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"The Rocking-Horse Winner" Lawrence, D. H.

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English novelist, poet, and short story writer.

The following entry presents criticism of Lawrence's short story "The Rocking-Horse Winner," first published in 1926 in the anthology The Ghost Book, edited by Lady Cynthia Asquith. See also D. H. Lawrence Short Story Criticism.

The account of a young boy's search for luck and love in an dispassionate world, "The Rocking-Horse Winner" is hailed by some critics as a technically perfect short story. Frequently anthologized and exhaustively analyzed, "The Rocking-Horse Winner" has scholars divided over interpretations—whether it is a social commentary on money and relationships in a capitalist society, a psychoanalytic exploration of sexuality and the Oedipus complex, or a simple fable of a boy searching for identity and love.

Plot and Major Characters

"The Rocking-Horse Winner" traces the actions of its young hero, Paul, who lives with his parents and two sisters in a fairly affluent neighborhood. As stated in the story, the family "lived in style," but a feeling persists in the household that there is never enough money. Soon the house is "haunted by an unspoken phrase: There must be more money!" Paul confronts his mother about the family's lack of wealth, and she responds by telling him that luck is what causes someone to have money and that his father is a very unlucky man. Paul reacts by telling her that he is lucky, and when she rejects this statement, it angers him. Seeking some way to attract luck, Paul begins to ride his wooden rocking-horse at a frenzied pace, his eyes glassed over as he whips at the toy. In this manner, he believes that he can arrive at the place "where there is luck." On repeated occasions, Paul rides the rocking-horse into such a delirium that his sisters are afraid to approach. Later, Uncle Oscar visits the house and discovers that Paul and the gardener, Bassett, have been wagering money on horse racing and that Paul has been able to predict winning horses after his trance-like rides on the rocking-horse. Paul confesses that he started gambling to become lucky and win money for his mother, thereby stopping the house from whispering. Uncle Oscar teams with Bassett and Paul, and they soon make a tidy profit from Paul's predictions.

For his mother's birthday, Paul anonymously gives her five thousand pounds. Instead of the money calming the whispers, however, the house begins to scream in an ecstatic voice: "There must be more money!—more than ever! More than ever!" Paul's predictions soon become inaccurate, and as the time of the Derby grows near, he becomes increasingly agitated with the fact that he has not had any luck lately. He begins to ride the rocking-horse at a mad and frightening pace. After coming home from a party one night, the mother hears a "strange, heavy, and yet not loud noise" as she stands outside Paul's bedroom. She opens the door and turns on the light to discover Paul thrashing about on the rocking-horse. "It's Malabar!," he screams before crashing to the ground and lapsing into unconsciousness. Paul remains ill with "some brain-fever" for three days. Uncle Oscar and Bassett bet on Malabar in the Derby and make money for themselves and for Paul. At the story's conclusion, Paul briefly regains consciousness and explains to his mother that he is lucky. He dies later that night, and Uncle Oscar proclaims that "he's best gone out of a life where he rides a rocking-horse to find a winner."

Major Themes

In depicting a prosperous household that still hungers for money, "The Rocking-Horse Winner" resembles many of Lawrence's other fictional critiques of materialism and modern society. Paul's mother desires wealth and material possessions to the exclusion of more valuable items such as love and self-knowledge. Her desires are never satisfied, however, and they result in disastrous consequences when love and money are confused. A sexual subtext—another element found in many of Lawrence's works—also seems to be present in the story. Scholars have noted that the descriptions of Paul riding his rocking-horse have an erotic quality, and these scenes have been interpreted as representations of sex and masturbation. Since these quasi-sexual actions are focused on pleasing Paul's mother, and since Paul's father has proven incapable of satisfying his wife, many critics believe that the story draws on the concepts of psychologist Sigmund Freud. Freud maintained that young boys are sexually attracted to their mothers and fantasize about replacing their fathers—a condition he termed the Oedipus complex. Other analysts have placed less emphasis on the sexual aspects of the story and instead view Paul's actions as a tragic attempt to win parental love from his hard-hearted mother.

Critical Reception

Many of Lawrence's works are controversial, and "The Rocking-Horse Winner" is no exception. The story has generated a large amount of scholarly debate and has been compared to a wide range of other works, including classic myths, parables, and the writings of Charles Dickens, among many others. In his 1958 essay on "The Rocking-Horse Winner," W. D. Snodgrass presented an interpretation that has become the jumping-off point for many of the later analyses of the story. Snodgrass's essay considers the socio-economic, religious, and, especially, the sexual aspects of the story, focusing on Lawrence's use of symbols. Other critics have further highlighted the Freudian aspects of the work and have interpreted it in regard to economic theories and spiritual allusions. "The Rocking-Horse Winner" has been criticized for its didactic qualities, but other critics have noted its restraint in presenting Lawrence's opinions, at least in comparison with many of the author's other writings. Though the story continues to stimulate debate, analysts are largely agreed that the plot, description, dialogue, and symbolism of the story are presented with great skill. "The Rocking-Horse Winner' approaches technical perfection," according to Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate. "An artistic intelligence functions in it, consciously or unconsciously, giving the story a powerful dramatic impact."

Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate (essay date 1950)

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SOURCE: "D. H. Lawrence: The Rocking-Horse Winner,' Commentary," in The House of Fiction: An Anthology of the Short Story with Commentary, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950, pp. 348-51.

[Fiction writer Gordon and poet Tate were noted authors from the Southern United States and were married from 1924 to 1954. In the following excerpt, they examine the writing techniques Lawrence employs in "The Rocking-Horse Winner."]

D. H. Lawrence believed that it was a misfortune for man when the Christian ideal of "Light" triumphed over "the dark gods of the blood," that modern civilization was founded on abstract values, and the man's only salvation was a return to a more primitive awareness of self.

His missionary zeal was often stronger than his artistic conscience; grave technical flaws mar some of his best work. "The Rocking-Horse Winner" approaches technical perfection; an artistic intelligence functions in it, consciously or unconsciously, giving the story a powerful dramatic impact.

The viewpoint is that of the Roving Narrator. There are a few Long Views, skilfully timed, but for the most part the story consists of "blocks" of action which seem to have the solidity and dimensions of life itself. There are one or two passages in which Lawrence sacrifices this objectivity and tells you what is going on in his young hero's mind instead of rendering it in terms of action, but these passages do not occur at crucial moments, as in The Princess, for instance, and do not seem to weaken the pattern appreciably.

The Complication is the situation of the hero, a little boy named Paul, who is unusually sensitive. For him the house he lives in is haunted; voices continually whisper: "There must be more money!" When he asks his mother why they haven't any more money she replies that it is because they are unlucky. Lawrence prepares for the Resolution when Paul defies the supernatural voices, declaring stoutly, "Well, anyhow, I'm lucky." . . .

It should be observed how one block of action springs out of the preceding block. When Uncle Oscar sees Paul riding his rocking horse he asks the horse's name. But the boy tells him that he has "different names. He was called Sansovino last week."

"Sansovino, eh? Won the Ascot. How did you know his name?"

"He always talks horse races with Bassett," Paul's little sister, Joan, says. She has previously remarked to the nurse: "He's always riding like that. I wish he'd leave off." Thus, in an apparently casual interchange between a little girl and her nurse and an uncle and his nephew, important parts of the story's Complication are provided for. The uncle's man-of-the-world curiosity about his small nephew's interest in racing (the mechanism by which the action is made to unwind) is established and Joan's reference to Bassett prepares us for the partnership between Paul and the gardener, while her remark to the nurse indicates that Paul's behavior seems strange and even repellent to a normal child.

The Enveloping Action is represented by the mother. It is her attitude towards life that fills the house with the whispers that start the boy on his race towards death. The envelopment not only furnishes the background but has its own dramatic action. At a key moment, midway of the story, the direct presentation is suspended and a Long View, belonging to the Enveloping Action, flows in and tightens the main current of the story so that it hurls itself faster towards its goal. This Long View—the occasion on which the boy puts five thousand pounds at his mother's disposal—is presented in brilliant detail, muted only by "distance." And yet the voices in the house, behind the sprays of mimosa and almond blossom, and from the piles if iridescent cushions, trilled and screamed in a kind of ecstasy: "There must be more money! . . . Now-w-w there must be more money!"

Again, action which sets forth the enveloping life of Paul's mother, comes to the front on an evening two nights before the Derby, when she has one of her "rushes of anxiety" about the boy and she and his father come home early from a party, and the mother, stealing along the corridor to the boy's room, hears a "strange, heavy, and yet not loud noise. . . . Something huge, in violent, hushed motion," and opening the door, sees and hears something plunging in the space near the window.

The Enveloping Action—that is, the life of the mother—also has the last word dramatically. As the boy lies dead his mother hears Uncle Oscar, who, "in spite of himself put a thousand on Malabar at fourteen to one," say to her: "My God, Hester, you're eighty-odd thousand pounds 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 a rocking-horse to find a winner."

The details are beautifully rendered throughout the story. The pivot on which the action turns, the fact that the family does not have as much money as the mother thinks it should have, is presented with dramatic objectivity:

"Mother," said the boy Paul one day, "why don't we keep a car of our own? Why do we always use Uncle's, or else a taxi?"

Uncle Oscar—all we need to know about him is that he was handsome, had a fine car, a heart in his bosom and tongue in his head—speaks always admirably in character:

"Say, Paul, old man, do you ever put anything on a horse?" And when the boy, watching him closely, parries with, "Why, do you think I oughtn't to?" he replies with easy camaraderie, "Not a bit of it! I thought perhaps you might give me a tip for the Lincoln."

This remark arouses our admiration by its verisimilitude. It is exactly the kind of thing an amiable, sympathetic uncle might say to a small boy, but it also introduces an important part of the action: the fact that Paul cannot give his uncle a tip on the Lincoln contributes to his death. These solid, dimensional effects contribute a great deal to the dramatic impact of the story.

Many of the details have a double significance, playing their roles in the action, even while they point it up. We see Paul descending from his first gallop and standing with "his blue eyes still flaring, and his sturdy long legs straddling apart." At the same time, the fact that his blue eyes are set rather close together prepares us for his fanatical pursuit of luck. Bassett, the gardener, has the serious demeanor of the well-trained upper servant. Lawrence's repeated use of the word "religious" in describing him prepares us by indirection for the revelation of the boy's being in the grip of a supernatural power.

At the climax of the story the mother opens her son's door and sees him "in his green pyjamas, madly surging on the rocking-horse." The blaze of light suddenly lit him up as he urged the wooden horse on and lit her up as she stood, blonde in her dress of pale green and crystal in the doorway.

Lawrence uses here—unconsciously, no doubt—a technique which is the solid underpinning of all of Henry James's later work: the rendering of an object or person through reference to another object or person. We see the son through the eyes of the mother; we see the mother through the eyes of the son. The two viewpoints fuse to make a rounded whole.

Lawrence shows a rare objectivity in his use of symbolism in this story. Again, he reminds us of James, seeming to be determined in this one instance, at least, to let his "message" present itself through symbolic action rather than through exhortation or preachment. The rocking horse is a link between the visible and invisible worlds and is his prime symbol. The horse behaves with traditional sibylline calm. When the boy stares appealingly into its face, its red mouth remains slightly open, its big eyes are wide and glassy-bright.

This story has extraordinary Tonal Unity. Carefully chosen cadences play their part in the dramatic effect. The first paragraph begins: "There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, and yet she had no luck," an admirable preparation for what follows.

The whispering voices also play an important part in the tonal effect, as does Bassett's speech to the dying boy which has the urgent, almost nonsensical quality of any speech made by the living to the dying. The name of the winner, too, is important.

"It's Malabar," he screamed, in a powerful, strange voice. "It's Malabar!"

Let the student substitute a name like "Little Andy" or "Sea Biscuit" for the winner and see what a difference such a substitution will make in the whole story. The combinations of short a's and broad a's has a tragic sound and the word "Malabar" itself strikes our ear strangely. (Joyce achieves the same effect with his title, "Araby.") To sum up: the boy, Paul, has invoked strange gods and pays the penalty with his death.

W. D. Snodgrass (essay date 1958)

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SOURCE: "A Rocking-Horse: The Symbol, the Pattern, the Way to Live," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XI, No. 2, Summer, 1958, pp. 191-200.

[Snodgrass was an American poet, educator, and critic, whose books included the highly-regarded poetry collection Heart's Needle (1959). In the following essay, one of the seminal studies of "The Rocking-Horse Winner, " he explores the use of symbols in the story and comments on Lawrence's philosophy of sex and life and how these ideas impact the tale.]

"The Rocking-Horse Winner" seems the perfect story by the least meticulous of serious writers. It has been anthologized, analyzed by New Critics and force-fed to innumerable undergraduates. J. Arthur Rank has filmed it. Yet no one has seriously investigated the story's chief structural feature, the symbolic extensions of the rocking-horse itself, and I feel that in ignoring several meaningareas of this story we ignore some of Lawrence's most stimulating thought.

Though the reach of the symbol is overwhelming, in some sense the story is "about" its literal, narrative level: the life of the family that chooses money instead of some more stable value, that takes money as its nexus of affection. The first fault apparently lay with the mother. The story opens:

There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck. She married for love, and the love turned to dust. She had bonny children, yet she felt they had been thrust upon her, and she could not love them . . . at the center of her heart was a hard little place that could not feel love, not for anybody.

We never learn much more about her problems, about why her love turned to dust. But the rhyming verb "thrust" is shrewdly chosen and placed; knowing Lawrence, we may well guess that Hester's dissatisfaction is, at least in large part, sexual. We needn't say that the sexual factor is the sole or even primary cause of her frigidity, but it is usually a major expression and index of it, and becomes causal. Lawrence wrote in an amazing letter to John Middleton Murry:

A woman unsatisfied must have luxuries. But a woman who loves a man would sleep on a board. . . . You've tried to satisfy Katherine with what you could earn for her, give her: and she will only be satisfied with what you are.

There could scarcely be a more apt description of Hester's situation. As for her husband, we cannot even guess what he is; he gives too few clues. Failing to supply the luxuries that both he and his wife demand, he has withdrawn, ceased to exist. The one thing he could always give—himself, the person he is—seems part of a discarded currency. The mother, the father, finally the boy, each in turn has withdrawn his vital emotions and affections from commitment in and to the family. Withdrawing, they have denied their own needs, the one thing that could be "known" and "sure." They have, instead, committed their lives to an external, money, and so to "luck," since all externals are finally beyond control and cannot be really known. Thus, it is Paul's attempt to bring an external into his control by knowledge which destroys him. It is a failure of definition.

The father's withdrawal, of course, leaves a gap which encourages Paul in a natural Oedipal urge to replace him. And money becomes the medium of that replacement. So the money in the story must be taken literally, but is also a symbolic substitute for love and affection (since it has that meaning to the characters themselves), and ultimately for sperm. We know that money is not, to Paul, a good in itself—it is only a way to win his mother's affection, "compel her attention," show her that he is lucky though his father is not. That money has no real use for Hester either, becomes only too clear in that crucial scene where Paul sends her the birthday present of five thousand pounds hoping to alleviate her problems, relax the household, and so release her affections. His present only makes her colder, harder, more luxurious, and:

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!"

The mother and father have driven themselves to provide the mother with what she, actually, needs least. And she has squandered it, one would guess, precisely to show her scorn for it and for the husband who provides it. Money as a symbolic substitute has only sharpened the craving it was meant to satisfy; the family has set up a vicious circle which will finally close upon Paul.

As several critics have noted, the story resembles many well-known fairy tales or magical stories in which the hero bargains with evil powers for personal advantages or forbidden knowledge. These bargains are always "rigged" so that the hero, after his apparent triumphs, will lose in the end—this being, in itself, the standard "moral." Gordon and Tate sum up their interpretation: "the boy, Paul, has invoked strange gods and pays the penalty with his death." Robert Gorham Davis goes on to point out that many witches supposedly rode hobby-horses of one sort or another (e.g., the witch's broom) to rock themselves into a magical and prophetic trance. When he rides, Paul's eyes glare blue and strange, he will speak to no one, his sisters fear him. He stares into the horse's wooden face: "Its red mouth was slightly open, its big eye was wide and glassy-bright." More and more engrossed in his doom as the story progresses, he becomes "wild-eyed and strange . . . his big blue eyes blazing with a sort of madness." We hear again and again of the uncanny blaze of his eyes until finally, at his collapse, they are "like blue stones." Clearly enough, he is held in some self-induced prophetic frenzy, a line of meaning carefully developed by the story. When Paul first asserts to his mother that he is "lucky," he claims that God told him so. This seems pure invention, yet may well be a kind of hubris, considering the conversation that had just passed with his mother:

"Nobody ever knows why one person is lucky and another unlucky."
"Don't they? Nobody at all? Does nobody know?"
"Perhaps God. But He never tells."

Whether Paul really believes that God told him so, he certainly does become lucky. And others come to believe that superhuman powers are involved. Bassett thinks of "Master Paul" as a seer and takes an explicitly worshipful tone towards him. He grows "serious as a church" and twice tells Uncle Oscar in a "secret, religious voice. . . . 'It's as if he had it from heaven."' These hints of occultism culminate in Uncle Oscar's benediction:

"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."

So, in some sense, Paul is demonic, yet a poor devil; though he has compacted with evil, his intentions were good and he has destroyed only himself. At first metaphorically, in the end literally, he has committed suicide. But that may be, finally, the essence of evil.

It is clear, then, that the story is talking about some sort of religious perversion. But what sort? Who are the strange gods: how does Paul serve them and receive their information? We must return here, I think, to the problem of knowledge and intellection. Paul is destroyed, we have said, by his desire to "know." It is not only that he has chosen wrong ways of knowing or wrong things to know. The evil is that he has chosen to know, to live by intellection. Lawrence wrote, in a letter to Ernest Collings:

My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true. The intellect is only a bit and bridle. What do I care about knowledge . . . I conceive a man's body as a kind of flame . . . and the intellect is just the light that is shed on to the things around . . . A flame isn't a flame because it lights up two, or twenty objects on a table. It's a flame because it is itself. And we have forgotten ourselves . . . The real way of living is to answer to one's wants. Not "I want to light up with my intelligence as many things as possible" but ". . . I want that liberty, I want that woman, I want that pound of peaches, I want to go to sleep, I want to go to the pub and have a good time, I want to look a beastly swell today, I want to kiss that girl, I want to insult that man."

(I have italicized the bit and bridle metaphor to underscore an immediate relationship to the rocking-horse of the story.)

Not one member of this family really knows his wants. Like most idealists, they have ignored the most important part of the command Know thyself, and so cannot deal with their most important problem, their own needs. To know one's needs is really to know one's own limits, hence one's definition. Lawrence's notion of living by "feeling" or "blood" (as opposed to "knowledge," "mind" or "personality") may be most easily understood, perhaps, as living according to what you are, not what you think you should be made over into; knowing yourself, not external standards. Thus, what Lawrence calls "feeling" could well be glossed as "knowing one's wants." Paul's family, lacking true knowledge of themselves, have turned their light, their intellect, outward, hoping to control the external world. The mother, refusing to clarify what her emotions really are, hopes to control herself and her world by acting "gentle and anxious for her children." She tries to be or act what she thinks she should be, not taking adequate notice of what she is and needs. She acts from precepts about motherhood, not from recognition of her own will, self-respect for her own motherhood. Thus, the apparent contradiction between Hester's coldness, the "hard . . . center of her heart," and, on the other hand, "all her tormented motherhood flooding upon her" when Paul collapses near the end of the story. Some deep source of affection has apparently lain hidden (and so tormented) in her, all along; it was her business to find and release it sooner. Similarly, Paul has a need for affection which he does not, and perhaps cannot, understand or manage. Like his mother, he is trying to cover this lack of self-knowledge with knowledge about the external world, which he hopes will bring him a fortune, and so affection.

Paul is, so, a symbol of civilized man, whipping himself on in a nervous endless "mechanical gallop," an "arrested prance," in chase of something which will destroy him if he ever catches it, and which he never really wanted anyway. He is the scientist, teacher, theorist, who must always know about the outside world so that he can manipulate it to what he believes is his advantage. Paradoxically, such knowledge comes to him only in isolation, in withdrawal from the physical world, so that his intellect may operate upon it unimpeded. And such control of the world as he can gain is useless because he has lost the knowledge of what he wants, what he is.

This, then, is another aspect of the general problem treated by the story. A still more specific form of withdrawal and domination is suggested by the names of the horses on which Paul bets. Those names—like the names of the characters—are a terrible temptation to ingenuity. One should certainly be wary of them. Yet two of them seem related to each other and strongly suggest another area into which the story's basic pattern extends. Paul's first winner, Singhalese, and his last, Malabar, have names which refer to British colonial regions of India. (A third name, Mirza, suggests "Mirzapur"—still another colonial region. But that is surely stretching things.) India is obviously one of the focal points of the modern disease of colonial empire; for years Malabar and Singhalese were winners for British stockholders and for the British people in general. The British, like any colonial power or large government or corporation, have gambled upon and tried to control peoples and materials which they never see and with which they never have any vital physical contacts. (Lawrence's essay "Men must Work and Women as Well" is significant here.) They have lived by the work of others, one of the chief evils of which is that their own physical energies have no outlet and are turned into dissatisfactions and pseudo-needs which must be filled with more and more luxuries. And so long as they "knew," placed their bets right, they were rich, were able to afford more and more dissatisfactions. A similar process destroyed Spain: a similar process destroyed Paul.

