator, places all the blame on the mother and martyrs the boy in one final self-sacrificing ride.

Source: Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997. Piedmont-Morton is the coordinator of the Undergraduate Writing Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Lawrence, Lady Cynthia Asquith, and “The Rocking-Horse Winner”

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D. H. Lawrence's habit of making identifiable use of his friends and acquaintances in his novels and short stories has been well documented, as has his lack of concern for the possible distress such portraits might cause. Lady Ottoline Morrell and Philip Heseltine were outraged by their appearance in Women in Love as Hermione and Halliday, and although Lawrence tried to assure his friend Mark Gertler that he was not the model for the rat-like Loerke in the same novel, it is generally agreed that he was. John Middleton Murry, despite his admiration for Lawrence, was never able to forgive him for the group of short stones in which Murry is made to look ridiculous, and Compton Mackenzie was annoyed at finding himself the protagonist in "The Man Who Loved Islands." "England, My England," with its satiric portraits of Percy Lucas and the Meynell family, was published shortly before Lucas' death in France, and has been called Lawrence's "cruelest story à clef." To these and other stories can be added another based upon a real-life situation, "The Rocking-Horse Winner."

This story was first published in the fall of 1926 in a collection called The Ghost Book assembled by Lawrence's longtime friend, Lady Cynthia Asquith. As I hope to show, the story was probably suggested by the tragic illness of Lady Cynthia's oldest son John and by the Asquith marriage itself. Although it is unlikely that Lady Cynthia recognized herself in the character Hester, or connected her son's tragedy—at its height almost ten years before the story was written—with Paul, biographical materials demonstrate that Lawrence found in the Asquith household the ingredients for his story on destructive materialism.

That Lawrence used these materials as he did is surprising because it is generally agreed that Lady Cynthia occupied a rather special place in his life. His biographer, Harry T. Moore, remarks that "Lawrence felt a respectful affection, if not love for her," and her Diaries show that she held the novelist in considerable esteem. In her memoir, written many years after Lawrence's death, she speaks very warmly of him, stressing his electric aliveness and gentleness. In other stories in which she is the model for the heroine, she is treated with tact and affection. An early sketch, "The Thimble," was intended as a "word-picture" of her, and was sent to her for her criticism. She was uneasy about its probable contents; having read The Rainbow in manuscript, she feared a "minute 'belly' analysis" of herself. But she was pleased by the story and found it "extremely well-written.… I think some of his character hints are damnably good." Two later stories, The Ladybird and "Glad Ghosts," are also considered to contain heroines modeled on Lady Cynthia, both attractive figures.

Not only is Lady Cynthia pleasantly presented, but most stories in which she was the model for the heroine do not end unhappily. In "The Thimble" the couple is re-born, and becomes capable of growing into full maturity and love as a result. In The Ladybird, Lady Daphne, unfulfilled by her adoring husband, reaches unity of being through her love affair with Count Dionys. In "Glad Ghosts" Carlotta's husband, stimulated by the advice of a Lawrence-like house guest, suddenly gains insight into the importance of the body. His marriage is revitalized, his bad luck overcome, and Carlotta gives birth to a charming blond boy "like a little crocus" nine months later. (Lawrence had nicknamed Lady Cynthia's son "Jonquil.") Rather ambiguously, the guest is visited at night by a feminine ghost, and he is uncertain in the morning whether it was a ghost or a living woman. It has been suggested that Lawrence decided against sending this story to Lady Cynthia because of the implications of its conclusion, and after considering it, submitted "The Rocking-Horse Winner" instead.

Biographical materials will show the striking similarities between the Asquith family and the family in the story. Lady Cynthia, like Carlotta and Hester, was visited by very bad luck indeed in her firstborn son. In his infancy he seemed normal, and his charm and sweet temper delighted everyone. Lawrence in letters written in 1913 inquired about "the fat and smiling John,'' and asked,"How is the jonquil with the golden smile." But by the time the boy was four years old, it had become obvious that something was seriously wrong with him. The editor of the Diaries labels his condition autism, a disorder still not well understood. And the Lawrences' close association with the Asquiths began just as the mother's fears were beginning to crystalize.

The Lawrences visited Lady Cynthia in Brighton in May 1915, and John had tea with them. She reports in her diary that "the Lawrences were riveted by the freakishness of John, about whom they showed extraordinary interest and sympathy … he was in a wild, monkey mood—very challenging, just doing things for the sake of being told not to—impishly defiant and still his peculiar, indescribable detachment." The next day Lawrence and Lady Cynthia strolled to the cliffs overlooking Brighton and discussed John's condition for several hours. The mother, who elsewhere expresses her admiration for Lawrence's deep insight into character, received a long and depressing analysis. She was upset to learn that her friend believed she was responsible for her son's condition, that the boy was reacting to her scepticism and cynicism, to her lack of positive belief that made her appear, on the surface, charmingly tolerant and kind. Later he told her that her spirit was "hard and stoical," a judgment which she rejected, but which is parallel to Hester who "knew that at the center of her heart was a hard little place that could not feel love.…"

A few days later Lawrence wrote a long letter about John in which he argued that she and her husband lacked a living belief in anything, that the world in which she lived had stunted her soul, and she had not resisted. "Your own soul knew … that it was itself bound in like a tree that grows under a low roof and can never break through, and which must be deformed, unfulfilled. Herbert Asquith must have known the same thing, in his soul." John had been born from the womb and loins of unbelief, distorted from his conception: "the soul of John acts from your soul, even from the start: because he knows that you are Unbelief, and he reacts from your affirmation of belief always with hostility." He cautions her against trying to force her son's love: "That you fight is only a sign that you are wanting in yourself. The child knows that. Your own soul is deficient, so it fights for the love of the child."

A recent article on "The Rocking-Horse Winner" reaches conclusions on the story itself that are very similar to Lawrence's analysis. Commenting on the wildness of Paul's obsession, Charles Koban says, "It is as if an alien spirit inhabited and drove him … and the spirit is of course the spirit of the mother, the spirit of greed." It is Paul's "mystical openness to her that leaves him vulnerable to the terrible forces she unleashes in her own household." It must be made clear that there is little to suggest that Lady Cynthia or her husband were as obsessed with money and material things as the couple in the story. But from Lawrence's perspective, the Asquiths could not avoid obsessive concern for possessions, given their chosen style of life. Lady Cynthia describes Lawrence strolling about their living room after tea, and suddenly noticing a small Louis XV table. After he stared at it for a moment,"'Come away!' he shrilled out, looking at me as if I stood in immediate deadly peril. 'Come away. Free yourself at once, or before you know where you are, your furniture will be on top instead of under you.' This admonition gave me a nightmare in which I was trampled to death by the legs of my own tables and chairs." A harmless antique table became an instant symbol of the money-lie. Despite Lawrence's fondness for this couple, the link between possessions and the failure of human relationships seems clearly established.

Another letter concerned with Herbert Asquith also prefigures the story, as Lawrence tries to persuade Lady Cynthia not to push her husband into the money-making trap. The Asquiths were not rich, and lack of money was a constant concern. That Lawrence was well aware of this is shown in "The Thimble" where the heroine, left alone when her husband goes to war, cannot maintain the family town house, and takes a small flat which she furnishes with second-hand furniture bought from friends. Lady Cynthia herself spent the war years "cuckooing," that is, living with friends and family to avoid the expense of her own establishment. She worked for some years as a secretary for Sir James Barrie, wrote and published books, and like Hester, once received a summons for debt, a "wretched fourteen-shillings bill." Like the couple in the story, the Asquiths were poor relations compared to the social set to which they belonged by birth. Lawrence, who was tortured by the money-hunger he saw everywhere, urged his friend to realize the connection between money-lust and war:

It doesn't matter whether you need money or not. You do need it. But the fact that you would ask him to work, put his soul into getting it, makes him love better war and pure destruction. The thing is painfully irrational. How can a man be so developed to be able to devote himself to making money, and at the same time keep himself in utter antagonism to the whole system of money.…

The defeated, inarticulate husband in "The Rocking-Horse Winner," who goes "into town to some office," is foreshadowed here and in other letters. In one written in 1915, when the Lawrences were planning to leave England, he urged Lady Cynthia to consider leaving also. It was her duty, he felt, to remove her children from "this slow flux of destruction," and to seek a truer existence: "Your husband should have left this decomposing life. There was nowhere to go. Perhaps now he is beaten. Perhaps now the true living is defeated in him. But it is not defeated in you.… So don't give John to this decline and fall. Give him to the future.…"