Though these last several areas of discussion are only tenuously present, most readers would agree, I think, that the rocking-horse reaches symbolically toward such meanings: into family economy and relations, into the occult, into the modern intellectual spirit, into the financial and imperial manipulations of the modern state. But surely the sexual area is more basic to the story—is, indeed, the basic area in which begins the pattern of living which the rocking-horse symbolizes. It is precisely this area of the story and its interpretation which has been ignored, perhaps intentionally, by other commentators. Oddly enough, Lawrence himself has left an almost complete gloss of this aspect of the story in his amazing, infuriating and brilliant article, "Pornography and Obscenity." There, Lawrence defines pornography not as art which stimulates sexual desire, but rather as art which contrives to make sex ugly (if only by excluding it) and so leads the observer away from sexual intercourse and toward masturbation. He continues:

When the grey ones wail that the young man and young woman went and had sexual intercourse, they are bewailing the fact that the young man and the young woman didn't go separately and masturbate. Sex must go somewhere, especially in young people. So, in our glorious civilization, it goes in masturbation. And the mass of our popular literature, the bulk of our popular amusements just exists to provoke masturbation . . . The moral guardians who are prepared to censor all open and plain portrayal of sex must now be made to give their only justification: We prefer that the people shall masturbate.

Even a brief reading of the essay should convince one that Paul's mysterious ecstasy is not only religious, but sexual and onanistic. That is Paul's "secret of secrets." Just as the riding of a horse is an obvious symbol for the sex act, and "riding" was once the common sexual verb, so the rocking-horse stands for the child's imitation of the sex act, for the riding which goes nowhere.

We note in the passage quoted above that Lawrence thinks of masturbation chiefly as a substitute for some sort of intercourse. Similarly in the story:

"Surely, you're too big for a rocking-horse!" his mother had remonstrated.

"Well, you see, mother, till I can have a real horse, I like to have some sort of animal about," had been his quaint answer.

This is one of several doctrinal points where the reader will likely disagree with Lawrence. Nonetheless, the idea was prevalent at the time of writing and is common enough today that most men probably still think of masturbation chiefly as a sex substitute. And like the money substitute mentioned before, it can only famish the craving it is thought to ease. So we find another area in which the characters of the story don't know what they need; another and narrower vicious circle.

The tightening of that circle, the destruction of Paul, is carefully defined; here, one feels both agreement with Lawrence's thought and a strong admiration for his delineation of the process:

He went off by himself, vaguely, in a childish way, seeking for the clue to "luck." Absorbed, taking no heed of other people, he went about with a sort of stealth, seeking inwardly for luck.

Stealth becomes more and more a part of Paul. We hear again and again of his secret, his "secret within a secret," we hear his talk with Uncle Oscar:

"I shouldn't like mother to know I was lucky," said the boy.

"Why not, son?"

"She'd stop me."

"I don't think she would."

"Oh!"—and the boy writhed in an odd way—"I don't want her to know, uncle."

We may quote here a passage from "Pornography and Obscenity":

Masturbation is the one thoroughly secret act of the human being, more secret even than excrementation.

Naturally, any act accompanied by such stealth is damaging to the personality and to its view of itself. It involves an explicit denial of the self, a refusal to affirm the self and its acts (an imaginative suicide) and consequently a partial divorce from reality. But this is only part of that same general process of isolation. In the essay, Lawrence says:

Most of the responses are dead, most of the awareness is dead, nearly all the constructive activity is dead, and all that remains is a sort of a shell, a half empty creature fatally self-preoccupied and incapable of either giving or taking ... And this is masturbation's result. Enclosed within the vicious circle of the self, with no vital contacts outside, the self becomes emptier and emptier, till it is almost a nullus, a nothingness.

And this is the process dramatized by the story. Paul draws back from his family, bit by bit, until he becomes strange and fearful to his sisters and will speak to no one, has grown beyond the nurse and has no real contact with his parents. Even Uncle Oscar feels uncomfortable around him. Finally he has moved his rocking-horse away from the family and taken it with him "to his own bedroom at the top of the house."

Lawrence believes that man's isolation is an unavoidable part of his definition as a human being—yet he needs all the contact he can possibly find. In his essay on Poe, Lawrence writes:

Love is the mysterious vital attraction which draws things together, closer, closer together. For this reason sex is the actual crisis of love. For in sex the two blood-systems, in the male and female, concentrate and come into contact, the merest film intervening. Yet if the intervening film breaks down, it is death . . .

In sensual love, it is the two blood-systems, the man's and the woman's, which sweep up into pure contact, and almost fuse. Almost mingle. Never quite. There is always the finest imaginable wall between the two blood waves, through which pass unknown vibrations, forces, but through which the blood itself must never break, or it means bleeding.

Sex, then, is man's closest link to other human beings and to the "unknown," his surest link into humanity, and it is this that Paul and his family have foresworn in their wilful isolation. And this isolation is more than physical. Again in "Pornography and Obscenity," we find:

The great danger of masturbation lies in its merely exhaustive nature. In sexual intercourse, there is a give and take. A new stimulus enters as the native stimulus departs. Something quite new is added as the old surcharge is removed. And this is so in all sexual intercourse where two creatures are concerned, even in the homosexual intercourse. But in masturbation there is nothing but loss. There is no reciprocity. There is merely the spending away of a certain force, and no return. The body remains, in a sense, a corpse, after the act of self-abuse.

To what extent Lawrence thinks this reciprocity, this give and take, to be physical, I am not sure; I am sure it could easily be exaggerated. Lawrence makes a sharp distinction between the physical and the material. At any rate, it seems to me that the most important aspect of this sexual giveand-take is certainly emotional and psychological and that the stimulus which enters in sexual intercourse lies in coming to terms with an actual sexual partner who is real and in no ways "ideal." Thus, such a partner will afford both unexpectable pleasures and very real difficulties which must be recognized and overcome. But in masturbation these problems can be avoided. Most psychologists would agree that the most damaging thing about masturbation is that it is almost always accompanied by fantasy about intercourse with some "ideal" partner. Thus, one is led away from reality with its difficulties and unpredictable joys, into the self and its repetitive fantasies. This may seem rather far from the story, but I suggest that this explains the namelessness of the rocking-horse. (It also, of course, suggests shame and is valuable in manipulating the plot.) The real partner has a name which is always the same and stands for a certain configuration of personality with its quirks and glories; the fantasy partner, having no personality, has no name of his or her own but is given the name of such "real" partners as one might wish from week to week.

These, then, are the gods which Paul has invoked. This sexual problem gives, also, a startling range of irony to the religious texture of the story. The "secret within a secret . . . that which had no name" comes to be not only the shame of Paul's masturbation, but also a vicious and astounding parody of the "word within a word" . . . that which cannot be named. It should be clear from the material already quoted, and even more so from a reading of "Pornography and Obscenity," that it is popular religion, Christian idealism, that Lawrence is attacking, for it supports the "purity lie" and leaves masturbation as the only sexual expression, even at times openly condoning it. The strange gods are the familiar ones; the occult heresy is popular Christian piety.

It is not clear, however, how Paul receives knowledge from his onanistic gods. Lawrence himself does not pretend to know how this comes about, he only knows that it does exist:

The only positive effect of masturbation is that it seems to release a certain mental energy, in some people. But it is mental energy which manifests itself always in the same way, in a vicious circle of analysis and impotent criticism, or else a vicious circle of false and easy sympathy, sentimentalities. This sentimentalism and the niggling analysis, often self-analysis, of most of our modern literature, is a sign of self-abuse.

This momentary release of energy is, I take it, equivalent to finding the name of the "winner" in the story. Thus the two great meaning streams of the story, intellection and masturbation, relate. Masturbation stands as the primary area: the withdrawal and stealth, the intellectual participation in the physical, the need to know and magically control the external, the driving of the self into a rigid, "mechanical gallop," the displacement of motive, the whole rejection of self, all begins here. And the pattern, once established, spreads, gradually infecting all the areas of life, familial, economic, political, religious. Here, again, the reader may feel a doctrinal disagreement, suspecting that masturbation is more symptomatic than causal. Such disagreement scarcely touches the story, however, whose business is not to diagnose or cure, but to create a vision of life, which it does with both scope and courage.

I want to quote finally, one more passage from the essay "Pornography and Obscenity" to round off the argument and tie up some loose ends, and also simply because of its value, its sincerity. It is a kind of summation of the story's meaning and opens with a sentence roughly equivalent to Uncle Oscar's judgment, "he's best gone out of a life where he rides a rocking-horse to find a winner":

If my life is merely to go on in a vicious circle of selfenclosure, masturbating self-consciousness, it is worth nothing to me. If my individual life is to be enclosed within the huge corrupt lie of society today, purity and the dirty little secret, then it is worth not much to me. Freedom is a very great reality. But it means, above all things, freedom from lies. It is, first, freedom from myself; from the lie of my all-importance, even to myself; it is freedom from the self-conscious masturbating thing I am, self-enclosed. And second, freedom from the vast lie of the social world, the lie of purity and the dirty little secret. All the other monstrous lies lurk under the cloak of this one primary lie. The monstrous lie of money lurks under the cloak of purity. Kill the purity-lie and the money-lie will be defenseless.

We have to be sufficiently conscious, and self-conscious, to know our own limits and to be aware of the greater urge within us and beyond us. Then we cease to be primarily interested in ourselves. Then we learn to leave ourselves alone, in all the affective centres: not to force our feelings in any way, and never to force our sex. Then we make the great onslaught on the outside lie, the inside lie being settled. And that is freedom and the fight for freedom.

There are few more courageous statements in our literature.

Roy Lamson and others (essay date 1962)

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SOURCE: "Critical Analysis of The Rocking-Horse Winner'," in From Fiction to Film: D. H. Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner", Dickenson Publishing Company, Inc., 1974, pp. 52-7.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1949 and revised in 1962 before being reprinted in From Fiction to Film, the authors outline various elements in the story and argue that it can only be fully appreciated by taking into account the relationship between "character and symbol, theme and plot tension."]

["The Rocking-Horse Winner"] could be described, on one level, as a tale of a boy who gave his life in a futile attempt to provide his insatiable mother with enough money. Approached differently, it might be seen as a kind of ghost story in which the main interest lies in the mystery of the unexplained power which enabled the boy to pick the winner in a horse race. Incomplete or distorted analyses of the story might pursue either of these directions and neglect the other. A close examination of Lawrence's methods, however, will show how the two elements fit together and how the story at once arouses and satisfies the reader's interest in a melodramatic suspense, in "psychology," and in a theme.

The story begins very simply: "There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck." It is almost the style of a fairy tale, and the fresh, naive style is important in putting the reader in the frame of mind necessary for the story which is to follow. We must, in fact, believe something which has no obvious natural explanation, so we are urged subtly to adopt for a moment that kind of wonder and suspension of disbelief which we used to feel when we read Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. As the story progresses, however, this style changes and becomes more intense. It is directly related to the mounting excitement of the story, with the psychological element in it.

How much is psychological and how much is moral? In the first place, the reader must recognize that the attitude toward horse racing and betting on the horses is thoroughly British; there is no hint in the story of disapproval of betting as such. The moral concern is rather over the quality in some people which always makes them want more money. This moral concern is developed psychologically: the need for more money in the family is presented, not as something that anybody says, not as an external fact established in the story by a glance at the family bank book or the mention of a pile of bills on the first of the month, but as something felt.

And so the house came to be haunted by the unspoken phrase: There must be more money! There must be more money!

This is the kind of haunted house which even the most skeptical reader will be prepared to accept, and Lawrence reinforces the effect by relating the whisper to the children's expensive toys:

The children could hear it all the time, though nobody said it aloud. They heard it at Christmas, when the expensive and splendid toys filled the nursery. Behind the shining modern rocking-horse, behind the smart doll's house, a voice would start whispering. . . .

It is a short step from this point to attributing the feeling to the toys themselves: ". . . even the horse, bending his wooden, champing head, heard it." By this innocent and subtle method the reader is prepared for the tremendous role of the rocking horse in the climax of the story. But even more important, the antagonist in the story has been created. Here is the force against which the hero is to throw himself and perish.

If such a disembodied force is to be a character in the story, there must be careful handling of the characters who are people, so that the composition does not become confused. Notice how vague are the outlines of Paul's mother and father. The father is described as going into town to "some office," and when the mother tries to earn money, she is said to try "this thing and the other." The mother is not even named—she is always Paul's mother—until the very end of the story, when she is no longer Paul's mother and the author allows Oscar to call her by her name, Hester.

The central role of Paul in the story demands careful attention. Frequently Lawrence takes us close to the point of view of Paul, and some readers might say that the vagueness about his father's business or his mother's attempts to make money merely indicates the normal child's vagueness about such matters. But the story cannot really be told from Paul's point of view, for several reasons. The suspense of the story would be ruined if the reader knew immediately all that went on in Paul's mind. The "secret within a secret" could not be held back from the reader. Moreover, the emotional quality of the ending would be changed: if we had followed the story exclusively through Paul's eyes and feelings, the ending would be pathetic and maudlin. As it is, there is enough distance so that a tragic feeling is possible.

As mediators between the reader's natural skepticism and the fantasy element in the plot stand Uncle Oscar and Bassett. They are both men of practical common sense, Bassett with his repeated "It's as if he had it from heaven" and his respectful suggestion to his social superior that when you have a good thing you shouldn't refuse it just because you don't understand it—"If Master Paul offers you to be partners, sir, I would, if I were you; if you'll excuse me"—and Uncle Oscar with his sense of humor and his cautious indulgence of his nephew. Oscar is developed very fully. He is introduced first unobtrusively, as the owner of the car which Paul's family borrows, as the source of the phrase "filthy lucre" which confused Paul, as the donor of the whip, the unconscious planter of the idea of "riding a winner" and the donor of the ten shillings which started Paul on his winning streak. When Oscar emerges into the foreground as an important character, he serves the purpose of expressing the reader's doubts. "Oscar Cresswell thought about it. 'I'll see the money,' he said." But the joke is on Uncle Oscar, as it will be on the reader if he is too skeptical. When the Leger is run, Oscar bets only two hundred pounds, while the humble and conservative Bassett bets five hundred and the boy a thousand. When their horse wins at the odds of ten to one, Paul is not a bit surprised: "'You see,' he said, 'I was absolutely sure of him.' Even Oscar Cresswell had cleared two thousand. 'Look here, son,' he said, 'this sort of thing makes me nervous.'" Lawrence exploits the comic irony of Cresswell's situation, but not to the extent of forfeiting our sympathy with him. So his final bet, on Malabar in the Derby, is made "in spite of himself." And Uncle Oscar is saved to be the speaker of the epitaph for Paul.

Despite the skill and subtlety with which the characters are presented, this is not primarily a story of character. Certain symbols in the story have much more vitality than any of the people in it, and as we have already pointed out, one of the chief characters is not a person but a feeling, a fear, expressed in the unspoken whispers which are as real as breathing. From the very first sentence of the story, "luck" is used as a symbol. In the story as a whole, it seems to be the opposite of, or a substitute for, love. Paul's pursuit of "luck" might be translated as a pursuit of love, if he had been able to understand rightly what he wanted. Then why, if this is what Lawrence means, does he not say so? The answer must be that love is not a concept, to be understood rationally, any more than "luck" is. It must be felt. And he very carefully shows that the absence of love on the part of Paul's mother is not mere failure in kindness, gentleness, or consideration: she is a good mother in these respects, and everybody says so. It is "a hard little place" at the center of her heart; she knows it is there and her children know it is there. "They read it in each other's eyes."

The dialogue between Paul and his mother on the subject of luck is very interesting. Superficially, it is merely a step in the education of the boy; he is learning about an adult idea. But notice how much more Lawrence conveys in this dialogue than is actually expressed in the speeches of the characters; the mother's answers are given "slowly and bitterly," "bitterly," "again with a laugh, but rather bitter." Paul, on the other hand, shows more from his silences than he does from his words. "The boy was silent for some time." "The boy watched her with unsure eyes." "The child looked at her, to see if she meant it." It is in this dialogue that the boy's hunger for love is betrayed, distorted into the pursuit of luck. But Lawrence is writing a story in which suspense is important, and the revelations here are carefully controlled. Very unobtrusively he prepares for the bitter irony of the end:

"Well, anyhow," he said stoutly, "I'm a lucky person."

"Why?" said his mother, with a sudden laugh.

Paul's last words, as he lies dying, return to this:

"Mother, did I ever tell you? I am lucky."

"No, you never did," said the mother.

But the boy died in the night.

The condemnation of the mother could hardly be more violent, but the irony does not stop here. It continues, to underline Oscar's last words and to force upon us the feeling that Paul was luckier than he knew.

The last three-fourths of the story is devoted to the discovery of Paul's secret; this is done gradually, with some humor, as the character of Uncle Oscar emerges. But at the same time the desperation of the mother increases, the whispering increases so that after the birthday and the mother's receipt of five thousand pounds the voices are screaming. What we have is a building up of Paul's confidence and strength as Uncle Oscar and Bassett seem mere attendants on him, but at the same time the antagonist is growing in strength too, and the way is prepared for the great tragic climax. Lawrence does full justice to the theatrical quality of the scene; the mother's uneasiness at the party, the vague, mysterious noise, the dark bedroom and the sudden blaze of light bringing out the two figures, the boy in his green pyjamas "madly surging" and the mother "as she stood, blonde, in her dress of pale green and crystal, in the doorway." The difference between them is immediately shown in their lines,

"Paul!" she cried. "Whatever are you doing?"

"It's Malabar!" he screamed, in a powerful, strange voice.

Even in all this theatricality the values of the symbols are not lost. Paul's fever and the mother's coldness (now become a coldness of the heart somewhat different from her first state) show us the equivalents in feeling of love and luck.

"The Rocking-Horse Winner" is not a cheap story with the obvious sentimental moral that life without love is worse than death; it is not a psychological thriller about a boy with extrasensory perception who dies in the act of trying to predict the outcome of the Derby; it is not merely a satire on people who never have enough money, no matter how much they have. Each of these descriptions is wrong because it is incomplete, because it does violence to the particular and individual character of the story. A satisfactory analysis must be one which responds to the way in which Lawrence has woven together character and symbol, theme and plot tension. These elements do not exist separately, they must be seen in relationship to each other. The only reason for taking them apart is to put them back together again and appreciate them more fully.

W. R. Martin (essay date 1962)

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SOURCE: "Fancy or Imagination?: The Rocking-Horse Winner'," in College English, Vol. 24, No. 1, October, 1962, pp. 64-5.

[Martin is a South African-born, Canadian educator and critic. Here he upholds the accomplishment of "The Rocking-Horse Winner, " citing its adept depiction of one of Lawrence's major themes: the danger of the "unlived" life. For a response to Martin's assertions, see the 1963 essay by William D. Burroughs and the 1964 essay by Donald Junkins.]

D. H. Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner" appears in several anthologies, and I think it worth while to defend it against the strictures of F. R. Leavis (D. H. Lawrence: Novelist) and Graham Hough (The Dark Sun). This can be done by starting with a close analysis of a paragraph to be found near the end of the story:

Then suddenly she switched on the light, and saw her son, in his green pyjamas, madly surging on the rocking-horse. The blaze of light suddenly lit him up, as he urged the wooden horse, and lit her up, as she stood, blonde, in her dress of pale green and crystal, in the doorway.

The sudden switching on of the light, which "lit him up" and "lit her up, as she stood . . . in the doorway," invites our attention to a heraldically graphic picture that contains the central meaning of the story. That both mother and son are in green marks the culmination of the movement. This is further dramatised and elucidated by "madly" (supported by "surging" and even by "blaze"—a word used several times for the look in the boy's eyes) which is offered in its loose colloquial sense as a description of the boy's motion, but must be taken to refer quite literally to his condition. His madness is an infection caught from his mother, whose hysterical whisper, "There must be more money! There must be more money!" issues finally in the son's "Did I say Malabar, mother? Did I say Malabar?" and prefigures at the beginning of the story the frantic iteration in the rocking-horse's motion. Indeed the whisper is echoed by it: "It came whispering from the springs of the still-swaying rocking-horse." To complete the definition of the climax, the mother's "crystal" dress reflects the hardness "at the centre of her heart," and a few lines after our paragraph we are told that the boy's eyes (eyes are an important index throughout) "were like blue stones" and that the mother felt her heart had "turned actually into a stone."

All this is, perhaps, no more than "skilful," which is as far as Hough will go in praise of the story. But "skilful" does less than justice to it, as I hope to show.

Our paragraph refers to the toy as a "rocking-horse"—this is the ninth time it is so called—and in the next line it is a "wooden horse." "Wooden" has appeared twice before, but its definitive connotative force has not been felt because there has not been this juxtaposition. Now the modulation points with delicately controlled emphasis to the significance of the rocking-horse in the story.

The simple but decisive effect of "wooden" is to make clear a distinction that we now see to have been implicit in the story from the beginning. The real and lively racehorses, whose names—Sansovino, Daffodil, Lancelot, Mirza, Singhalese, Blush of Dawn, Lively Spark—resound insistently through the story, represent with almost crude emblematic clarity the possibilities in a fully lived life and are in ironic contrast to the wooden horse, which, with its "springs," "mechanical gallop" and "arrested prance" is the symbol of the unlived, merely mimetic, life of Paul's parents. The toy horse "doesn't have a name" because it is a nonentity, a substitute: "Till I can have a real horse, I like to have some sort of animal about." The rocking-horse is seven times referred to simply as the "horse," and this unobtrusively establishes an ironic tension between real life and the unliving imitation.

The tale presents an aspect of the rocking-horse which compels attention. It appears in our paragraph in "madly surging" and "urges." The mother hears a "soundless noise," "something huge, in violent hushed motion"—here again the rocking is linked with the whispering, which "the children could hear all the time, though nobody said it aloud"—and sees him "plunging to and fro." For all this frenzied effort the horse rocks backwards and forwards on the same spot, "still-swaying." Lawrence does not have to score this heavily, but the rocking motion evokes with poetic economy and precision the futility of the parents, whose "prospects never materialised." They buy "splendid and expensive toys" (substitutes, in this story, for real things) for their children; they spend lavishly on themselves in a desperate struggle "to keep up" their social position. Neither the toys nor the social position give real satisfaction and the parents are condemned to ever more frantic and meaningless repetition. This is seen in the mother: she clamours for money, but as soon as she gets the £5,000 she is back where she was before, wanting more money more desperately. The parents too are on a rocking-horse, and they are not individuals—like the wooden horse they have no names—but representatives of a large section of bourgeois society.

With so much significant meaning so successfully conveyed through objective correlatives, I cannot agree with Hough that the story is a product of "fancy not imagination," or share Leavis' exasperation that it is "so widely regarded (especially in America, it would seem)." Both Hough and Leavis say that the story is not representative of Lawrence, but it seems to me to be about, and to dramatize most forcefully, one of his central concerns: the nature and nemesis of unlived lives.

William D. Burroughs (essay date 1963)

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SOURCE: "Rebuttal: No Defense for The Rocking-Horse Winner'," in College English, Vol. 24, No. 4, January, 1963, p. 323.

[In this response to W. R. Martin's 1962 essay, Burroughs criticizes "The Rocking-Horse Winner, " commenting that the work is "an excellent technical masterpiece" but that the combination of didactic and fantastic elements in the story harms its overall effect. A response to Burroughs's argument is found in Donald Junkins's 1964 essay.]

W. R. Martin ([College English] Oct. 1962) does not rescue "The Rocking-Horse Winner" from the limitations noted by Leavis [in D. H. Lawrence: Novelist] and Hough [in The Dark Sun]. Furthermore, Gordon and Tate in The House of Fiction note the same strictures in the story, although they add that it "approaches technical perfection." That Leavis and Hough have reservations about ["The Rocking-Horse Winner"] there is no doubt; however, the grounds for Leavis' reservations are vague: ["The Rocking-Horse Winner"] is not representative of Lawrence. Indeed, Professor Martin shows that the story is thematically representative of Lawrence's total works: the unlived life comes through negation of emotions. So, I find Leavis' objections partially answered. On the other hand, Hough is more specific: he substantiates the technical skill of ["The Rocking-Horse Winner"], but he also notes that it is "quite outside the range of Lawrence's usual work."

That the story is technically good, there seems no doubt. This perfection is what Professor Martin defends in the story through cataloguing some of the symbols and imagery for us, at the same time stating that the symbols present the "central meaning of the story." The difficulty with the story comes not with technique, but from what is said. And what Lawrence says in ["The Roeking-Horse Winner"] is precisely what he says in his other writings. Another difficulty is Lawrence's unusual plot handling; there is an uneasy feeling about the ending in light of the simple declarative opening (like a fairy tale): "There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck."

The plot is skillful, but lacks imagination. Lawrence starts his characters at the top, letting them degenerate to poor souls in the denouement. This arrangement could be tragic if Lawrence had bothered to show some cause-effect for the parents' insistence on social supremacy at Paul's expense; however, the plot is merely the reversal of the fairy-tale climb from rags to riches. It is, although having tragic possibilities, not tragic, but only pathetic. It is this pathos that Hough, Leavis, Gordon and Tate attack.

The emotional appeal goes with Lawrence's insistence that the world should be ruled by emotions (probably an extreme position adopted to make his argument more forceful). His reliance on reader sympathy for Paul, and on reader hate for the parents' materialism, and the dialectic logic of opposites no matter what they represent is strictly emotional.

Moreover, Paul is a romantic, not through interpretation of objective correlatives (a matter of technique in this story): the uncle calls Paul a "romancer" while riding with him in the car. This blunt identification of one of the opposites is balanced by the mother's identification with money, materialism, knowledge, mind, will, intellect. And her symbolic meaning is forthright. In short, the story has a didactic purpose, persuading the reader to accept the dark, the sensual, the blood, the flesh, the senses, the feelings. This plot combination of the fantastic (the boy's insistence on revelation) with the didactic is what critics cannot defend, no matter how much the dialectic is supported by diction.

Professor Martin does not then take up the challenge offered by Leavis and Hough; indeed, no one could. The story is only partially defensible: it is well plotted; the diction, excellent in image, symbol and meaning; and the characters, flat representations of ideas and attitudes. The defense is adequate within its scope, but the value of a short story depends on more than technical perfection.

The lack of other aspects is the objection raised by Leavis, Hough, Gordon and Tate. Fiction depends upon a presentation of life. This presentation is exactly what Lawrence has failed to achieve. In "The Rocking-Horse Winner," he fails to show how his fantastic insistence on the emotional aspects of life can be, or should be, applied to life. So, "The Rocking-Horse Winner," an excellent technical masterpiece, is limited by application of Lawrence's hackneyed didacticism to a pathetic plot of fantasy.

Donald Junkins (essay date 1964)

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SOURCE: "'The Rocking-Horse Winner': A Modern Myth," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. II, No. 1, Fall, 1964, pp. 87-9.

[Here, Junkins enters the debate over the merits of "The Rocking-Horse Winner." Issuing a rebuttal to William D. Burroughs's 1963 article, Junkins emphasizes the mythic aspects of the work and contends that it is a "story of meaning, not morality."]

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 horse-back 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 re-created 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.

Neil D. Isaacs (essay date 1965)

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SOURCE: "The Autoerotic Metaphor in Joyce, Sterne, Lawrence, Stevens, and Whitman," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. 15, No. 2, 1965, pp. 92-106.

[In the following essay, Isaacs finds Paul's riding of the rocking-horse to be an allusion to sex and masturbation; the critic also theorizes that Paul dies because he cannot bear the guilt he feels after his mother finds him on the rocking-horse.]

[D. H. Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner"] has an uncannily powerful emotional effect which is produced in a manner quite unlike the tedious labored repetitions, straightforward moralizings, and elaborately pantomimed dumb-shows which characterize Lawrence's typical effects. But I had never been able satisfactorily to explain the way the story works to produce its effect, until the basic autoerotic metaphor in it was pointed out to me.

"The Rocking-Horse Winner" seems to be a curious combination of the worldly and the supernatural. There is on the one hand the very explicit three-fold equation of luck, love, and money; on the other hand there are the completely unexplained questions of how a house can talk, how a boy can know in advance winners of races, and why the boy should die. Although it would be a mistake to read the story on any one level alone, it would be as serious a mistake not to recognize the many individual levels on which it operates.

For one thing, it is a story of socio-economic disintegration, in which Lawrence makes a preachment against the sort of world which, with all the getting and spending, is so overbearingly with us. The family is deteriorating, losing social position as the financial condition worsens. Through the efforts of the son Paul, the situation is temporarily salvaged when he finds a way of supplying money for his mother. He does this because he loves his mother, but things get worse instead of better. Finally, exerting and laying waste all his powers, Paul makes a fortune, providing socio-economic salvation for the family, but he dies in the process. The moral is stated explicitly: love must be sacrificed in a world of materialism.

For another thing, the story is a simple fantasy about luck. It begins with language suggestive of a fable or a fairytale and moves easily into a never-never house which talks and houses knowing toys. The mother, the house, and the family have no luck, but Paul maintains, "I am lucky." His innocent faith is rewarded as he has a fantastic string of luck at the races, parleying ten shillings into eighty thousand pounds. The implicit moral is that if one is worthy (steadfast, pure, unselfseeking—"Honor bright" as Paul says) and wishes hard enough upon a star, that star will sprinkle upon one a dust containing the winning names and numbers. As inane and simplistic as this level seems, it probably contributes substantially to the total effect of the story. It has a universal appeal, recognizably parallel to a basic form of folktale.

Money and luck—brought together when Lawrence puns on Lucre-lucker and when the mother says, "[Luck is] what causes you to have money. If you're lucky you have money"—are also equated with love. As the money and luck are lost, the love turns to dust. Only Paul's love for his mother remains to save the house and family. Paul, alone, has love and luck and money. Through his love, and his giving of it, he redeems the house, restoring luck and money to the family. Towards the end, there are suggestions that the mother is beginning to feel some "rousing motions" in her, as Paul inspires in her feelings of the possibility of a rebirth of love-luck-fortune.

If we go no further, we would be denying the real effect of the story, since it would seem on these levels to have a happy ending. Even the sacrifice would seem fitting; Paul corresponds to Kenneth Burke's third category or strategy for making a scapegoat worthy of sacrifice: "the sacrificial vessel 'too good for this world,' hence of the highest value, hence the most perfect sacrifice" [The Philosophy of Literary Form, 1941]. We would be ignoring the devastating irony of the story, we would be sidestepping the tragic implications, and we would be forgetting that the love discussed in the story is D. H. Lawrence's individual mystique of love.

Lawrence's concept of love is of a sexual-spiritual relationship. The sexual aspect is necessary both to free people from bonds and bounds imposed by society, tradition, materialism, and inhibition, releasing or returning them to a natural state, and also to translate the people into an ecstatic state proper for the spiritual soul-sharing. With this concept in mind and examining the language of the story, we may read it on another level which may supplement the others, finally to account for the so-far unaccountable in the story.

When the house says, "There must be more money!" it might just as well be saying, "There must be more luck!" but in any case Lawrence is saying, "There must be more love!" Paul, who alone of the family has love, goes "off by himself, vaguely, in a childish way, seeking for the clue to 'luck.'" And because of the situation in the family, he must seek "inwardly for luck." If we understand love for luck here, we come very near a literal statement of precocious adolescent masturbation. But immediately thereafter the concretized metaphor for the boy's autoerotism appears. It is the riding of his rocking-horse on a journey to a specific end:

. . . he would sit on his big rocking-horse, charging madly into space, with a frenzy that made the little girls peer at him uneasily. Wildly the horse careered, the waving dark hair of the boy tossed, his eyes had a strange glare in them. . . .

When he had ridden to the end of his mad little journey. . . .

"Now, take me to where there is luck!"

He would slash the horse on the neck with the little whip. . . . He knew the horse could take him to where there was luck, if only he forced it. So he would mount again, and start on his furious ride, hoping at last to get there. He knew he could get there.

The simple metaphor becomes highly complex when the state of orgasmic exaltation is spoken of in terms of an all-knowing visionary state or place from which Paul can see Truth. Specifically, when he achieves climax, he can foresee the name of a winner of a pending race. He knows the name; that is, he finds in himself the means of fulfilling his love, and when he does he attempts to project it (love, luck, money) to his mother.

He is really too old for rocking-horses. His mother says, "Aren't you growing too big for a rocking-horse?" Paul pays no attention, but finally stopping suddenly, he gets down and announces, "'Well, I got there,' his blue eyes still flaring, and his sturdy long legs straddling apart."

In the scene at the track, when the boy receives confirmation, along with Uncle Oscar, that he has "made it" or attained a state of knowingness, he is described as "flushed and with eyes blazing, [but] curiously serene."

When Paul tells his uncle that he is doing all this for his mother, to give her money achieved through his luck, he insists that she should not be told, that she would stop him. Oscar doesn't think so, but Paul, writhing "in an odd way," just says that he doesn't want her to know. This too would be inexplicable if we were concerned only with luck and money. But the nature of Paul's love inevitably binds it with guilt. In his autoerotism, he is making overt Oedipal gestures toward his mother, but he refuses to have her consciously involved in the guilty act.

After the gift of five thousand pounds, the voices go mad with the house's need for much much more. Paul is to go to Eton, has long since been "emancipated from a nurse and a nursery-governess," but he has "had his rocking-horse removed to his own bedroom" even though his mother has remonstrated, "Surely, you're too big." This horse is Paul's "secret of secrets"—"a secret within a secret." Paul says of the horse, ambiguously, "He's very good, he always keeps me company when I'm there."

As Paul grows bigger and older, it becomes harder and harder for him to attain his beatific state by riding his rocking-horse. Concurrently, his mother's need for money, his need to express his love for her, and his guilt are all approaching a crisis. Moreover, the growth of the mother's awareness and guilt is spoken of as "uneasiness" and then "anxiety. . . . that was almost anguish." When she stands outside his door two nights before the Derby she listens to "a soundless noise, yet rushing and powerful." She feels that "She ought to know" what it is. But it goes "on and on . . . like a madness" until, "frozen with anxiety and fear," she opens the door.

Near the window in the dark room "she heard and saw something plunging to and fro" and turning on the light she sees Paul "madly surging on the rocking-horse." He screams, "It's Malabar," and then collapses, as she rushes to him with "all her tormented motherhood flooding upon her" (italics mine). Now an explanation can be given for the "brain-fever" and death of the boy. He has been able to get there this last time only by having his mother take part. Her recognition of the truth, symbolized rather tritely by the sudden turning on of the light, has implicated her in Paul's act of love. This monstrous burden of guilt is what the boy cannot bear and what kills him. But he feels release and relief at the end, because his mother has acknowledged and accepted his gift of love-luck-money.

We feel relief, too, as with Uncle Oscar we share Lawrence's view that "he's best gone out of a life where he rides his rocking-horse to find a winner." Confirmation of this reading of the story, particularly of this explanation of death, may be found in Lawrence's "Pornography and Obscenity" [in Sex, Literature and Censorship, ed. by Harry T. Moore, 1953], where he sets up an equation of masturbation and death:

The great danger of masturbation lies in its merely exhaustive nature. . . . . . . in masturbation there is nothing but loss. . . . The body remains, in a sense, a corpse, after the act of self-abuse. There is no change, only deadening. There is what we call dead loss.

There is a curious puritanism in this attitude of Lawrence, an attitude toward masturbation which appears to derive in equal parts from the Old Testament (Genesis 38:9-10) and old editions of the Boy Scout Handbook, both of which enjoin the wastefulness involved in autoerotism, the former in objectified dramatic terms, the latter in commercial imagery. Note also the word "self-abuse" which is less a euphemism than an expression of judgment.

W. S. Marks III (essay date 1965-66)

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SOURCE: "The Psychology of the Uncanny in Lawrence's 'The Rocking-Horse Winner'," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XI, No. 4, Winter 1965-66, pp. 381-92.

[In the following study, Marks asserts that specific writings by psychologist Sigmund Freud provide insight into "The Rocking-Horse Winner" and that Lawrence "seems to have made at least selective use" of Freud's work in constructing his short stories and novels.]

"The Rocking-Horse Winner," one of a group of Lawrence's tales of the supernatural, appeared in October, 1926, in Cynthia Asquith's The Ghost Book. In 1925, the year of Lawrence's arrival in England from a three-year sojourn in North and Central America, the Hogarth Press had published Joan Riviere's translation of Papers on Applied Psycho-Analysis, the fourth volume of [Sigmund] Freud's Collected Papers [five volumes, 1924-1950]. Just one year previously Boni and Liveright had published her standard translation of A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, which had already gone through two earlier English translations in 1920 and 1922. The period of Lawrence's brief return to London marks what might be considered the apogee of the Freudian vogue in Bloomsbury. His American trip, moreover, had coincided with the remarkable rise of Freud's infant science in this country. Bracketing his stay at Taos, Lawrence had completed two of a projected three amateur essays in psychoanalytic theory with Psychoanalysis and The Unconscious and its continuation, Fantasia of The Unconscious, where Freud's contributions toward an understanding of the unconscious are curtly acknowledged in the preface. Lawrence's direct references to Freud and the Viennese School, as well as statements in his letters, generally give a deliberate misimpression that he found Freud's ideas rather crude and uninteresting [according to Frederick J. Hoffman in "Lawrence's Quarrel with Freud," in The Achievement of D. H. Lawrence, ed. by Hoffman and Harry T. Moore, 1953]. While largely disclaiming Freud's influence on his work as an amateur scientist, however, Lawrence the professional writer seems to have made at least selective use of both Freud's lectures in A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis and a number of the classic case histories in the Collected Papers. Among these papers, "A Special Type of Object-Choice," "Obsessive Acts and Religious Practices," "The 'Uncanny,'" "From The Neurosis of Demoniacal Possession in The Seventeenth Century," "The History of An Infantile Neurosis," and "A Phobia in A Five Year Old Boy" provide the most illuminating analogies with Paul's behavior in "The Rocking-Horse Winner." Moreover, I believe Freud's theoretical conclusions drawn from these analyses help to integrate the various psycho-sexual, supernatural, and historical aspects of the boy's "tragedy." Finally, Freud's papers also contain valuable suggestions toward the parodic style of this story, which has generally seemed a remarkable departure from the usual to Lawrence's critics.

While he remains open to charges of aesthetic insensitivity, or at least narrow mindedness, Freud must be credited with pointing out a variety of literary implications in the neurotic behavior of his patients. In "Obsessive Acts and Religious Practices" (1907) he remarks that obsessional actions, since they parody ritual, furnish "a tragi-comic travesty of private religion," and may therefore be interpreted symbolically and historically as well as literally. Theorizing along lines to be more exhaustively pursued by Rank and Jung, Freud asserts that the "primal phantasies" of neurotics are symbolic condensations of racial history. In his Vienna lectures he speculates ". . . that all that to-day is narrated in analysis in the form of phantasy, . . . was in prehistoric periods of the human family a reality; and that the child in phantasy simply fills out the gaps in its true prehistoric experience" [A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, 1953]. The parody of "The Rocking-Horse Winner" results from just such a translation of primitive myth and ritual to the bourgeois nursery as Freud accomplished in establishing the existence of the Oedipus complex. The earlier fictions of Thomas Mann, Kafka, and Joyce in some cases anticipate Freud in exploiting the dramatic and symbolic possibilities of modern man's fantasy life, amply showing that the modern short story and the psychoanalytical movement were concurrently developing a similar body of ideas.

In Freud's classic cases the daydream or fantasy, since it is usually Oedipal and autoerotic, becomes increasingly a cause for guilt feelings, furtiveness, and at last pathological fear of retribution, often manifesting itself as an animal phobia. Such is the progress of little Hans, the protagonist of "A Phobia in A Five Year Old Boy." At one point Hans, whose behavior Freud drolly compares with that of the Adult lover, conceives the fantastic scheme of giving a guard 50,000 florins to let him ride on a truck. Freud suggests that this ". . . almost sounds like a plan of buying his mother from his father, part of whose power, of course, lay in his wealth." Fearing punishment from the father, Hans develops a castration complex linked with a pathological fear of horses. Such totemic animals, Freud believes, represent surrogate parents, toward which the boy directs a frustrated love for his real father and mother. Essentially agreeing on this point, Jung, in The Psychology of the Unconscious (1916), interprets the horses ridden in dreams as especially common symbols for the libido in a state of repression. Fixated at a narcissistic stage of development, Paul's libido is precisely objectified in the rocking-horse. Lawrence's young hero gives a first indication of his symptomatic preoccupation with riding (which later becomes obsessional) when he asks his mother: ". . . why don't we keep a car of our own? Why do we always use uncle's, or else a taxi?" Her reply, "Because we're poor members of the family," fatally impresses Paul with the association between money and the power to "ride," precipitating his short but sensational career as a gambler.

Narrowing and extending the nineteenth century's philosophic version of the infant, Freud interpreted the child as a symbolic man, but drew darker inferences than the early Romantics concerning his infantile tendencies to superstitious, ritualistic, and inspired behavior. As he emerges from the Collected Papers, the Oedipal child appears as the miniature hero of a fantasy situation called the "family romance," a mythic drama in which the stock events of knight errantry are used symbolically to disguise the child's suppressed longing to woo his mother and to replace her husband. Paul would be specifically indulging in "the rescue phantasy," in which the child imagines he is saving a princess (his mother) from some terrible danger (in Paul's case, financial insecurity). Paul's ability to make lucky predictions by riding himself into a trance on his totemic hobbyhorse is principally suggested by Freud's paper "The 'Uncanny,'" where this phenomenon is defined as a product of narcissistic regression to a primitive belief in animism:

Our analysis of instances of the uncanny has led us back to the old, animistic conception of the universe, which was characterized by the idea that the world was peopled with the spirits of human beings, and by the narcissistic overestimation of subjective mental processes (such as the belief in the omnipotence of thoughts, the magical practices based upon this belief, the carefully proportioned distribution of magical powers or 'mana' among various outside persons and things), as well as by all those other figments of the imagination with which man, in the unrestricted narcissim of that stage of development, strove to withstand the inexorable laws of reality. It would seem as though each one of us has been through a phase of individual development corresponding to that animistic stage in primitive men, that none of us has traversed it without preserving certain traces of it which can be reactivated, and that everything which now strikes us as 'uncanny' fulfills the condition of stirring those vestiges of animistic mental activity within us and bringing them to expression.