The Lawrences did not leave England, however, until 1919, and during these years Lady Cynthia records her growing distress at her son's condition. She speaks of his "eerie Puck faces," of his sitting "silent and absorbed in his own thoughts" at a lively family tea party, and of the "strange completeness about him as he is.…" After a dedicated governess managed to teach him to read and write, the mother comments sadly that his performance "gives you the impression of a tour de force like a performing animal." Her growing inability to believe that the boy would ever be normal was becoming strong just as the Lawrences again entered her orbit. In April 1917 Lawrence visited her, and again insisted that the boy's condition was spiritual, not psychological. His mother had submitted to an unreal existence,"the result being that John is quite off the plane I have violated myself in order to remain on." Almost a year later, Lawrence again discussed John, still certain that he could be helped by "proper psychic influence," and offered to take him for a time to see if association with him and Frieda would help.

And finally Lady Cynthia lost her capacity to love her son, although she struggled not to do so. In a diary entry two days after the Lawrences had come to tea, she speaks of "the John tragedy," which blackened her life for her. It was a nightmare for her to be in the same room with him, and she was violently reproached by his governess for her apparent callousness. Her growing horror of the boy increased, no doubt because his affliction grew steadily more disturbing as he grew older, and in her diary she speaks of a visit to him as "an ordeal behind me." Since the Lawrences were seeing Lady Cynthia during this time period, it is quite likely that he at least was aware of the mother who could not love her son, and of the strong guilt feelings she experienced in consequence.

It is to be regretted that the editor of the Diaries felt it necessary to remove much of the material concerning John, since some of the omitted passages might have provided additional links with the story. But the descriptions of him that remain suggest Paul's behavior in the story: his wildness, his self-absorption, his uncanny faces, his non-human quality, and the sense of his isolation from other members of the household. And it is a matter of common knowledge that a behavior trait among children afflicted with autism is a forward-backward rocking motion of their bodies. It is likely that John would have had a rocking horse, and that he would have used it long after he outgrew it, given his condition. But about these possible, even probable, clues we can only speculate.

A small but significant hint in the story itself suggests that Lawrence had the Asquiths in mind, particularly since the phrasing seems to be a minor slip of the pen. Hester "was at a big party in town, when one of her rushes of anxiety about her boy, her first-born, gripped her heart until she could hardly speak." Not only does the sudden rush of concern describe what Lady Cynthia unquestionably must have experienced on many occasions, but the stipulation "first-born" is interesting. Earlier in the story we are told that Paul has an elder sister. Lawrence seems to have deliberately rearranged the ages and sexes of the children—Lady Cynthia had in fact three children, all boys—but unconsciously returned, as he wrote of the mother's anguish, to the original model for his character.

It would seem that in the Asquiths and in their eldest son Lawrence found ample background material for his story. Lady Cynthia was personally a charming and lovable woman, quite unlike the cold and selfish Hester. And yet Lawrence believed that basic deficiencies in her character had worked against her son's health and happiness. Her marriage had begun as a love match, opposed by her father because neither family could provide an adequate income for the couple. But Lawrence implied his belief that her relationship with her husband could not be satisfactory both in his direct comments in his letters and in the fact that he arranges a better marital relationship, a rebirth, for the heroines in three of his Asquith-inspired stories. The Asquiths' social position, well-connected but comparatively poor, parallels the one described in "The Rocking-Horse Winner." And concerning what was apparently his last visit to her in October 1925, a visit during which she probably asked him to write something for her anthology, he reported laconically to a friend, "Went to Cynthia Asquith's—more sense of failure." It was this sense of failure in her life, as well as in the lives of other friends and acquaintances whom Lawrence visited during his brief stay in England, that produced the bitterness and discouragement of "The Rocking-Horse Winner."

Source: Rosemary Reeves Davies, "Lawrence, Lady Cynthia Asquith, and 'The Rocking-Horse Winner,'" in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 20, No. 2-3, Spring-Summer, 1983, pp 121-6.