Paul's self-destructive act of rocking comes under the heading of Freud's repetition-compulsion: " . . . a principle powerful enough to over-rule the pleasure-principle, lending to certain aspects of the mind their daemonic character, and still very clearly expressed in the tendencies of small children."

In the more extended "From The History of An Infantile Neurosis" the patient passes through several phases which provide still further and more illuminating analogies with Paul's Oedipal pattern. In the first phase we have the familiar animal phobia, involving here a deathly fear of wolves, and "uncanny feelings" about horses, which the boy, suppressing a desire to masturbate, imagines he is beating. In adolescence the boy enters a new phase as his affection suddenly polarizes toward the father. During this period the boy conceives a masochistic desire to become the passive instrument of his father's pleasure. Identifying himself with Christ, he becomes ascetically pious, obsessively ceremonial, and even mystical in his reverence of God the Father. Under the influence of a revered tutor, however, still another apparent reversal takes place as the boy adopts his teacher's scorn of religion. The patient hereupon enters a militaristic phase with overtones of nationalism, conceiving "an enthusiasm for military affairs, for uniforms and horses," which became "food for continual daydreams." These chivalric fantasies, Freud notes, "correspond exactly to the legends by means of which a nation that has become great and proud tries to conceal the insignificance and failures of its beginnings." Freud's comment, if we accept W. D. Snodgrass's suggestion that Paul's victories at the track are meant to parody British annexations in India, seems to provide another key to Lawrence's satirical intention. While the story implies a criticism of British colonial imperialism through the names of the horses Singhalese, Malabar, and Mirza, the horse "Lancelot" does not fit this category, but suggests an ironic parallel between the boy's Oedipal "chivalry" and that of Arthurian romance with its secular idealization of woman. Uncle Oscar calls the boy, significantly, "a young romancer." Quite possibly Paul's "riding" also parodies St. George, the hero of British national myth whose prowess is celebrated in the English Mummers' Play by the riding of hobbyhorses. On his father's death, Freud's patient enters the last phase of his neurosis when he receives a substantial inheritance. The young man looks upon this money as filth or faeces—a poor substitute for his living father. Under Freud's guidance the patient finally comes to realize that both God and his tutor were only poor surrogates for the real father he had always loved. In "The Rocking-Horse Winner," we have a similar substitution of money for primitive phallic values and paternal authority in the home. Also, since medieval chivalry was a Christian institution, it is possible to see further parallels between the masochistic piety of Freud's neurotic young man and the self-laceration of Lawrence's Paul. Thus Lawrence's tiny hero becomes a type of the historic Christian martyr, as well as the Oedipal hero of Antique tragedy.

A typical Lawrentian protagonist, young Paul, like Paul Morel and Gerald Crich, is kept from maturity by an Oedipal attachment to the mother. Through her baleful influence Paul forsakes the phallic gods of the patriarchal household, cleaving to the obscene idols of the matriarch. Ultimately, he becomes a scapegoat who atones for the sins of his house—the material, social, and intellectual ambitions that corrupt normal affection, dislocate the proper authority of the father, and disintegrate the moral ties of the family, replacing them with the cash-nexus. Paul's death, we may assume, finally stills the haunting whisper, "There must be more money!" When Uncle Oscar asks the boy what he intends doing with his mysterious fortune, he naively replies: "I started it for my mother. She said she had no luck, because father is unlucky, so I thought if I was lucky, it might stop whispering—I hate our house for whispering." Lawrence uses the word "luck" ironically here to connote sexual as well as material gratification, thus hinting at an underlying cause of the mother's bitterness at her husband's failure to assume a natural masculine authority. Rather than explain her sexual disappointment to the boy, she quite understandably tells Paul that "luck" (which the boy ironically confuses with his Uncle's phrase "filthy lucre") means money. The story thus depends on a radical "failure of definition" arising out of the kind of verbal ambiguity Freud delighted in exploring as a clue to the repressed life of his patients.

In "The Rocking-Horse Winner" Paul's attempts to control the family's external fortunes correspond with similar instances of uncanny powers which Freud discovered as illusions of the primitive mind and which he associated with narcissism. Freud was led to investigate primitive behavior when he continued to notice the analogies it provided with the regressive tendencies of the modern neurotic. As in Faustus and Macbeth, works Freud specifically discusses in this regard, elements of the sexually perverse become instrumental in Paul's primitive invocation of the daemonic agencies who bring foreknowledge and incredible fortune before destroying their petitioners. In "From The Neurosis of Demoniacal Possession in The Seventeenth Century" Freud delves into an analysis of the Faustus type with regard to the case history of one Christolph Haitzmann, an impecunious painter who formed an imaginary pact with the devil in his maddened struggle for success:

All he wanted was security in life, at first with the help of Satan but at the cost of eternal bliss. . . . Perhaps Christolph Haitzmann was only a poor devil, one of those who never had any luck; perhaps he was too poorly gifted, too ineffective to make a living, and belonged to that well known type, 'the eternal suckling'—to those who are unable to tear themselves away from . . . the mother's breast, who hold fast all their lives to their claim to be nourished by someone else. And so in his illness our painter followed the path from his own father by way of the Devil as father-substitute. . . .

Juxtapose Freud's summary of Haitzmann with Uncle Oscar's wry eulogy for Paul; "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." Both Haitzmann and Paul share a belief in an essentially daemonic capitalism which magically gives something for nothing, but in the end claims all. We might also compare the regressive tendencies of Freud's Faustus type with the symbolic fate of Clifford Chatterley [in Lady Chatterley's Lover], the paradigmatic capitalist who ends rooting at the breast of Mrs. Bolton. While several critics have mentioned Lawrence's use of the traditional association of hobbyhorses with witchcraft and the occult, Freud provides us with a full and specific understanding of Paul's demonism. Lawrence, too, was likely to have been interested in Freud's essays dealing with witchcraft, the uncanny, and the occult, since they more or less confirm his own psychological reading of [Nathaniel Hawthorne's) The Scarlet Letter. It is the name of Paul's mother, Hester Cresswell, which suggests our next line of investigation into Lawrence's obscure suggestions of sorcery and witchcraft.

In Lawrence's notorious essay on The Scarlet Letter [The Symbolic Meaning] we find close and illuminating analogies with Paul's crucial relationship with his parents. Lawrence's imaginative reading of Hawthorne's romance depends mainly on an interpretation of Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne as Americanized types of Adam and Eve. Hester's seduction of the minister is supposedly motivated by her feminine desire for revenge (largely a product of sexual frustration, it would appear) against the authority of the New England patriarchate which he embodies. Hester Prynne's psycho-sexual motivation, at least in Lawrence's interpretation, thus corresponds with that of Hester Cresswell in "The Rocking-Horse Winner." We have also discovered a possible attempt at historical allegory in Lawrence's story, insofar as Paul seems to parody various heroic and tragic types of Western man. Lawrence reads The Scarlet Letter as an historical allegory of the fall of Puritan New England and the rise of an effeminate neo-Aztec culture in America. His revisions of the Hawthorne essay, as Armin Arnold's [The Uncollected Versions of Studies in Classical American Literature, 1961] has shown, harp on this "prophetic" meaning, greatly distorting Hawthorne's book in the interests of a Lawrentian jeremiad against the American twentieth century. Hester's child Pearl (the symbol of Eastern luxury) completes her mother's demonic rebellion against the Puritan state with the brilliant tactic of marrying an Italian nobleman (a display of fondness for the Mediterranean male to be generally noted in Lawrence's later heroines). Lawrence is more than Miltonic in ascribing to Hester an uncontrollable and destructive sensuousness, and gains substantial support from Hawthorne's own descriptions of her "rich, voluptuous oriental characteristic," and "taste for the gorgeously beautiful." Cruelly denied by the Puritan ethic, Hester's suppressed desire for "luxury" (like "luck" an ambiguous term with sexual connotations) issues in an unconsciously spiteful revenge against the social order, a subversion Lawrence cheerfully identifies with witchcraft. "The ancients," he writes, "were not altogether fools in their belief in witchcraft. When the profound subconscious soul of woman recoils from its creative union with man it can exact a tremendous invisible destructive force."

Lawrence's description of the relationship between Hester and Pearl makes an interesting gloss on the analogous situation between Hester Cresswell and Paul, and bears directly on the themes of witchcraft and infanticide in Lawrence's story. What Lawrence calls Hester Prynne's "Astarte" or "Hecate" principle "has in it a necessary antagonism to life itself, the very issue of life: it contains in it the element of blood sacrifice of children, in its darker, destructive mood." In "The Rocking-Horse Winner," Hester Cresswell's sexual disappointment results in a similarly inordinate and destructive craving for substitute "luxuries," and in a like resentment of her child. According to Lawrence, Hester Prynne "simply hates her child, from one part of herself. And from another, she cherishes her child as her own precious treasure. For Pearl is the continuing of her female revenge on life. But female revenge hits both ways. Hits back at its own mother." Hester Cresswell, too, resents her children as being "thrust upon her." At the story's conclusion, however, "all her tormented motherhood flooding upon her," she rushes to the prostrate form of the son she has destroyed.

The major difference between the plot situations of Hawthorne's romance and "The Rocking-Horse Winner" is that Lawrence has neatly substituted Freud's Oedipal boy for both Hester's lover Dimmesdale and little Pearl in order to strengthen his tragi-comic fable. At one dramatic stroke Hester Cresswell is bereft of both child and lover, all save the 80,000 pounds which now ironically fail to comfort her. In the Hawthorne essays Lawrence interprets Dimmesdale as an Oedipal male destroyed by the stronger feminine will of an Astarte or Magna Mater, a female archetype which in Jungian terminology "takes possession" of Hester's soul and turns her into a "witch." It is in this same psychological sense that we are meant to accept the uncanny goings on in the Cresswell's haunted house, a matriarchal institution presided over not by the father but by the maternal uncle. Quite simply, the theme of "The Rocking-Horse Winner" (as of Lawrence's equally satirical "Mother and Daughter") is that matriarchy is the devil—man's just punishment for failing to assert his phallic divinity. A further and very important parallel exists between the spiritual narcissism of Arthur Dimmesdale and that of young Paul which further indicates the range of Lawrence's riding metaphor. Here is the Lawrentian version of Hawthorne's hero [in The Symbolic Meaning]:

Mr. Dimmesdale . . . had lived by governing his body, ruling it in the interests of his spirit. Now he has a good time all by himself torturing his body, whipping it, piercing it with thorns, macerating himself. It's a form of masturbation. He wants to get a mental grip on his body. And since he can't quite manage it with the mind, witness his fall—he will give it what for, with whips. His will shall lash his body. . . . It is the old self mutilation gone rotten.

As we have noted, Freud's work with "uncanny" children gives a psychological interpretation of demonic offspring such as Hawthorne's Pearl which undoubtedly would have interested Lawrence. There is little difficulty in seeing Freud's ideas at work, for example, in this analysis of Hester's daughter: "And Pearl, by the very openness of her perversity, was more straightforward than her parents. She flatly refused any Heavenly Father, seeing the earthly one such a fraud." Thus the discrediting of the real father both in Lawrence's version of The Scarlet Letter and in "The Rocking-Horse Winner" precipitates the tragedy. And, as we have seen, this pattern conforms with the Freudian analysis of the Faust figure. Hester dresses Pearl as the tiny image of the luxury she denies herself, just as Paul becomes his mother's idea of the lucky lover, and ideal replacement for her dismal husband. When Hester asks Paul how he knows he is "lucky," he brazenly declares, "God told me"—a blasphemous indication of his sinister league with the Dark Father. This deity, it would appear, is the God of the Witches, the "father substitute" erected in the unconscious of the Oedipal child as a maneuver against the God of his Fathers.

Our last concern remains with Lawrence's finely controlled use of the fantastic and the uncanny in this story, which bears a strong resemblance to Kafka's tragi-comedies "The Metamorphosis" and "The Judgment"—fables which also depend on our accepting the external reality of an Oedipal regression fantasy. It may be pointed out here that it was Freud's recommended practice to suspend, for the purposes of analysis, the rational distinction between fact and fantasy in his patients' autobiographical narratives. With this apparently unscientific attitude Freud found that he arrived more quickly at the essence of the problem. His method of analysis thus corresponds interestingly with Hawthorne's quest for a "romantic precinct" in which the writer could demonstrate the "truth of the heart." "In contrast to material reality," Freud asserts [in A General Introduction to Psychology], "these phantasies possess psychical reality, and we gradually come to understand that in the world of neurosis PSYCHICAL REALITY is the determining factor."

"The Rocking-Horse Winner," like Kafka's "Metamorphosis" and Hawthorne's "Wakefield," for example, persuades us to accept the universal reality of a personal nightmare. Lawrence's profound difference from these writers lies in his relatively cheerful attitude toward the inescapable irrationality of human nature. Where Kafka finds submission to the irrational forces of the unconscious a personal tragedy implying the permanent destruction of self, Lawrence sees the surrender of the ego as the condition of rebirth. Whereas Freud's goal is the defense and aggrandisement of the old ego, Lawrence's purpose is the renewal of our emotional and communal life. In this respect Lawrence's thinking resembles the theories of Jung and those of such socially oriented American psychologists as Lawrence's late correspondent, Trigant Burrow.

Like other "schismatics," however, Lawrence shared more fundamental assumptions with Freud, including ideas about literature, than their differences would indicate. In his essay on the uncanny, which stresses its effective literary uses, Freud tells us that the creator of the uncanny tale ". . . has a peculiarly directive influence over us; by means of the states of mind into which he can put us and the expectations he can rouse in us, he is able to guide the current of our emotions, dam it up in one direction and make it flow in another. . . ." In obvious reference to his own work, Lawrence writes in the famous authorial intrusion in Chapter IX of Lady Chatterley's Lover: "For even satire is a form of sympathy. It is the way our sympathy flows and recoils that really determines our lives. And here is the vast importance of the novel, properly handled. It can inform and lead into new places the flow of our sympathetic consciousness, and it can lead our sympathy away in recoil from things gone dead." As satire, "The Rocking-Horse Winner" is intended to make us feel emotional as well as intellectual revulsion from the inorganic deathin-life of the middle class menage and, accordingly, a greater respect for the traditional view of a family unified under the vital authority of the father. For Lawrence the "phallic" family unit was the microcosmic model of the healthy world state. Paul's frenzied rocking satirizes the insanity of existence in a mechanically organized environment as opposed to real living as Lawrence describes it in Apocalypse [1936], where he admonishes: "What we want is to destroy our false, inorganic connections, especially those related to money, and reestablish the living organic connections with the cosmos, the sun and earth, with mankind and nation and family." Paul's precocious search for intellectual certainty or "knowledge" about the external universe, as Lawrence explains in Fantasia of the Unconscious [1960], should have been hastily discouraged: "A child mustn't understand things. He must have his own way. His vision isn't ours. When a boy of eight sees a horse, he doesn't see the correct biological object we intend him to see. He sees a big living presence of no particular shape with hair dangling from its neck and four legs."

The symbolic meaning of Paul's rocking-horse depends precisely on the fact that it is not "a big living presence," but an artificial object. When his mother remonstrates, "Surely you're too big for a rocking-horse!" Paul cryptically explains, "Well, you see, Mother, till I can have a real horse, I like to have some sort of animal about." Modern man, Lawrence thus implies, has lost the real, living universe which is still present to the unreflective child and the savage. Lawrence's advocacy of a return to a primitive epistemology links him less with Freud, of course, than with Jung and with the whole development of Romantic theories of cognition from Blake and Coleridge to the present. Allied to Paul's precocity and symptomatic of his overdeveloped intellectuality is the boy's narcissim. Like the Morel brothers and Gerald Crich, Paul is the type of Oedipal introvert Lawrence deplores as a characteristically modern child in the chapter "Parent Love" in Fantasia of The Unconscious: "And today what have we but this? Almost inevitably we find in a child now an intense, precocious, secret sexual preoccupation. The upper self is rabidly engaged in exploiting the lower self. A child and its own roused, inflamed sex, its own shame and masturbation, its own cruel, secret sexual excitement and sex curiosity, this is the greatest tragedy of our day." And it is this tragedy which Lawrence epitomizes in Paul's fall from his hobbyhorse.

The image of the equestrian, used as an emblem of modern man's tragic attempt at conscious domination of his libido, is a recurrent figure in Lawrence's fiction, appearing in Women in Love, "The Prussian Officer," and most of the New Mexico stories. In Lady Chatterley's Lover this image undergoes minor but significant variation. Clifford, whose instinctive life is completely moribund, is placed in a motorized wheelchair. Where Lady Chatterley and the later novels generally fail to mediate between Lawrence's subjective view of the modern condition and the public reality, his shorter fiction very often succeeds. "There is, in fact, a path from phantasy back again to reality," Freud acknowledges [in A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis], "—and that is art." Lawrence's novels too frequently point out that there is another path that leads from reality to fantasy—and that is self-expression. In "The Rocking-Horse Winner" Lawrence reveals an ability to create this artistic mid-realm granted to few writers, and then, as Hawthorne sadly realized, only occasionally.

Michael Goldberg (essay date 1969)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5000

SOURCE: "Lawrence's The Rocking-Horse Winner': A Dickensian Fable?" in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XV, No. 1, Spring, 1969, pp. 525-36.

[In the following essay, Goldberg outlines the similarities between "The Rocking-Horse Winner" and Charles Dickens's Dombey and Son, suggesting that "Lawrence's vision had been shaped in part by the Dickensian tradition. " The critic also takes issue with the numerous Freudian analyses of "The Rocking-Horse Winner."]

"The Rocking-Horse Winner" is best read as a Dickensian social fable. It presents obvious parallels in mode, tone, and structure to Dombey and Son, and its central themes of parental neglect and the sacrifice of humanity entailed in the worship of Mammon are, after all, major Dickensian preoccupations.

In exploring the parallels between Dombey and Son and "The Rocking-Horse Winner" I also hope to suggest that Lawrence's story owes more to literary tradition than to psychological theory. Most contemporary readings of the tale identify its symbolic devices with Freudian notions of infantile regression, mother love, Oedipal complexes, and onanism. Apart from distorting the tale this critical tendency has, I think, tended to inhibit literary inquiry. It may suggest one of the reasons why, as Professor George Ford recently pointed out, "resemblances between Lawrence and Dickens have rarely been commented on" [Double Measure: A Study of the Novels and Stories of D. H. Lawrence, 1965].

Lawrence had, of course, read Dombey and Son and there are innumerable passages in his novels which suggests that Lawrence had assimilated Dickens rather thoroughly. One recalls for instance the celebrated scene in Hard Times in which a ray of sunlight streaming through the Coketown classroom window illuminates Sissy Jupe and Bitzer. Dr. Leavis finds this passage with its contrast of dark vitality and thin-blooded sterility "essentially Laurentian" [The Great Tradition, 1955], although it would, of course, be more accurate to say that the comparable Laurentian passages were essentially Dickensian. In D. H. Lawrence: Novelist [1964] he brackets the two writers together on several occasions. The Lost Girl suggests the work of an "unsentimental Dickens"; the disturbing queerness of Mrs. Crich in Women in Love is "evoked with that power of Lawrence's which sometimes reminds us of Dickens"; and they are paired together in contrast to Whitman. Mark Spilka has compared Birken's emphasis on the "facts" of organic life in Women in Love with Gradgrind's utilitarian insistence on "facts" in Hard Times. It looks strongly, he concludes, "as if Lawrence took his cue from Dickens" [The Love Ethic of D. H. Lawrence.]

There are suggestive links between the etiolated rat-child in the schoolroom scenes in the Rainbow and Bitzer whose "skin was so unwholesomely deficient in the natural tinge, that he looked as though, if he were cut, he would bleed white."

In Great Expectations Pip out of a sense of grievance withdraws into a world of fantasy. Dickens interjects that "though the actual injustice experienced may be small this is balanced by the relative smallness of the child's world; its world is small and its rocking-horse stands as many hands high, according to scale, as a big-boned Irish hunter."

These are, however, scattered details which serve to suggest only that there is a Dickensian influence to be found in Lawrence. Influence is, of course, a loose word—perhaps necessarily so, for the way in which an artist takes hold of aspects of another's work and makes them peculiarly his own is ultimately a mysterious process. It should be clear that I am not suggesting that Dombey and Son was the "source" of "The Rocking-Horse Winner," nor even that Lawrence was using it in any conscious or deliberate way. I do believe, however, that Lawrence's vision had been shaped in part by the Dickensian tradition and that in reading "The Rocking-Horse Winner" we have a strong sense of how much the Dickensian vision has penetrated the life and determined the actual way of seeing and structuring the experiences presented.

The elements of plot and their arrangement present parallels and likenesses with Dombey and Son too numerous to be accounted for by chance.

Both fictions feature a child named Paul whose parents are almost wholly given over to the activity of "getting on" in the world. Both children are reared in a sterile, loveless environment. Both die through the agency of some spiritual sickness whose nature it is the purpose of the tales to anatomise. Both children have an element of wizardry or a troll quality about them which enables them to penetrate the mysteries of the adult world. Both fictions employ the supernatural device of message-bearing voices—in Lawrence the house with echoes and in Dickens the whispering waves. The chosen mode of both fictions has strong affinities with fairy-tale and a good deal in common with allegory. Both are savage parables on the human sacrifice demanded by the money fetish. Thematically, both stories turn sharply on the contrast between genuine human relationships founded on love and those grounded on the cash nexus.

Besides this, there are in "The Rocking-Horse Winner," a number of Dickensian echoes which must suggest verbal reminiscence.

It seems to me, therefore, that despite its obvious difference in size, Dombey and Son provides a sustained series of analogues for "The Rocking-Horse Winner" and it is perhaps best for this reason to set them out in a rather systematic way.

To turn first of all to their settings, both fictions depict a middle-class environment which proves wholly unable to sustain life. Paul Dombey's birthplace "was a house of dismal state, with a circular back to it, containing a whole suite of drawing rooms looking upon a gravelled yard, where two gaunt trees, with blackened trunks and branches, rattled rather than rustled, their leaves were so smoke-dried." From this unprepossessing location Paul is removed to Mrs. Pipchin's establishment at Brighton where "the soil was more than usually chalky, flinty, and sterile."

This descriptive symbolism with its air of grotesque enchantment clearly works in the service of social criticism. The inability of the soil to yield is more truly a property of the human than the natural environment. As such it is an index to the personality of Mr. Dombey and an indictment of that part of the Victorian world he inhabits as a comfortable Philistine.

In Lawrence too, an atmosphere of brittle gentility hangs over both the physical environment and its inhabitants. The actual aridity of this world is concealed from outside inspection by a deceptive keeping up of appearances. Mr. Dombey's household glitters with a cold splendour and is a social mecca whose true character is known only to its members. Similarly, Hester and her husband "lived in style" and felt themselves despite a chronic shortage of money to be "superior to anyone in the neighborhood." The deception goes even further since to the world Hester appears the ideal mother. Only she and her children know the dreadful secret of her inadequacy.

In both fictions the setting skillfully lays the ground for the enunciation of the major theme. At the center of both stories a child named Paul is driven to his death by the inflexible money-mindedness of his parents. What both writers are urging is the idea that love of money somehow interferes with the life process. In the stark form of the parable this is illustrated through the sacrifice of a child's life to Mammon. But the child is not the sole victim of an acquisitive society. The parents, too, suffer a dreadful kind of atrophy in which Mammonism paralyzes their humanity and perverts their instinctive life, particularly their capacity for love.

Mr. Dombey, for example, at the height of his prominence suffers from a strangulation of the emotions. He can exhibit only an awkward rectitude towards his dying wife, cold hauteur towards her successor, and a withering disdain towards his daughter. For his son he feels at least a warmth related to his commercial ambition. He has to be chastened and renewed by tragic experience before feeling can flow through him again. Until that has taken place, like Lawrence's Hester, he cannot love anyone.

In such a situation it is not easy to distinguish oppressors from victims. "The Rocking-Horse Winner" is about a mother's betrayal of her son for money, status, and position. It is also about the self-betrayal of her humanity.

There are perhaps resemblances between Hester and Dickens' Cleopatra to whom Lawrence refers in "Surgery for the Novel or a Bomb" [in Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence, ed. by E. D. McDonald, 1961]. Cleopatra is an ageing coquette who treats even death as though he were a beau, and her daughter as though she were a chattel virtually selling her on the marriage market to Mr. Dombey. That she is in consequence involved in a cruel dehumanising of spirit is brilliantly registered in the scene where she is laid to bed after suffering a stroke. As the false plumes of her womanhood are stripped away she is reduced to a batty and terrifying doll entirely a creature of artifice—her false eyebrows a mere extension of her pretensions to "spirit." Hester undergoes a comparable denaturing in which the elements of sexual perversity and financial desire are also mingled. Both women are inextricably entangled in the ugly paradigms of the money ethic.

Insofar as it can be extracted from the tightly meshed verbal context which expresses it, the theme of both tales turns on the adage radix malorum est cupiditas, although money is an evil root not in the sense that it tempts one away from heaven but because it cheats one of one's humanity. The generous life-giving principles of love are quite deliberately set in balance against the acquisitive principles of wealth.

The other aspect of the moral is that of the futility of possessions. As Lawrence argues in "Democracy" [from Phoenix], "property is only there to be used, not to be possessed . . . possession is a kind of illness of spirit." It amounts to a "fatal betrayal of the spontaneous self."

Mr. Dombey is par excellence the man of possessions. His pride in his son is a mere flexing of his own ego. He cannot wait for the infant to assume his intended place in the firm of Dombey and Son. His regret at the death of his first wife is rather the feeling that there was "something missing from among his plate and furniture, and other household possessions." He acquires a replacement, a decorative but unloved second wife, much as one might pick up a vase at an auction. He needed it and he purchased it. The invasion of business principles into the realm of emotion is thus made a central part of the themes of both stories. Both Dickens and Lawrence are offering a critique of industrial society, a problem which as Lawrence said [in Phoenix] arises "from the base forcing of all human energy into a competition of mere acquisition." As both writers saw, the community which was not founded on love but held together by the cash-nexus was not a community at all—but a state of war. "Our civilization . . . has almost destroyed the natural flow of common sympathy between men and men, and men and women" ["The State Funk," Sex, Literature and Censorship, 1933], wrote Lawrence, summarizing in many ways what Dombey is all about.

In Lawrence the rapacity of Hester and her husband is bred out of the sexual inadequacy of their relationship. Since they cannot satisfy each other in the primary sexual sense they turn to making a success of the secondary pursuit of money. But since this involves an even further withdrawal from life it is self-defeating. Thus the equation is established between the boy's death and the death of feeling in the mother, as well as the specific parallel between his obsessive riding of the rocking horse and her fruitless quest for happiness in the realm of material gain.

Though Dickens provides many suggestions that the failure and neglect of Paul is simply one aspect of Mr. Dombey's general incapacity to love anyone, the explicitly sexual aspects of the fable are more developed in the Laurentian version.

Yet it should be recalled that the notion of debased love—specifically prostitution—is openly dealt with in Dombey. Paul's mother is merely an object to Mr. Dombey. A patient Victorian Griselda, she dies in childbirth. His second wife is acquired on the marriage market under the prostitutional conditions sanctioned by polite society. Treated to the haughty contempt of his frigid pride the second Mrs. Dombey comes as close as the reticent conventions allow to dalliance with Mr. Carker, an avidly sexual though melodramatic figure.

The intercepting of healthy sexual instinct, its stifling by conformity to rigid Puritanic conventions, and its consequent perversion into lurid forms is a pre-Freudian insight frequently at work in Dickens.

The failure of love is openly canvassed, of course, in Lawrence's tale. Hester, "married for love, and the love turned to dust. She had bonny children, yet she felt they had been thrust upon her, and she could not love them." Between her and them there is an uneasy hostility. In the centre of her heart, in that "hard little place" which had turned to stone she knows that she "could not feel love . . . for anybody." It is an easy step from there to a consuming interest in money, an attempt to cover the nakedness of her shame with Mammon's gilded fig leaf.

There is a striking resemblance in the structure and mode of the two fictions. A conspicuous feature of Lawrence's tale is its almost diagrammatic quality. Its internal balance preserves the strong moral quality inherent in the proverbial adage which perhaps immediately stimulated its production [as related in "Letter to Mollie Skinner," The Selected Letters of D. H. Lawrence, ed. by Diana Trilling, 1958]. Certainly there is in both Dombey and Son and "The Rocking-Horse Winner" a paradigmatic quality in which the exigencies of plot proceed with the careful balance of ah inventory. Indeed, the Lawrence tale concludes with the dead boy's uncle Oscar stating the grim equation: "My God, Hester, you're eighty-odd thousand to the good, and a poor devil of a son to the bad."

Within the structure of the story, the balance of the juxtaposed elements is equally carefully preserved. The horse is patently not a real one though it seems to function like one. The mother's pursuit of wealth is not a real goal though it seems to animate her. In fact, both the horse and the mother make only tenuous contact with reality. Their movement is characterised by a kind of directionless frenzy. This analogy between the mother and her son is also worked out in terms of the tale's symbolic devices. The hard, unloving centre of the mother's heart has been established early in the story. When, after the climactic scene the boy collapses, the father answers his wife's anxious questions "stonily." Failing to regain consciousness the boy's eyes "were like blue stones." His mother feels as if her heart had "turned actually into a stone." In both mother and son the stone-like property is at the furthest possible remove from the life attesting flux, what Yeats [in "Byzantium"] called the "fury and the mire of human veins." It signifies the psychic murder of her instinctive life, just as in his case it betokens the actual encroachment of death.

This link is also enforced through the reiterated use of the color blue. It is the primary color through which the boy's inward condition is manifested. He has "uncanny blue eyes," which give off a "blue glare." They hold within them an "uncanny cold fire." His "big hot blue eyes" discomfit others; they have a "strong glare" in them. At death they appear as "blue stones." The blueness clearly represents the hectic of disease or of psychic disorder. It is a phosphorescent color which gleams as a reflection of the cold, unnatural fires within. Furthermore, the fire is quite remote from ordinary passion. It is uncanny, queer, "like a madness." It associates itself with the properties of cold stoniness already referred to. The color blue and its associated green it should be recalled were, for Blake, symbolic of Urizenic jealousy, of perverted sexual passion. Urizen himself is the "isolated rational faculty disconnected from genuine religious perception . . . and from natural instinct" [Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake, 1964].

It signifies, therefore, some inward malignity in the boy's condition. He is in the grip of a distorting power exactly comparable to that which has enthralled his mother. Through his frenzied pursuit of his mother's goals he has come to resemble her. Thus when in the climactic recognition scene, the mother in a dress of "pale green and crystal" surprises her son at his terrifying ritual, he is wearing "green pyjamas." Lawrence is using color in a carefully selective and symbolic way and it seems a masterful touch to link the two figures—who are so tragically maimed in the same way—in terms of color also.

The careful balancing of structure and detail applies equally to the rocking horse itself. It stands first in direct contrast, and thus, as a reverse metaphor, to the real horses whose names (Daffodil, Lively Spark, Malabar . . . ) enliven the pages of the tale. At this point it is an extension of the unlived, unfulfilled quality of the parents' life. The sense of motion without progress balances exactly the mother's furious onslaught of the money god. Since this wealth has already been demonstrated to be a substitute to real living, the antithesis between the artificial and the real extends here also. And further, since this reliance on the secondary money drive stems initially from some unspecified but quite clear failure of sexual potency, the horse must carry some resonance at his level as well. The boy's retreat from reality, therefore, represents in him, as in his mother a denying of natural instinct which alone offers the prospect of satisfaction.

This is not to say that the rocking horse is primarily a sexual symbol or that the boy's activity is masturbatory except in the metaphoric sense. Indeed, these contrivances are symbolic in a way quite removed from either Freud or the Symbolists. The details are so snugly fitted together and so systematically patterned as to suggest something of the arithmetical quality of allegory. The "fearful symmetry" of the tale has another similarity to allegory since all its details are pressed in the service of enforcing a moral argument. It has, as Dr. Leavis interestingly pointed out about Hard Times, the quality of a "moral fable." That is to say, things have a representative quality as would be true also in a fairy story, but the kind of symbolism is really explicit and insistently moral.

The mode, the actual details employed, and finally the moral argument to which they are applied is very close indeed to Dickens' Dombey. Like the tale, the novel works out its satiric allegories in terms of contrasts. The foredoomed Paul's christening is likened to his funeral, his shadowy existence is contrasted with the brightness of Walter Gay's life; Mr. Dombey's chill patronage is set beside Sol Gill's abundant generosity. Images of cold polarize around the world of the Dombeys whereas Sol Gills is, as his name implies, as radiant as the sun. In another way Mr. Dombey's heartless Mammonism is satirically juxtaposed to the abundance and fecundity of the Toodle family. The relationship between Mr. Dombey and Polly Toodle works out this symbolic pattern with great force. Required as a wet nurse for Paul, Polly is allowed to enter the Dombey household only under an assumed name, "Richards." Since Mr. Dombey is buying services, she is instructed not to become involved with the boy's feelings. "I desire to make it a question of wages, altogether. .. . It is not at all in this bargain that you need become attached to my child.. . . When you go away from here, you will have concluded what is a mere matter of bargain and sale, hiring and letting. . . ." To Dombey the only relationship between people is that of the cash nexus. The moral of all this is driven home in the brief exchange between Dombey and Mr. Toodle:

"You have a son, I believe?" said Mr. Dombey.

"Four of 'em, Sir. .. . All alive!"

"Why, it's as much as you can afford to keep them!" said Mr. Dombey.

"I couldn't hardly afford but one thing in the world less, Sir."

"What is that?"

"To lose 'em, Sir."

Within such a scheme as this the supernatural devices have a perfectly comfortable place. As Kathleen Tillotson has suggested, the "mysterious simplicities of fairy-tale" are never far away in Dickens' work. Referring specifically to Dombey and Son, she declares: "If we can see Florence as the princess under a spell, or the unrecognized child of royal birth from whom a strange light shines, or even as Spenser's Una, we may come nearer to Dickens' own intention" [Novels of the Eighteen-Forties, 1961].

Florence, after all, lives in a "magic dwelling place . . . shut up in the heart of a thick wood," yet she blooms there like "the king's fair daughter." Paul himself has something of a troll quality and Mrs. Pipchin's academy is described an an ogress' castle.

One of the most striking ways Dickens adopts to convey the moral of his fable is to enliven the inanimate. Throughout Dickens' work we meet people who are being "thinged" into objects, or objects which are becoming ensouled. Directly analogous to Lawrence's haunted house are the waves which are always whispering to Paul. From the moment when Paul's dying mother "drifted out upon the dark and unknown sea that rolls round all the world," the sea symbol recurs throughout the novel always carrying with it associations of separation and reunion. As he is dying the waves whisper to Paul with increasing frequency. In fact, all the essential values which are set in opposition to the world of Dombeyism are connected with the sea either literally or metaphorically. Walter Gay, who becomes Dombey's son-in-law, undertakes a perilous sea voyage in the symbolically named Son and Heir; Dombey's grandson, who helps to reunite him with his family, is actually born at sea; Sol Gills is a ship's chandler; Capt'n Cuttle, an old salt.

These methods are familar to us as being essentially Dickensian. Yet the use of underlying fairy-tale elements which are deployed in the service of social commentary is common to both the novel and the Lawrence story. The story opens, as Kingsley Widmer suggests, with "mockingly simple exposition, with its devices from the children's story of the beautiful lady with the hard heart" [The Art of Perversity: D. H. Lawrence's Shorter Fictions, 1962]. She had all the advantages but no luck. From there it is an easy step to the magic rocking horse and the whispering house.

Appropriate to the form, the hero of both works is a precocious child. Yet the precosity is not simply that of madness. In part it reflects a heightened Romantic view of the child's powers. For in both stories the child instinctively divines the sickness at the heart of the adult society and is fatally infected by it. The child's innocence and implacable curiosity is used to show up the cold preoccupations of Mammonist society.

"Papa! What's money?"

The abrupt question had such immediate reference to . . . Mr. Dombey's thoughts, that Mr. Dombey was quite disconcerted.

"What is money, Paul?" he answered. "Money?" . . .

Mr. Dombey was in a difficulty. He would have liked to give him some explanation involving the terms circulating-medium, currency, depreciation of currency, paper, bullion, rates of exchange, value of precious metals in the market, and so forth; but looking down at the little chair, and seeing what a long way down it was, he answered: "Gold, and silver, and copper. Guineas, shillings, halfpence. You know what they are?"

"Oh yes, I know what they are," said Paul. "I don't mean that, papa. I mean, what's money after all?" . . .

"I mean, papa, what can it do?" returned Paul, folding his arms. . . .

"Money, Paul, can do anything." . . .

"Anything, papa?"

"Yes. Anything—almost," said Mr. Dombey.

"Anything means everything, don't it, papa?" asked his son. . . .

"It includes it; yes," said Mr. Dombey.

"Why didn't money save my mama?" returned the child. "It isn't cruel, is it?"

Lawrence has an abbreviated version of the above encounter:

"Is luck money, mother?" he asked, rather timidly.

"No, Paul, Not quite. It's what causes you to have money. If you're lucky you have money. That's why it's better to be born lucky than rich. If you're rich, you may lose your money. But if you're lucky, you will always get more money."

Unable to resist the false logic of the adult world, the child has no choice but to submit to it. In both cases this leads to the perversion of their humanity. Both children become withdrawn, both lapse into long periods of abstraction. They are both increasingly affected by supernatural voices—finally they both retreat further and further from life itself.

The perversion of little Paul Dombey's nature is stunningly rendered in terms of his precocious madness. The mad gleam, the pale fire, the impish perversity increase as his actual hold on life is loosened.

This is extremely close to Lawrence's portrayal. The mounting obsession, the increased withdrawal, the sense of inward strain, provide a kind of perfervid animation which is the bloom of corruption not of health.

The illness which kills Paul Dombey is never specified—but it is the burden of the whole context of the fable to make it clear that the death is the result of some deep inward rupture. It is his psyche that is impaired. Neither can one quite say outside the controlled context of the Laurentian fable what Paul dies of. "Some brain fever" is the closest Lawrence comes, but this is clearly a medical euphemism for a complicated process of disintegration which the tale describes. The malady is something which cannot be divorced from the society—domestic and communal—in which the children are reared. In a blatant way the children die because ironically the world of money is not rich enough to sustain them. The physical aspect of these deaths is inevitably shrouded in mystery since what actually kills them is exposure to a sick society.

The links between "The Rocking-Horse Winner" and Dombey and Son suggest that here, at any rate, Lawrence's symbolism is rather more Dickensian than Freudian. The tale is not primarily an account of sexual aberration but of the larger dislocations implied by social malfunctioning. What the story, like Dombey and Son, explores, is the extent to which the whole human personality is damaged by primary misconception of human goals. Or to put it in the traditional context: both novel and short story are critiques of industrialism. They are concerned not with changes in the physical environment brought about by machines but with mechanism as an inner condition: with the sense as Carlyle put it, that "mechanism has now struck its roots . . . into man's most intimate primary sources of conviction" ["Signs of the Times," Miscellaneous Essays, 1869].

It is profoundly important, as Raymond Williams has suggested, "to realise that Lawrence's exploration of sexual experience is made, always, in this context" [Culture and Society, 1790-1950, 1961]. The sense of immediate relationship which informs many of the novels and the absence of which is the central blight of "The Rocking-Horse Winner" was shaped as a creative response to the pressures of industrialism. To isolate Lawrence's exploration of sexual experience "as it was tempting for some of his readers to do, is not only to misunderstand Lawrence but to expose him to the scandal from which, in his lifetime, he scandalously suffered."

Thus the mysterious riding of the rocking horse is in no way a crudely explicit Freudian symbol of onanism, as W. D. Snodgrass argues in a reading of the tale which has gained widespread currency. Using Lawrence's "Pornography and Obscenity" as an "almost complete gloss" of this symbolic aspect of the story, Mr. Snodgrass arrives at the conclusion that "Paul's mysterious ecstasy .. . is sexual and onanistic." Just as "the riding of a horse is an obvious symbol for the sex act, and 'riding' was once the common sexual verb, so the rocking-horse stands for the child's imitation of the sex act, for the riding which goes nowhere" ["A Rocking-Horse: The Symbol, the Pattern, the Way to Live," in The Hudson Review XI, No. 2, Summer, 1958].

The point is not that the horse may symbolize a masturbatory activity, but that masturbation is itself a symbol representing a kind of futility which describes the parents' life as well as the boy's, and the general activity of society itself.

When in the articles cited by Mr. Snodgrass, Lawrence speaks of "niggling analysis" as a sign of "self-abuse" he is using the metaphor of masturbation in this expanded way. He means it as a Urizenic fingering of the life process, a tampering by the intellect with the dark and unconscious powers of the blood.

Thus Paul's frenzied rocking is a dramatic instance of a general sickness or paralysis which cripples his parents and, by extension, the society in which they live. It is an aspect of the "base forcing" into the competition for money and property.