“The Rocking-Horse Winner”: A Modern Myth

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A recent critical exchange has re-focused attention on the controversial "Rocking-Horse Winner" by D. H. Lawrence. Except for that of W. R. Martin, the general critical evaluation of the story has been unfavorable, and for the specific reason that critics have failed to perceive the story's essentially mythical quality. The story does precisely what Burroughs and other Lawrence critics (Leavis, Hough, Gordon, and Tate) feel that it fails to do: it presents life. Because of its mythical nature, Burroughs' criticism that the story "is limited by application of Lawrence's hackneyed didacticism to a pathetic plot of fantasy" is not relevant. It is a story of meaning, not morality, and the meaning depends precisely upon the organic relationship between the fantastic and the real.

"The Rocking-Horse Winner" dramatizes modern man's unsuccessful attempt to act out and emerge from his oedipal conflict with the woman-mother. Lawrence states here the same theme as that of the earlier Sons and Lovers. Here the boy Paul, whose name is also the same as that of the central character in Sons and Lovers, takes upon himself the intolerable burden of attempting to solve the mother's "problem," which is demonstrated in the unspoken overtones of the lack of money in the household. The mother attributes this to her lack of "luck"; therefore Paul summons all his energies in order to obtain this luck for his mother. His private incantations assume the form of frenzied riding of his hobbyhorse, which, as Paul points out to his Uncle Oscar, has no name. The fact that when the boy successfully divines in advance the winners of real horse races, and by doing so wins a great deal of "lucky" money which fails to make his mother happy, demonstrates that money is not the mother's central need. The money does not bring her "luck." The growing anguish and tormented frustration that Paul experiences come to a climax at the end of the story with his death as a result of riding his hobbyhorse too long and too hard in the dark of his room at night. He literally sacrifices himself, and the agent of his death is his hobbyhorse. Death is his only way out of his dilemma; Uncle Oscar says at the end of the story, "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."

The story is couched in the symbols of the ancient myths. The mother is the poor, unsatisfied fairy princess who yearns for happiness; Paul is the gallant knight on horseback who rides to her rescue. But Paul's stallion, the traditional symbol of the self, or potency or masculinity, is only a wooden rocking horse. As such it denotes Paul's impotency, his pre-pubertal innocence, his unrealized manhood. He consequently has no self—the horse is both wooden and anonymous—because he has not emerged as a man. What prevents him from this emergence before death is the insatiable needs of the unsatisfied woman-mother. Although Hester, the mother, disguises her feminine needs of self-realization and fulfillment (in the largest sense of the meaning of sexuality), and although Paul responds directly to the disguise, he is indirectly and unconsciously responding to her indirect and unconscious needs. For him as a self-less and unrealized man-boy, the task he sets for himself is impossible. He dies as a result of his quest; it is the relentlessly unsatisfied woman-mother which kills him. The ancient myth of the man-devouring woman is recreated in modern terms.

The mythical aspect of the story is evident in the style and the symbols. The opening lines, "There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck," contains both the ancient and the modern. The first seven words have a fable-like quality reminiscent of any number of fairy princess tales, yet the word advantages locates us in the atmosphere of the modern world; so does the word luck. The same juxtaposition of the mythical and the modern continues through the story; the same combination of the anonymous and the personal is repeated. Passages like the following demonstrate this juxtaposition of myth and modernity:

There were a boy and two little girls. They lived in a pleasant house, with a garden, and they had discreet servants and felt themselves superior to any one in the neighborhood. Although they lived in style, they felt always an anxiety in the house.… The child had never been to a race-meeting before, and his eyes were blue fire. He pursed his mouth tight, and watched. A Frenchman just in front had put his money on Lancelot. Wild with excitement, he flayed his arms up and down, yelling "Lancelot! Lancelot!" in his French accent.

The father in the story has no identity; he goes "into town to some office" and his "prospects never materialized." The central conflict is between the mother and the son, not between the man and his wife, even though the husband-man is responsible for the mother's plight. Where the man-husband fails, the son-boy tries to compensate; because it is the nature of the mother's needs that the boy cannot satisfy them, the boy is doomed from the beginning. The bizarre scene in which the bedeviled boy rides himself to death dramatizes Lawrence's idea that modern man is terrorized and finally engulfed by his incapacities to overcome his oedipal confrontation with the devouring woman-mother.

Source: Donald Junkins, "'The Rocking-Horse Winner': A Modern Myth," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. II, No. 1, Fall, 1964, pp. 87-9. Junkins is an American poet, educator, and critic.

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Critical Overview


The Rocking-Horse Winner, D. H. Lawrence