Freudian interpretations of the story ultimately weaken the force of Lawrence's central symbol by narrowing the range of its effectiveness. Lawrence himself, one recalls, recoiled from the psychoanalytic review of Sons and Lovers denouncing what he called the "vicious half-statements of the Freudians" [The Collected Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. I, ed. by Harry T. Moore, 1962]. More immediately relevant are his comments on symbolism: "In modern symbolism, the horse is supposed to stand for the passions. Passions be blowed. What does the Centaur stand for, Chiron or any other of that quondam four-footed gentry? Sense! Horse-sense! Sound, powerful, four-footed sense, that's what the horse stands for" [Collected Letters, Vol. II]. As Dickens might have said, "Now critic number twenty you know what a horse is."

E. San Juan, Jr. (essay date 1970)

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SOURCE: "Theme Versus Imitation: D. H. Lawrence's 'The Rocking-Horse Winner'," in The D. H. Lawrence Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, Summer, 1970, pp. 136-40.

[Here, San Juan seeks to contradict other critics of "The Rocking-Horse Winner" by stating that Paul was neither corrupted by, nor a victim of, money; instead, San Juan argues that the principle of the story is the change in Paul's personalityPaul's motivation was to please his mother and money is only used as a method to invoke emotions and change.]

One persistent and serious mistake occurring in most formal analyses of fiction is the easy reduction of the narrative to an allegorical statement of ideas presumed to underlie the work, or to a quasi-parabolic projection of values, themes, motives, etc. Fiction thus splits into subject or content and form. Subject, the meaning of the fable, can be extrapolated from the rendered action. Form articulates the subject by using the mode of narration for illustrating meaning. Not only the New Critics but also the archetypal and psycho-analytic commentators have committed this mistake. Instead of defining the plot, the system of actions on which the working power or dynamis of the form depends, most interpreters tend to select certain key-words or stylistic features as proofs for general propositions about the vision or moral outlook crystallizing the author's intention. Fiction thus becomes exemplum, rhetorical adjunct, or myth.

Because of its prophetic or visionary tone, D. H. Lawrence's fiction has often been misconstrued by ideologues, mystics, and Platonizing moralists. One example is the otherwise excellent interpretation of "The Rocking-Horse Winner" by W. D. Snodgrass ["A Rocking-Horse: The Symbol, the Pattern, the Way to Live," The Hudson Review, Vol. XI, No. 2, Summer, 1958]. Snodgrass finds the artistic power of the story to reside essentially in its demonstration of the hubris of intellect. The rocking-horse is taken to symbolize a massive cluster of ideas ranging from sex to the occult. To consider Paul "a symbol of civilized man" who sacrifices intuitive self-knowledge for "filthy lucre" seems, if not hyperbolic, a strangely forced and twisted opinion. At best such a reading correlates the story's general import with Lawrence's thoughts about the decadence of modern culture.

The organizing principle of Lawrence's story inheres in the system of actions, the plot, which represents the change in Paul's fortune ("fortune" here refers to a relative condition of acting in a morally determinate way). This change involves primarily his character, the ethos of personality. He decides to do one thing instead of another. Extremely sensitive and preternatural, Paul lives his world in an animistic and dynamically metaphoric mode. This "milieu" of his psyche gives concrete expression to the point of view through which we see the kind of world in which the rocking-horse will serve as the agent of transformation. It functions as the donnée connecting the boy's rides on the toy horse and the world of chance.

Given Lawrence's treatment of the boy's sensibility, the causal sequence of incidents is realized not so much in the fortuitous and surprising coincidence of prediction and actuality (the boy's betting in the races) as in the probability of the boy's compulsion to enact his role. He discovers the winners in a process of analogy: his imaginary rides, parallel in form to actual racing, allow him to participate in actuality without being limited by contingencies and unforeseeable consequences. By his self-imposed discipline, his ritual of "winning the race," he converts chance into luck. But this ritual is only a means of defining Paul's relation to his mother and characterizing the mother and her depersonalized world. When Paul learns from his mother that "luck" begets money and money generates happiness, he responds: "Well, anyhow . . . I'm a lucky person," supporting his claim that "God told me" before his skeptical, indifferent mother.

The initial dialogue between mother and son establishes the motivation for Paul's activity: his wild quests on the rocking-horse "charging madly into space" toward "where there is luck." Within the "haunted house," the whole inanimate world of dolls, material possessions, and the fetishism of money exerts an obsessive, magic spell on Paul. Hence his ritual of wish-fulfillment grows out of the practical end of human existence: the desire of a boy to establish a world of play. But in the second half of the story, after the mother's receipt of the boy's gift, the world of money (suggested in the ghoulish chant "there must be more money") drives the boy to traumatic desperation and death.

If we wish to formulate the "theme" of the story, we might concentrate on the dialectic of practical and magical spheres as it operates in the protagonist's behavior. Anguished by his mother's fierce consumption of material goods, he engages in his fantasy quests. With the help of Uncle Oscar and Bassett, Paul's intuition of success is translated into reality. (Bassett curiously endows the boy's hunches with a sacramental quality in keeping with Lawrence's dialectic.) Proved true by its coincidence with actuality, Paul's uncanny journeys are designed for one purpose, as he confesses to Uncle Oscar: ".. . I started it for mother. She said she had no luck, because father is unlucky, so I thought if I was lucky, it might stop whispering." The whispering, of course, violates the boy's expectation of harmony prevailing in the house.

Was the boy corrupted by wealth and secular vanity? Contrary to Snodgrass and other critics, I do not think so. For while there exists a vital transaction between fantasy and the world of cash, the boy preserves his integrity, his naiveté and innocence, up to the end when he affirms his luck, his absolute assurance, in a rhythm of rejoicing. His ecstatic vision confirmed by his winning the Derby, he dies literally exhausted by his ordeal. The cathexis implicit in the rocking-horse as vehicle of transcendence is never broken.

What Lawrence is doing here is to imitate an action which, in conceptual terms, may be expressed as the dialectical interplay of fantasy (play, make-believe) and the worldly (cash-nexus, material pleasure), and its ironic effects on Paul's relation with his mother. This argument—not the theme—is represented in terms of the plot. The plot shows how an ultra-sensitive boy who deeply loves his extravagant mother feels himself compelled to enact a project in his own childlike way to make his mother happy and restore quiet to the house. But the project, reaching a temporary fulfillment in the secret gift of five thousand pounds, fails to subdue the house's frightening screams. Frustrated, the boy decides on winning the Derby and succeeds; but the effort brings about his death.

The second half of the story focuses on the mother as the real center of interest insofar as she is the character who gave purpose to the boy's actions and now gives meaning to the boy's illness. The climactic irony expressed by Uncle Oscar in the last paragraph of the story results from the mother's sudden anxiety for the boy two nights before the Derby. Lawrence portrays the mother conducting herself with so much concern for the boy by depicting her gradual discovery of the boy riding his horse in the dark room. When she gains recognition that somehow she is the cause of her son's death, the effects of irony and pathos and horror coalesce in our experience.

All the devices of representation used by Lawrence—for example, revealing dialogues between Uncle Oscar and the boy, the modulation from summary to dramatized scene, from telling to showing—conform to the aim of producing a reversal of the mother's expectation, and her implicit perception that she (and the world she represents) is responsible for the boy's death. Her brother, Uncle Oscar, aptly voices the irony with impersonal wit: "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." Lawrence succeeds here in evoking the psychological effect of awe and wonder at Paul, pity for the mother, and horror at the whole situation. Our understanding of the dialectic between fantasy and worldliness depends on the subtle adjustment Lawrence exercised on diction, thought, character, and incident in devising his plot.

Pursuing this method of looking at the story as the imitation of an action by means of the plot (in its formal sense as a synthesis of incidents, character, thought, diction), an action which may be formulated by the argument I suggested above, one can proceed to locate exactly where the power of this imitation resides. It resides specifically in the construction of the plot, in the way the elements converge to present the change in Paul's fortune (as shown in his own thought and action, and in his mother's responses), his fusion of magic and fact, and how this change causes the reversal of expectations and the recognition of the meaning of his actions. By "plot" I mean the sequence of incidents organized in such a way that it reveals an important change in the protagonist, exhibiting a power to move our emotions in a specific manner.

It is absurd to construe Paul's death as a failure of satanic intellection. For Paul has clearly no rational conception of money as secular power; his immediate reason is to please his mother and suppress the frantic voices he mysteriously apprehends. "Lack of self-knowledge" may be one thematic motif but certainly not the organizing principle of the story. Harry T. Moore describes the story as "a horrible commentary on today's money-madness," a satiric study of the "gambling neurosis" [D.H. Lawrence: His Life and Works, 1964]. But these inferred implications or significances may be properly defined as constituents of formal parts used to characterize the protagonist, his mother, or the setting. They function as devices to arouse and satisfy a sequence of emotional responses which defines the power of the narrative. The profundity and relevance of our response of course depend on our accurate grasp of the story as an artistic whole, a configuration of various meaningful elements. Meaning—the value of elements in the integrated whole—is measured and clarified by the depth, the varying intensity, of our emotional experience.

John B. Humma (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: "Pan and The Rocking-Horse Winner'," in Essays in Literature, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1978, pp. 53-60.

[In the following essay, Humma describes the character of Bassett in "The Rocking-Horse Winner" as an allusion to the god Pan, a mystical half-man, half-goat who is often used as a symbol for Nature and Reality. Humma argues that Lawrence uses Rassett as a "base Pan, a solemn, primped-up, twentieth-century version" of the once-vibrant god.]

Paul, in D. H. Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner" (1925), confuses the words lucre and luck:

"Is luck money, mother?" he asked timidly.

"No, Paul. Not quite. It's what causes you to have money."

"Oh?" said Paul vaguely. "I thought when Uncle Oscar said filthy lucker, it meant money."

"Filthy lucre does mean money," said the mother. "But it's lucre, not luck."

Lawrence has to strain just slightly here to make Paul's confusion come off since, unless Uncle Oscar speaks with a Cockney accent, which is unlikely, the two words do not sound very much alike. But Paul's confusion does make the story go, for the conversation between mother and son leads to Paul's assertion that, unlike the rest of the family, he is a "lucky person":

"Why?" said his mother, with a sudden laugh.

He stared at her. He didn't even know why he had said it.

"God told me," he asserted, brazening it out.

When he sees that his mother doesn't believe him, he goes "off by himself, vaguely, in a childish way, seeking for the clue to luck.' Absorbed, taking no heed of other people, he went about with a sort of stealth, seeking inwardly for luck." He will find it, he hopes, by riding his rocking horse, "charging madly into space."

This conversation between Paul and his mother about lucre and luck contains the story's central conflict and leads to an extremely important, but unnoticed, dimension in the story. As Paul comes to think of luck, it is indeed "filthy." The play on words—between Paul's "filthy lucker" and his mother's "filthy lucre"—is strategic to the story's meaning as well as, in the pivotal association it makes, to the plot. Luck may indeed come from God, but not from God as Paul conceives him to be. Luck cannot be forced, or willed, as Paul tries to do. Hence the irony of Paul's "I am lucky" at the end of the story: his attempt to will luck is precisely what has killed him. Luck comes from another god than the one Paul has in mind. And that God is Pan. Though Lawrence nowhere names Pan in the story, he nonetheless is employing a particular strategy that involves, as in other of his fictions, the Pan myth. In this connection he makes a number of allusions to Pan which, once we identify them, accent a further, enriching dimension to the story.

"It is clear, then," W. D. Snodgrass remarks [in "A Rocking-Horse: The Symbol, the Pattern, the Way to Live," Hudson Review, Vol. XI, No. 2, 1958], "that the story is talking about some sort of religious perversion. But what sort? Who are the strange gods: how does Paul serve them and receive their information?" The story indeed is about religious perversion, but the only strange god in the story is Pan, and he is not what Snodgrass is thinking of. Paul receives his information from no "strange gods"—and this fact is his undoing. And here we have a central irony: Paul's saying that he is lucky from God and his deliberately setting about to prove his luck negate any possibility of his actually becoming "lucky." Luck is—in Lawrence, must be—an involuntarily achieved state. It is the condition of existing in vital relation with the universe. Then and only then is one in connection with the god. Paul's conscious effort to find luck (which may be equated with his looking for God who, according to Paul, is the dispenser of luck) defeats any chance he may have of finding either.

Actually the key to Lawrence's strategy is the gardener Bassett. His role in the story has puzzled the critics, who tend either to ignore him or, like Snodgrass, to include him, rather vaguely, as being involved with Paul in demon-worship. Curiously, though, Bassett is the most fully described character in the story. We are told, as we are not for the others, what he actually looks like: he is "a shortish fellow with a little brown moustache and sharp little brown eyes." He apparently has a limp: at least we are told that during the war, serving as Oscar Cresswell's batman, he had been wounded in the left foot. His chief interest is horses: "He lived," we are informed, "in the racing events."

His role offers one of two related possibilities. He is, as this paper intends to show, either a kind of negative, or base, Pan, or he is one who has given offense to Pan, causing the latter to exact retribution (the foot injury). Or he may be a combination of the two possibilities. In any case, Lawrence surely had Pan in mind in creating Bassett: if not, too many of the details relating to him are gratuitous. To offer one example: his religious seriousness, which Lawrence mentions throughout the story, takes on definition only when we consider him in this light. Otherwise, the detail, prominently mentioned on several occasions, merely floats around his characterization, never quite adhering to any of its surfaces. But as we come to see its connection, by way of strategic contrast, with the Pan myth, then we begin to see what function it has in the story—and what place Bassett himself has.

To understand Pan's obscurity in ancient literature is to appreciate his rise to prominence in modern literature. Classical references to him are rare. Of his "life" and person we know that he originated in Arcadia and that he is generally depicted as being human to the loins, though with goat's horns and ears, and goat thereafter. He is, as is appropriate for one whose office is to insure the flock's increase, an amorous god. He has a fondness for the "wild" places, for forests and caves, and for music (he invented the "pan-pipes"). In the fifth century B.C. his cult began to reach beyond Arcadia. Athens made him one of its gods and dedicated to him a cave shrine for his represented part in the victory at Marathon over the Persians. It is significant, as we shall see in regard to Lawrence's use of the Pan myth in "The Rocking-Horse Winner," that Aeschylus in the Agamemnon represents him as an avenger of wrongs inflicted upon animals.

Though Pan has made numerous appearances in the literature of the past four hundred years, the frequency with which he has appeared in the last century, particularly in the four decades between 1890 and 1930, has been especially notable. He appears, as Patricia Merivale has extensively documented [in Pan, the Goat God: His Myth in Modern Times, 1969], in two essential guises: as a benevolent deity and as a sinister one—and not infrequently as a combination of the two. Most usually he embodies, or symbolizes, Nature, or Reality, stripped of the veils of appearance. As such he is terrible, a "demon," yet good or even necessary in that he is primal, natural, honest. Among the works of fiction in which he figures in one or the other of his guises are Arthur Machen's novella "The Great God Pan" (1894), E. F. Benson's The Angel of Pain (1906), Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908), Saki's "The Music on the Hill" (1911), James Stephens' The Crock of Gold (1912), and Stephen McKenna's The Oldest God (1926). Outside of Lawrence himself, the most considerable writer to make strategic use of Pan is, as one might suspect, E. M. Forster. In "The Story of a Panic" Pan's presence serves to illuminate the difference between those who can see, or intuit, the real or inner world beyond the civilized world of appearances and those who, by the very reason of their "civilization," have lost contact with this terrible but beautiful and life-giving world of Nature. Those who fail to perceive it are destroyed. The spirit, if not the actual presence of Pan, infuses a number of other stories. To indicate just how pervasive Pan, as presence or metaphor, was in the fiction of the time, we may note that Forster himself in Howards End felt compelled to write that Pan, having been invoked so often, was worn out:

The Earth as an artistic cult has had its day, and the literature of the near future will probably ignore the country and seek inspiration from the town. One can understand the reaction. Of Pan and the elemental forces, the public has heard a little too much—they seem Victorian, while London is Georgian—and those who care for the earth with sincerity may wait long ere the pendulum swings back to her again.

Yet Pan was not, so far as Lawrence was concerned, used up. Though one finds scattered references to Pan in the works of Lawrence's early and middle periods, it is during the period that begins about 1924 that Pan becomes a major motif in his writings. He appears or is mentioned significantly in all of the novels of this period: St. Mawr, The Plumed Serpent, Lady Chatterley's Lover, and The Man Who Died. He figures in several of the short stories, most instrumentally in "The Last Laugh." Nearly always he stands in polar opposition to the Christianity to which each of these works, in greater or lesser degree, offers an alternative.

The essay "Pan in America" (1924) announces Lawrence's most recent metaphor for the desired condition of being in connection with the universe, which is, he says, to be "with Pan." He then asks:

What can a man do with his life but live it? And what does life consist in, save a vivid relatedness between the man and the living universe that surrounds him? Yet man isolates himself more and more into mechanism, and repudiates everything but the machine. . . .

Paul's willed action in "The Rocking-Horse Winner" is, similarly, one which "isolates himself more and more into mechanism." And mechanism in Lawrence is death.

In The Plumed Serpent (1926) the identification of Cipriano-Lawrence with Pan is tied up in part with Lawrence's promotion at this time of his belief in the woman's absolute submission to the man's authority. But the following quotation illustrates, beyond that, the vitalistic nature of Pan, embodying both the benevolent and the terrible—"god" and "devil." In contrast, Bassett, his antithesis, is purely a neuter, without force ("human, all too human," in Nietzsche's phrase), the servant, as we shall see, of mechanical process: he is negative Pan, the agent of abstraction, not life. In this passage Kate Leslie, the point-of-view character, recognizes the god in Cipriano and consequently, in her sense of awe at the Pan-power of the creation, experiences a rebirth. Her course then is the reverse of Paul's: she moves on a line from death (in life) to life, he from life to death:

Those small hands, that little natural tuft of black goats' beard hanging light from his chin, the tilt of his brows and the slight slant of his eyes, the domed Indian head with its thick black hair, they were like symbols to her, of another mystery, the bygone mystery of the twilit, primitive world, where shapes that are small suddenly loom up huge, gigantic on the shadow, and a face like Cipriano's is the face at once of a god and a devil, the undying Pan face.

It is in St. Mawr (1924), however, among Lawrence's novels, that Pan figures most significantly. Lou Carrington, Lawrence's heroine, remarks at one point to the minor character Cartwright that his face resembles Pan's. He replies, "People have said so. But I'm afraid it's not the face of the Great God Pan. Isn't it rather the Great Goat Pan?" These remarks spark a discussion of Pan. Lou asks him if she might see Pan in a horse, to which he replies, "Easily. In St. Mawr!" The groom of St. Mawr, Morgan Lewis, though an older man, is a type, like Cipriano, of Lawrence. The following conversation between Lewis-Lawrence and Rachel Witt, Lou's mother, who finds herself compelled by his vitality, enables us to see the extent of Lawrence's preference for Nature, or the Great God Pan, over the God in heaven, to whom Paul addresses his prayers in "The Rocking-Horse Winner":

"You ask me about God," he said to her, walking his horse alongside in the shadow of the wood's edge, the darkness of the old Pan, that kept our artificially lit world at bay. "I don't know about God. But when I see a star fall like that out of long-distance places in the sky: and the moon sinking saying Good-bye! Goodbye! Good-bye! and nobody listening: I think I hear something, though I wouldn't call it God."

"What then?" said Rachel Witt.

"And you smell the smell of oak-leaves now," he said, "now the air is cold. They smell to me more alive than people. The trees hold their bodies hard and still, but they watch and listen with their leaves. And I think they say to me: Is that you passing there, Morgan Lewis? All right, you pass quickly, we shan't do anything to you. You are like a holly-bush. "

"Yes," said Rachel Witt, dryly. "Why?"

"All the time, the trees grow, and listen. And if you cut a tree down without asking pardon, trees will hurt you some time in your life, in the night-time."

And a few pages later:

"I never knew you to talk so much" [Mrs. Witt says].

"No, Mam. It's your asking me that about God. Or else it's the night-time. I don't believe in God and being good and going to heaven. Neither do I worship idols, so I'm not a heathen, as my aunt calls me. Never from a boy did I want to believe the things they kept grinding in their guts at home, and at Sunday School, and at school. A man's mind has to be full of something, so I keep to what we used to think as lads. It's childish nonsense, I know it. But it suits me. Better than other people's stuff. Your man Phoenix is about the same, when he lets on.—Anyhow, it's my own stuff, that we believed as lads, and I like it better than other people's stuff.—You asking about God made me let on. But I would never belong to any club, or trades-union, and God's the same to my mind."

Once again, the god to whom Paul prays for luck is this same God in heaven. It is no "strange" deity in the sense of Snodgrass's usage. The important thing to note is that for Lawrence the God of Christianity, as usually worshipped, is an abstraction, unreal. Hence Paul's own abstraction—from reality, from the great world—as he rides the rocking horse in furious gallop. The irony is that God might after all be found in a horse—but not of course in a wooden horse. Nor does God reveal himself in a "mechanical gallop." It is exactly the reverse: for Lawrence, abstraction and mechanism culminate in the death of God for man, as this passage from "Pan in America" serves to show:

Then [man] discovered the "idea." He found that all things were related by certain laws. The moment man learned to abstract, he began to make engines that would do the work of his body. So, instead of concentrating upon his quarry, or upon the living things which made his universe, he concentrated upon the engines or instruments which should intervene between him and the living universe, and give him mastery.

This was the death of the great Pan. The idea and the engine came between man and all things, like a death. The old connexion, the old Allness, was severed, and can never be ideally restored. Great Pan is dead.

How does all of this relate to Bassett? We are to see him, I believe, as a symbolic diminishment of a type which figures prominently in Lawrence's later fiction. We have observed that Pan might be present in the horse, St. Mawr. Lawrence puts the keeper of that horse, Lewis, on close terms with the woods—the traditional home of Pan. (Lewis also, we have seen, is linked with the holly bush, which in its turn is linked with Pan.) Similarly, Lawrence makes Oliver Mellors the keeper of the Chatterley woods and accords to him a past as groomsman of horses in the cavalry. Each man, in complementary proportions, is intimately connected with both horses and trees. And as is clear, we cannot think of either, in Lawrence's fiction, without thinking of Pan. Lewis-Lawrence and Mellors-Lawrence, then, equal Pan. Now, what is Bassett? It is not a wood he is given to keep, but rather a garden, the forest domesticated, or denatured, so to speak, in its primal life-giving sense. And in his association with horses we see a similar diminishment, parody. He is a man who plays the horses, a "perfect blade of the turf as Lawrence satirically calls him. In each of these two aspects he represents a perversion of what is sacred in the domain of Pan. In this sense we may see him as a "modern" Pan such as the twentieth century might cast him—denatured, prettified, a contradiction of himself.

There is also the matter of his limp—or, at least, his wound. Though Lawrence does not state that Bassett has a gimpy leg, the fact of his wound suggests that he has. We can, correspondingly, readily picture a gimpiness in Pan, who must after all support a man's body on goats' feet and legs. E. E. Cummings, for one, portrays Pan as lame in "in Just," where Pan is the "little lame balloonman," the "goatfooted balloonMan." Lameness, moreover, implicitly in St. Mawr, explicitly in "The Last Laugh," as we are about to see, is a revenge which Pan inflicts upon those who have done injury to him or to any in his kingdom—or to his kingdom itself. In St. Mawr, when the character Edwards whistles a modern dance tune, St. Mawr shies, causing Rico to shout "Fool!" at him. St. Mawr rears, and when Rico fights him the horse falls over backwards, crippling Rico permanently. He also kicks Edwards, the lesser offender, in the face. We are witnessing, it would seem, Nature's, or Pan's, squaring of accounts. St. Mawr-Pan punishes Rico for blaspheming (calling him a "fool"), Edwards for profaning Nature, the outdoors here, with a frivolous contemporary tune. Similar acts of retribution, as Harry T. Moore was the first to point out [in D. H. Lawrence: His Life and Works, 1964], occur in "The Last Laugh," in which Pan is an actual, though unseen, presence. In this story the ill-fated Marchbanks dismisses the newly-fallen snow as a "whitewash" (after "Lorenzo" has admired it). For this sin against Nature Pan strikes him dead. For his inadequate response when he was within the literal presence of the god, Pan inflicts upon the policeman a club foot which, we are told, resembles "the weird paw of some animal." Pan also in "The Last Laugh" desecrates a church, that institution having substituted an abstract, "spiritual" deity for the living God of Nature. Significantly, in "The Rocking-Horse Winner," Bassett is said to be as "serious as a church." This unnatural gravity, the sign of his "spirituality," is his real offense, not his participation, as Snodgrass among others has claimed, in demon-worship. Lawrence felt that such soulfulness devitalized the spirit. From his characterization of Miriam Leivers in Sons and Lovers on, he was a persistent critic of "soulfulness." And soulful Bassett the gardener is. His face, we are at one point told, is "terribly serious, as if he were speaking of religious matters." And later he is said to speak in a "secret, religious voice."

This last phrase, in particular, tellingly connects him with Paul. For Paul's riding the rocking horse is exactly a secret, religious absorption. His sin is his abstraction from life, as embodied in his mechanical willing to know, just as Snodgrass says it is. Luck, if it is anything, is that state of well-being which comes when one is in relation with the world around him. Paul's mechanical gallops on the rocking horse, however, bring him the opposite of luck: they take him out of relation with the vital world and deliver him into a condition of ill-being, into a "mystical" or "religious" state in which he believes the God in heaven speaks to him. But as Paul Morel tells Miriam in Sons and Lovers, "It's not religious to be religious." For, he says, "God doesn't know things. He is things. And I'm sure he's not soulful." In the letter he subsequently writes her he speaks of their love as having been a "spirit love," like that a "mystic monk" might offer a "mystic nun." The religious seriousness with which Paul (of the short story) and Basset approach the matter of luck is wrong from the start. In the sense that Paul's mystical trances abstract him from the living world, they enact his death. Literally, they are stages of dying. For Paul's dying is the necessary end of the damage done to him, body and soul, by his deliberate efforts to reach God.

"The Rocking-Horse Winner" is indeed a story about religious perversion. Paul sins against God all right, but the God is Pan, Nature. Paul goes wrong from the moment he gives himself over through mechanical endeavor, perfectly symbolized by his riding the rocking horse, to learning luck from the abstract god of heaven. He becomes as unnatural as his act. Of course, what he is seeking is not luck at all, but lucre; and money, an extension of the mechanical, as well as its agent, is what he gets. But money, the obsession with it, with the process of getting it, is always a form of death in Lawrence's fiction—a mechanical operation of the spirit (like Gerald Crich's in Women in Love) which entails the spirit's death and, quite often, the body's as well (the cases of Paul and Gerald are really quite similar). Paul's jackpot then is double: the ultimate winning is also the ultimate losing. Necessarily.

Paul's sins are enacted inside the house, Bassett's outside, as appropriate to his role. As a twentieth-century parody of Pan, his Arkady is a garden. Instead of being vigorously mischievous, and irreverent (like the Pan of "The Last Laugh"), Bassett is deathly serious and reverential, the parodic opposite of Pan. Paul's specific perversion, reflecting the mechanical money-lust of the family which causes the house's whispering, is his riding the wooden horse; Bassett's perversion is the unnatural use he makes of horses through betting on them. Horse racing in the story both symbolizes and embodies a perversion in the same way that Paul's mad gallops on the rocking horse do. The fact of men, in mechanical fashion, riding horses around a circular track, though less sharply focussed, perfectly complements and expands the meaning of Paul's wooden, artificial rides, symbolizing, in the context of the great world, the sickness of the age. Paul's sin, then, though its implications are larger, is in immediate reference to the family; Bassett's is to the race.

Why Lawrence preferred to keep Bassett's identification with Pan on the level of implicit, rather than explicit, allusion we cannot know. What we do know, however, is that the details of his characterization are extraneous unless we see him as a base Pan, a solemn, primped-up twentieth-century version no longer with the god's vibrant goat's features but with only a little brown moustache and sharp brown eyes, or as one who has suffered Pan's injury because of the offense he has given the Great God. Either way, once we recognize the allusion, his role amplifies significantly the meaning of the story.

Charles Koban (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: "Allegory and the Death of the Heart in The Rocking-Horse Winner'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 4, Fall, 1978, pp. 391-96.

[In the following study, Koban suggests that Paul's death in "The Rocking-Horse Winner" allegorically represents the death of the child in Hesterthe death of her innocence and love. The critic also comments on Lawrence's philosophical ideas of love, marriage, sex, and money.]

W. D. Snodgrass' famous essay on Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner" ["A Rocking Horse: The Symbol, the Pattern, the Way to Live," Hudson Review, Vol. XI, No. 2, Summer, 1958] is a very nearly exhaustive explication of the story's meaning, yet it is not I think totally exhaustive because Snodgrass—like critics in general—has overlooked one side of the story's meaning, namely the mystical side, It is very tempting to see the story as a kind of social commentary, as a "way to live" Snodgrass puts it in his title. Certainly, "The Rocking-Horse Winner" is a mordant commentary on the distorted and self-destructive values of the upper middle-class and of many of us living in a capitalist, money-dominated society. But it is worth-while, as a corrective to socialistic approaches to Lawrence, to recall his famous pronouncement in a letter to Edward Garnett [in The Selected Letters of D. H. Lawrence, ed. by Diana Trilling, 1958]: "But primarily I am a passionately religious man, and my novels must be written from the depths of my religious experience." And it is interesting and I think valuable to take a "religious" view of "The Rocking-Horse Winner" not as a corrective but as a complement to Snodgrass' essay. A proper "religious" view of the story must of course consider the sublimation of human feeling in the form of money as a mystical force in family life, a topic that Snodgrass deals with from a moral point of view.

Lawrence did not consider money an evil in itself, or at least he considered it a necessary evil, as his letters to Frieda Lawrence reveal. To him marriage was first of all a mystical union, a coming together of two souls in understanding and love. One could go further—for Lawrence the only freedom a man could know was the freedom of losing himself in his love for a woman. Marriage has a special place in Lawrence's vision, for marriage institutionalizes the fusion of souls which ought ideally to exist between man and woman. And out of the ideal marriage comes the inner strength to cope unperturbed with the many problems of the modern world. In a letter to Thomas Dacre Dunlop, Lawrence writes:

You mustn't think that your desire or fundamental need is to make a good career, or to fill your life with activity, or even to provide for your family materially. It isn't. Your most vital necessity in this life is that you shall love your wife completely and implicitly and in entire nakedness of body and spirit. Then you will have peace and inner security, no matter how many things go wrong [The Selected Letters of D. H. Lawrence].

It is of course popular to interpret Lawrence's definition of love as primarily sexual, and sexual it unquestionably is. But even sex, or perhaps one should say especially sex, is interpreted mystically by Lawrence. One could cite numerous examples of his mystical interpretation of sex, but The Fox provides perhaps the clearest. March and Grenfel come together in the most purely mystical union before ever there is any sexual consummation of their—one hesitates to call it—love. At any rate, there is a flame-like fusion of two souls first—and marriage and sex follow inevitably.

But Lawrence knew that for the middle-class money was a sine qua non of marriage. Before his marriage with Frieda Lawrence, he pleaded for time to let the mystical union grow first; "It is you who would hurry, who are undecided. It's the very strength and inevitability of the coming thing that makes me wait, to get in harmony with it. Dear God, I am marrying you, now, don't you see." But he also agonized over the availability of money and insisted on providing for the practical side of marriage, especially on his responsibility to "see to the money part." Their affair was to be "wedded firm," but since the "love is there—then let the common-sense match it." Lawrence hated money and the warping of modern man that scrambling for money caused. But he knew that no middle-class marriage could be successful without it. Money on the other hand must be kept in perspective and not romanticized into a substitute for love, as it is in "The Rocking-Horse Winner."

Hester in "The Rocking-Horse Winner" is a woman "who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck. She married for love, and the love turned to dust." Lawrence does not describe the process of disillusionment that has occurred in Hester's marriage, but one can imagine it with the help of other of Lawrence's writings—the slow destruction of love between husband and wife in the Morel family, caused mainly by impecuniousness and the mother's middle-class ambitions; the disaffection that reduces love to mere passion then hatred in "England, My England," again caused by the husband's failure to be an adequate bread-winner and supporter of the family. The father in "The Rocking-Horse Winner" is clearly a failure as provider and family-head, so much so that we are scarcely conscious of his existence. He fades into the background. And his failure is aggravated by the high social position the family tries to maintain. "There was never enough money," we are told. "The mother had a small income, and the father had a small income, but not nearly enough for the social position which they had to keep up."

So when "The Rocking-Horse Winner" opens, the process of disaffection has already occurred, and the close love between husband and wife which would have generated the mystical energy necessary for the family's wellbeing has been transformed into an ugly passion, greed. In Sons and Lovers, Mrs. Morel finds an alternative to her husband's love in her closeness to her sons; and Winifred in "England, My England" finds in cold duty to her children the purpose in life which her husband fails to provide her. But Hester romanticizes the family greed into mystical love of money, as personified in the whispering house, which "came to be haunted by the unspoken phrase: There must be more money! There must be more money!" And her mystical abstraction communicates itself insidiously to the children, making them insecure and self-conscious just as the love between her and her husband if it still existed would have made them feel wanted and safe.

Still, Hester like Mrs. Morel and Winifred is closer to her children, especially Paul, than to her husband. Though she is incapable of love, she is out of a sense of duty at least solicitous for her children, for they are her link with life and vitality—with the mystical force of love that is nearly dead in her heart. What I would like to suggest is that the story can be read as the climax in the chronicle of the death of love in Hester, the death of her heart, and that as such it ought to be read primarily as an allegory of the death of the child in her, the death of innocence and love. Mystically and allegorically speaking, Paul's death is her death. At the beginning of the story we are told that "at the centre of her heart was a hard little place that could not feel love, no, not for anyone." The motif of Hester's hardness is repeated in the story though she clings to her anxiety over Paul, but by the end of the story when Paul has lapsed into a coma she is "heart-frozen." Just as Paul's eyes are like "blue stones," so his mother's heart is stone-like. "His mother sat feeling her heart had gone, turned actually into a stone." With Paul's death the death of spirit in Hester is complete, for he was her last contact with the mystical springs of love that well up in all of us only if we love some other human being, as Lawrence said, with complete "nakedness of body and spirit." The mystifying of greed is finally an empty mysticism which destroys the worshipper of money as it destroys Paul and as it destroys Hester.

The closeness between mother and son is carefully developed in the story. Their conversation and interaction make for the central human interest in the story, but the relationship is unfortunately blighted from the beginning by Hester's hardness of heart. She cares only for money and her terrible romanticism infects Paul in his solicitation for her. He is trapped in the web of mystified greed that she has woven and which she calls luck: ". . .he went about with a sort of stealth, seeking inwardly for luck. He wanted luck, he wanted it, he wanted it." Luck is money in the abstract, the mystical sense because luck will always bring money and, being divinely given, cannot (unlike money) be taken away. "'It's what causes you to have money. If you're lucky you have money. That's why it's better to be born lucky than rich.'"

The spurious mystical net is cast by the mother and the son is caught in its cords. From this point on they are one in their self-destructive mystical union. At the point when the boy is in the depths of his agony over the upcoming Derby, the union grows particularly strong and weighty—the mother's "heart curiously heavy because of him." In an interview he advises her not to be anxious about him: "I wouldn't worry, mother, if I were you." "'If you were me and I were you,' said his mother, 'I wonder what we should do.'" And it is so, as her response indicates: they are for the time one. The motif running throughout the story of the flaming, glaring, sometimes wild blue eyes of the boy reinforces the idea of their union. It is as if an alien spirit inhabited and drove him to seek for luck and the spirit is of couse the spirit of his mother, the spirit of greed. She is inside of him, flashing out from behind "his big blue eyes blazing with a sort of madness." His madness is hers, and with his death she is left to a living death.

That Lawrence was convinced of the mystical oneness that could unite mother and son is revealed in his comments on Sons and Lovers, written to Edward Garnett, and in what he says about his own relationship with his mother, in a letter to Rachel Annand Taylor. He speaks of the "fusion of soul" between himself and his mother and of how such a fusion can "distribute one's consciousness far abroad from oneself, & one understands." The fusion of souls between Paul and Hester has the effect of distributing Paul's consciousness far abroad from himself so that the boy does in a sense understand; but the secrets which their mystical oneness reveal to him are the secrets of winning money disclosed in a mystified greed, and not the rewarding mysteries of life that motherly love would have opened up. Speaking of Sons and Lovers, Lawrence observes that "as her sons grow up [the mother] selects them as lovers—first the eldest, then the second. These sons are urged into life by their reciprocal love of their mother—urged on and on." "Urged on and on." The phrase has a kind of perverse relevance to Paul, who is urged on and on in his quest for luck, riding a rocking-horse which he urges on and on; yet Paul is urged not into life but death for he shares with his mother not the "reciprocal love" that would make them both sensitive to life but a rarified greed that finally consumes them both.

It is wrong I think to analyze the boy from too strict a moral point of view, as Snodgrass does, as if the child consciously made the wrong moral choices and had somehow knowingly entered into a league with demons. He is innocent, naive, and even loving of his mother. It is his mystical openness to her that leaves him vulnerable to the terrible forces she unleashes in her own household. To take him too realistically is faulty criticism for he is very much a symbol of the childish innocence that his mother has sadly let die in her. He accepts her worship of luck unconsciously:

"Well, anyhow," he said stoutly, "I'm a lucky person."

"Why?" said his mother, with a sudden laugh.

He stared at her. He didn't know why he had said it;

and he pursues that nebulous entity under the almost religious guidance of Bassett, who "was serious as a church." In another context and under more admirable inspiration, the boy's death might even be seen as the supreme sacrifice, since he gives up his life to placate his mother's tormented spirit. Alas, she will not now have to worry about money: "'My God, Hester, you're eighty-odd thousand to the good, and a poor devil of a son to the bad.'" Paul is finally pathetic rather than immoral, and pathetic too is the stony-hearted mother.

But Lawrence does not want us I think to see Paul as a kind of child-sacrifice; he scarcely wants us to see him in a moral light at all for the moral light is cast full upon Hester and by reflection upon the nearly invisible father and from them out upon our money-maddened, love-starved society. The story has to it an altogether unbelievable air, not that it lacks therefore conviction and meaning. The whispering house, the riding of a rocking-horse to find race winners, the motif of Paul's blazing, uncanny blue eyes—all give the story an eerie unreality that lifts it out of the moral realm into the sphere of mystical relationships where inexplicable forces shape our lives. Even Paul's death is finally mysterious and can only be explained as resulting from the destructive power of mystified greed in which his mother has enveloped him. Inasmuch as the boy's death marks the death of the last vestige of something vibrant, loving, and irrational in her life, it is also the death in Hester of mystical forces that sustain life while rendering it trying.

The style of much of Lawrence's fiction is abstruse, dense, and compact, but the style of "The Rocking-Horse Winner" is deceptively simple with the simplicity of a Biblical parable and with some of the same allegorical overtones. The introductory paragraph in particular is very reminiscent of the introductions to the Christian parables. Compare Lawrence's introduction, for example, with that of the parable of the good Samaritan from the King James version:

There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck. She married for love, and the love turned to dust. She had bonny children, yet she felt they had been thrust upon her, and she could not love them.

A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. (Luke 10:30).

The same succinctness, the same tendency to short, clipped clauses, and the same reliance on coordination characterize the introduction to "The Rocking-Horse Winner."

I have quoted very briefly from the parallels, but the two styles are strikingly similar. And Lawrence with little exception maintains the parabolic style—the simple directness and economy and pointed matter-of-factness—throughout "The Rocking-Horse Winner." If style is an indication of meaning—and if New Criticism has taught as anything it has certainly taught us to be sensitive to how a literary work means—then the style of "The Rocking-Horse Winner" points definitely toward an allegorical meaning in the story. Taken together with the mystical dimensions of the story, the parabolic style makes us conscious of an abstract, indeed religious meaning of the work which changes Paul into something more than a morally flawed young man, which renders him a symbol of the child in his mother. Paul's death of course makes the story a tragic one; but just as tragic is the death of innocence and love, symbolized by Paul, in his unfortunate mother.

Daniel P. Watkins (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: "Labor and Religion in D. H. Lawrence's The Rocking-Horse Winner'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 3, Summer, 1987, pp. 295-301.

[Here, Watkins examines "The Rocking-Horse Winner" as "a symbolic formulation of social life in the grip of capitalism. " He also argues that Lawrence uses the spiritual aspects of the story to represent orthodox Christianity and to illustrate how the religion supports capitalism.]

It is a commonplace that D. H. Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner" is a story about the devastating effects that money can have on a family, and, further, that Lawrence's specific objections in the story are not to money abstractly conceived, but to money as it is understood and valued by capitalist culture. This is one of Lawrence's most savage and compact critiques of what he elsewhere calls "the god-damn bourgeoisie" [in the poem "Red Herring"] and of individuals who, despite their natural or potential goodness, "swallow the culture bait" [as he puts it in the poem "Don'ts"] and hence become victims to the world they (wrongly) believe holds the key to human happiness. The most interesting and in many ways the best analysis of the story along these lines appeared nearly thirty years ago, when W. D. Snodgrass offered a virtually exhaustive interpretation of the role of money in the story, going so far as identifying the names of the various horses young Paul bets on as British colonies in India, and showing the way other images reflect important aspects of capitalist culture ["A Rocking Horse: The Symbol, the Pattern, the Way to Live," in Hudson Review, XI, No. 2 (1958)]. This essay, indeed, establishes convincingly Lawrence's awareness of the intrusion of capitalism into every aspect of contemporary life.

Despite the excellent groundbreaking work of Snodgrass, however, critics have not explored the full implications of his thesis for "The Rocking-Horse Winner," and in fact significant portions of the socioeconomic dimension of the story have remained (at best) only partially explained, thus leaving obscured the full scope and power of Lawrence's vision. In the present essay, I want to build upon the thesis of Snodgrass in an attempt to elaborate certain ideas that his argument points to but leaves undeveloped and to clarify others that, I believe, he does not satisfactorily explain. Specifically, like Snodgrass, I want to consider the story as a symbolic formulation of social life in the grip of capitalism; but unlike him I wish to begin with a very brief sketch of how capitalist society works, using this sketch as the basis for a discussion of two of its constituent elements that are emphasized in Lawrence's story, namely labor and religion. While my thesis could be extended to include various other issues in the story, ranging from sexuality to alienation, Snodgrass has discussed these fully and persuasively, and thus I omit them here, assuming that my particular arguments could be placed alongside his discussion of these matters.

My understanding of capitalism generally, and of its role in "The Rocking-Horse Winner" particularly, is heavily indebted to a recent book by Robert L. Heilbroner, entitled The Nature and Logic of Capitalism [1985], and can be summarized briefly. The key to Heilbroner's definition of capitalism is his assertion that "Capital is . . . not a material thing but a process that uses material things as moments in its continuously dynamic existence. It is, moreover, a social process, not a physical one." This means that isolated data cannot be gathered to explain it: capitalism is not "business," or "money," or "labor." While money, for instance, may be one "measure" of capital, only "money-in-use"—that is, only money that functions in a specific way within the dominant social formations of culture, strengthening and extending the prevailing structures of authority—can become capital itself. As a social process, in other words, capitalism pervades and constitutes culture—it is not imposed upon culture from without—and is manifested as "behavior-shaping institutions and relationships." In terms of the story itself, this means that the various images and details that Lawrence sets down as key ingredients of Paul's world point to the workings of capital even while they may appear to have autonomous status, or appear to be important (say) only in psychological terms. The desire for money that pervades the home, the withdrawal of the child into his private fantasy world, the naming of winning horses after British colonies: all of the concerns that Snodgrass traces tell us something about the power relations governing the world that young Paul and the other characters inhabit.

One of the key components of capitalism is labor, but, again, not labor abstractly conceived. Labor under capitalism is defined in terms of two principal matters. First, it yields profits in the form of money that can be invested to produce more profits. For this to happen—and this is the second point—exploitation is necessary. As Heilbroner says, "The essential meaning of exploitation is that a surplus is seized from the working population for the benefit of a superior class. Such a seizure will be exploitative even if the surplus yields social benefits at large, in addition to the power or prestige for which it was originally brought into being, as in the case of Roman roads, Christian churches, or the factories of capitalism." Lawrence is very careful to present labor in these terms, and particularly to dramatize the connection between labor and profit, though (as we shall see) he does not follow a simple and absolute division in the story between labor and capital. His understanding of this issue is evident not only in the way he introduces money at the beginning of the story as a major and obsessive issue, but also, more strikingly, in his depiction of the way money is gained, how it changes hands, and what the exchange means for the world that his characters inhabit.

The class nature of labor under capital is presented symbolically in the story in terms of the adult and non-adult worlds. That is, social reality is controlled by parents whose primary concern is to bring in money sufficient to "the social position which they (have) to keep up." While they have a small income, and while "The father went in to town to some office," they never are really seen to work actively and productively. Rather, they set a tone of need in their world that generates intense and pervasive anxiety, which then is passed down to their children, who interiorize the values and attitudes of the adult world and set about (as best they can) to satisfy the demands of that world. Even when money is produced, however, the demands of the adult world are never fully met, but, quite the reverse, intensify further, so that more labor is necessary. In this context, work is not a means of meeting basic human needs, but rather only a way of producing greater sums of money, and thus it is clearly socially unproductive. Seen from this perspective, it is not important that the parents are not capitalists in the crudest sense (that is, they are not drawn as investors of money); what is important is that they both set the tone (economic scarcity) and determine the values (consumerism) of the world they inhabit, and in addition expropriate the wealth that others produce for their own private consumption.

Young Paul exemplifies vividly the sort of work that arises under capital. Simply put, he is a laborer for his mother, to whom he gives all of his money, only to find that the more he gives the more she needs. It is true, of course, that as a handicapper he invests money, betting on a profitable return on his investment, and that in this sense he is a sort of capitalist; indeed, it is his betting that is the literal sign of the economic relations controlling the world of the story. But at the same time his character is made to carry a much larger symbolic significance, for what he is investing, in real terms, is himself, selling his skills to generate wealth that he is not free to possess, but that is necessary to the maintenance of existing social relations. As his mother touches the money he earns, she uses it not to satisfy family needs—it has little or no use value—but to extend her social position and social power, and the process of extension of course is never ending, requiring ever greater sums of money: "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!'" This passage clearly focuses the priority of money over commodity and the relentlessness with which the power associated with money controls even the most personal dimension of life.

The work itself that Paul performs cannot, under such conditions, be personally satisfying, and this is shown powerfully by the sort of work he does. The rocking horse is a brilliant symbol of non-productive labor, for even while it moves it remains stationary: even while Paul is magically (humanly) creative, producing untold wealth for his mother, he does not advance in the least, and in fact becomes increasingly isolated and fearful that even the abilities he now possesses will be taken from him. The labor, which drives him to "a sort of madness," that consumes him to an ever greater degree, leaves him nothing for himself, driving him down a terrible path to emotional and then physical distress. He is never satisfied with what he produces because it in no way relieves the pressure that his world places on him, and thus his anxiety and alienation grow to the point of destroying any sense of real personal worth and removing him literally from all meaningful social exchange, as when he takes his rocking horse to his bedroom and rides alone late into the night trying to find the key to wealth.

As Lawrence presents it, the situation Paul finds himself in is not created and maintained directly or even mainly by physical means; ideological constraints shape it in significant ways. That is, prevailing and quite specific social structures appear to him to constitute reality itself; they allow no vision of life as anything other than what it is under capital. Paul's motives and actions are, expectedly, shaped to a very large extent by this fact. One main way this absolute assumption about the nature of personal and social life is held in place is through religion, which not only absorbs the contradictions of Paul's world into an ideal of spiritual purity, but more importantly endorses existing codes that determine the human possibilities and limitations within this world. This is seen both through the passing yet carefully manipulated references to religion and through the symbolic presentation of religion as a pervasive and sanctifying presence.

The position I wish to advance here regarding religion challenges Snodgrass's provoking (but in my opinion incorrect) argument about the occultish nature of the religious issues in the story, and it is grounded upon our acknowledgment and understanding of the story's allegorical dimension. Relying upon the devices of allegory, Lawrence sets in place a definite set of religious interests that illustrate the role of Christianity under capitalism. Indeed, he locates the trinity at the very center of the story's thematic interests, suggesting both its power within capitalism and the extent to which it must be held accountable for what happens to human life under capitalism. The presence of Christianity in the story is set forth most readily, of course, in the depiction of the young Paul as a Christ figure; not only is he referred to repeatedly as "son," but he also possesses a seemingly magical power that comes from heaven. (Other features that we will discuss momentarily associate him even more clearly with Christ.) The symbolic dimension of Paul's characterization becomes even more apparent when it is placed in the context of the descriptions of Bassett and Uncle Oscar, who are presented as participants in the serious moneymaking scheme to which Paul is committed. Not only is Bassett a permanent presence in the garden, storing there Paul's winnings; he is also described (as Snodgrass has noted) in religious terms and he speaks of Paul's betting in the most reverent voice: "'Master Paul comes and asks me, so I can't do more than tell him, sir,' said Bassett, his face terribly serious, as if he were speaking of religious matters." Or again when he explains to the doubting Oscar how Paul knows which horse will win, he says: "it's as if he had it from heaven, sir." Uncle Oscar, in his turn, is presented as a sort of father figure, evidenced not only in the fact that he is the only male adult consistently present in the story, but more importantly in the way he expresses his relationship to Paul in paternal terms: "All right, son! We'll manage it without her knowing." "I leave it to you, son." "Let it alone, son! Don't you bother about it!"

If we approach the religious issue in this way, the occultish elements that Snodgrass notes disappear and religion comes to be seen as orthodox religion, and it is socially pervasive, explaining and justifying the activities of its adherents. That the betting scheme is held in secret does not at all call orthodoxy into doubt, but rather makes an important point about Christianity, namely that it is essentially the acceptable religion within an entirely privatized culture, and as such reflects and sanctions private pursuit to the exclusion of all else. Moreover, it is firmly committed to a money ethic that becomes the basis for all human value and the key to all human exchange. As Paul tells Uncle Oscar at the moment the trinity emerges as an actual and discernible presence in the story, "'If you'd like to be a partner, uncle, with Bassett and me, we could be partners. Only, you'd have to promise, honor bright, uncle, not to let it go beyond us three.'" This is Lawrence's Christianity fully exposed; it is a creed with a firm and confident code of honor, but its honor is understood solely in terms of the private pursuit of wealth and is measured in terms of the private nature generally of human action. This value scheme explains clearly the secrecy that is seen everywhere in the story: in Paul's "secret within a secret"; in the decision of Paul, Bassett, and Oscar to withhold information from the mother; in the mother's response to the money that falls her way, as if from heaven; in the mother's secret work "in the studio of a friend," and more.

Even while Lawrence carefully places Christianity at the center of the story as a religion of money, he subtly employs a rhetorical strategy that points up its impurity and ultimately its viciousness. This is seen in several minor touches, beginning with the description of Bassett. While he is "serious as a church" when talking about money, and spends much of his time cultivating the garden under his care, at the same time Bassett is not untouched by the world; in fact he is clearly scarred: "Bassett, the young gardener, who had been wounded in the left foot in the war and got his present job through Oscar Cresswell, whose batman he had been, was a perfect blade of the 'turf'." Likewise, despite Oscar's language and his confident paternal nature that would seem to suggest his innocence and integrity, he is not a real father; he only plays the role, assuming authority, for instance, to sign the agreement that allows Paul's mother to touch all of the money he wins.

The most telling example of the true nature of Lawrence's trinity, however, is of course Paul himself, who willingly sacrifices himself to save the world into which he was born. His death gives his family the financial independence that it has sought all along, but the creed that has made this independence possible, even while it appears holy and pure, is in fact emphatically devilish. As Uncle Oscar tells his sister after Paul's death: "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." Again, these references are not a sign of the occultish nature of Paul's religion, but quite the reverse a sign of the truly demonic quality of a Christianity that willingly and even insistently sacrifices human life in the pursuit of personal excellence and advancement.

And this brings the story around once again to its human dimension and specifically to Lawrence's vision of the connection between religion and labor. While Paul is portrayed on one level as a symbol of Christianity, as one who gives his life so that others may have a better life, he is shown at the same time in human terms as a worker who is exploited to the point of death, even while those who exploit him (his mother, e.g.) are entirely oblivious to, the harm they are doing him: the religious creed does not allow them—as it does not allow Paul—to see this human dimension, because to see this would be to call into question the world view, the monetary underpinnings of religion, the values that constitute reality for them.

While it is possible to show that Lawrence's politics are essentially reactionary and that his art grows out of this reactionary stance, at the same time the art itself, in its very resistance to bourgeois culture, constitutes a powerful critique of the problems of modern culture. That is, his best works, as "The Rocking-Horse Winner" attests, are not simply blind responses to a personally unappealing situation; they both register the workings of bourgeois life and offer an active critical perspective that can be used as the basis for elaborating the various levels of material and ideological control that modern culture exercises over people. Like Carlyle before him, Lawrence can be charged with often failing to offer a tenable argument about what needs to be done to assure human betterment, but his actual critique of what is wrong with society is extensive, compelling, and in its best moments potentially liberating.

Keith Wilson (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5600

SOURCE: "D. H. Lawrence's The Rocking-Horse Winner' : Parable and Structure," in English Studies in Canada, Vol. 13, No. 4, December, 1987, pp. 438-50.

[In the following essay, Wilson compares "The Rocking-Horse Winner" to a parable, addressing the story's use of anonymous characters and supernatural elements. The critic also examines how the characters in the story utilize language and how false meanings and unrecognized messages bear upon the tale's conclusion.]

The apparent inevitability with which criticism of D. H. Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner" has reached beyond actual text to speculative context is worthy of remark when one considers, as has rarely been done, that the story has a structural integrity and enclosure unusual in Lawrence's prose. Dickens, Frazer, and Freud have been invoked most frequently, British Imperialism most extravagantly, and Lady Cynthia Asquith most recently to provide contextual buttressing for a story whose parabolic nature can seem deceptively simple when denied such support. This is not to dismiss the relevance of such interpretative aids, although there are times when they reflect a discomforting literal-mindedness in the passage from Lawrentian implication to critical explication. But it is to suggest that the invocation of such extratextual influences can seemingly sanction a very approximate appreciation of the control of the text itself. What the text is saying—about marriage, about sex, about money, about how beastly the bourgeois is—is not very exceptional, which is why the story is so often used for easy access to the complex of attitudes encapsulated in the adjective "Lawrentian." But the vehicle which carries the predictable burden has a shaped assurance to which criticism has still not done justice, in part because familiarity with parabolic manner and preoccupation with thematic matter have drawn attention away from the subtlety of Lawrence's experiment in genre.

The recurrent emphasis can be seen in Charles Koban's 1978 article "Allegory and the Death of the Heart in The Rocking-Horse Winner'" [Studies in Short Fiction 15, No. 4, Fall, 1978]. It begins with the surprisingly confident claim that W. D. Snodgrass's famous 1958 essay, "A Rocking-Horse: The Symbol, the Pattern, the Way to Live" [Hudson Review XI, No. 2 (1958)], provides "a very nearly exhaustive explication of the story's meaning." Koban then details the one side of the story, "the mystical," that Snodgrass has missed and concludes with the recognition that the story is "deceptively simple with the simplicity of a biblical parable and with some of the same allegorical overtones." This style is seen as significant only insofar as it facilitates thematic concerns: "the parabolic style makes us conscious of an abstract, indeed religious meaning of the work." Comparison of the opening sentences of "The Rocking-Horse Winner" with the parable of the Good Samaritan establishes for Koban that they share "the same succinctness, the same tendency to short, clipped clauses, and the same reliance on co-ordination." The parabolic is thus seen simply as a principle of style, not of structure, and that style provokes the recognition of certain thematic elements that invite a symbolic identification between the death of Paul and that of "innocence and love .. . in his unfortunate mother."

Inevitably the discovery of such kinds of contained and resolved meaning offers some of the pleasures of pattern even if, at the same time, it risks the interpretative claustrophobia that is the occupational disease of purely thematic criticism. But comparison with the parable of the Good Samaritan should surely encourage a more structural and generically based appreciation of the distinctive achievement of Lawrence's story. Both give primacy, as does all parable, to story rather than to character. What initially surprises in "The Rocking-Horse Winner," and summons forth an atavistic memory of biblical parallels in even the least analytical of readers, is the woman's anonymity, which gives her both particularity and representativeness. "There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck" shares with "A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves" [Luke 10:30] the promise of linear narrative and defined closure, a promise made in the authority of an accentuated past tense and a defined opening. When that promise is eventually kept, resolution is signalled by the granting to the woman, for the first time, of a name, a name which forms part of a moralizing coda that renders final parabolic judgment: "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." That the woman should be given named identity only in the final lines of the story after her son's death, a death caused by his isolated attempts to find the means to establish genuine relationship with his mother, is very suggestive for thematic purposes. But it is even more suggestive when related to structural patterns that indicate why the genre of parable is so integral to the story's strategy.

For Paul's mother is not the only figure to lack a name through "The Rocking-Horse Winner." Paul's father has no name, nor does his younger sister. When the children are initially introduced, their anonymity prevents the lure of defined identity from leading reader attention away from the archetypal rendering of social and moral status: "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 anyone in the neighbourhood." When Paul's name is given, at the beginning of the first conversation with his mother, it is mentioned almost incidentally, as if a convenience of designation rather than a necessary stage in the establishment of character. The name of his elder sister, Joan, is given even more inconsequentially, as an en passant clarification of roles in a family squabble: "'He's always riding like that! I wish he'd leave off!' said his elder sister Joan." An unsettling impression of discrete elements in a loosely associated social grouping—mother, son, husband, sisters, nurse—is conveyed in this collection of anonymous, or incidentally named, components of the scene.

Even those who are named on initial appearance, Oscar Cresswell the uncle and Bassett the gardener, are typified in such a way as to emphasize role rather than genuine identity. The narrative voice refers to Oscar Cresswell as "Uncle Oscar" when he is dealing with Paul, but drops the title at other times, a relativity in designation that reflects the limits of his capacity for relationship: it is as Oscar Cresswell that he places his final bet on one of Paul's predictions, in an act of instinctive self-interest. Bassett is named by both Paul and his uncle, to the latter of whom he has earlier stood in the ritualized personality of his role as batman, but remains merely the gardener to Paul's mother. When he intrudes himself on her presence in Paul's sickroom, his identity is impersonalized into class function in an austerely distanced physical description, the first actual description given of him: "The gardener, a shortish fellow with a little brown moustache and sharp little brown eyes, tiptoed into the room, touched his imaginary cap to Paul's mother, and stole to the bedside, staring with glittering, smallish eyes at the tossing, dying child." Names, therefore, even for those defined enough to be granted them, do not designate absolute identity, but merely reflect protean relationships. For Paul to rely on an Uncle Oscar or a Bassett is to assume a singularity of relationship that Lawrence's use of nomenclature deliberately calls in question.

Also called into question thereby are all of Paul's increasingly obsessive attempts to assign absolute identity and significance to the components of the world that surrounds him, and most particularly to his own "luck" and the means by which he demonstrates it. The initial exchange with his mother, in which he is given the disastrous equation of luck with the capacity to obtain lucre, is an exercise in linguistic absolutism. His pursuit of a definition of luck leads him into the bravado of his own claim to be "a lucky person." This is the claim to which he returns in his final death-bed attempt to establish relationship with his mother, a possibility which she again denies:

"I never told you, mother, that if I can ride my horse, and get there, then I'm absolutely sure—oh, absolutely! Mother, did I ever tell you? I am lucky!"

"No, you never did," said his mother.

The beguiling false certainties of verbal definition have again failed Paul in his striving after relationship. The designation "lucky" that he has pursued as proof, via the love-lucre-luck equation, of substantive relationship with his mother is at the last again denied him by his mother's words.

Paul's pursuit of the winning names that will prove his own entitlement to be designated lucky is presented throughout as an attempt to discover the genuine name of at least one component of his largely undefined world, the rocking-horse. The horse's anonymity is constantly emphasized in the story, as is Paul's attempt to impose substitute identity on an inanimate object that can be fired into movement only by his obsessive attempts to will it into life:

"What's the horse's name?"

"He doesn't have a name," said the boy.

"Gets on without all right?" asked the uncle.

"Well, he has different names. He was called Sansovino last week."

The wooden horse is "that which had no name," but each time Paul's single-mindedness succeeds in giving it one, he convinces himself that this time he has arrived at absolute identity for it, an identity that will provide the key to relationship with his mother: "Malabar! It's Malabar! Bassett, Bassett, I know! It's Malabar!"

Paul's search, then, is rendered as a search for identity in and relationship with a deadened, impersonal, and largely anonymous world. The parabolic form that Lawrence uses is made actively to contribute to that process by the controlled manipulation of the impersonality of manner and anonymity of character that is natural to parable. Paul's misreading of the world results from his misreading of language and, as a consequence, of the relationships that language seems to establish with such surface certainty. "Mother," "Uncle Oscar," "Bassett," "Sansovino," "Daffodil," "Lively Spark," "Malabar," and "luck" itself are all approximations to meaning which Paul takes as absolutes and by which he attempts to order his world and to read his own story as "a lucky person." The surface text that Paul interprets, like the surface text of all parable, is threateningly misleading, and his desire to read it correctly leads only to progressive isolation and madness and, ultimately, death.

As with all parables, there is a subtext, one which Paul never masters and which carries the emotional reality of his situation, articulating it in a language both unspoken and uncontrollable. It is a language that Paul and his sisters can read, whatever their inability to control it, and one that defines genuine familial relationship which is very different from the surface text that outsiders decode. It is a language of suggestion rather than definition, in which nothing receives a final, deceiving name. Paradoxically, it is also a language whose existence is initially established in the flat assertiveness and assurance of the parabolic opening:

Only she herself knew that at the centre of her heart was a hard little place that could not feel love, no, not for anybody. Everybody else said of her: "She is such a good mother. She adores her children." Only she herself, and her children themselves, knew it was not so. They read it in each other's eyes.

The primacy of the thing that is not spoken is conveyed in the falling closed cadences of finite verb and indicative mood: "she . . . knew," "Everybody . . . said," "She is," "She adores," "she .. . knew," "They read." But for all the surface assurance of rhetorical manner in which its existence is revealed, the inner text remains unspoken, and therefore beyond Paul's power to lock into the misleading form of final, named definition.

The conflict between the two languages and the texts they carry—the spoken and the unspoken—forms the central structural principle of the story. While Paul attempts to define his world in terms of what has been said, particularly by his mother in her definition of luck, his actions are all the time governed by what has not been said, "the unspoken phrase: There must be more money! There must be more money! " The refusal publicly to acknowledge the hidden realities that are the mainsprings of Paul's actions leads to further complicated disjunctions between surface and inner meaning. The point at which Paul attempts most directly to effect a reconciliation between the two, by channelling the proceeds from his apparent luck in a direction that will drown the inner voices generated by his mother's dissatisfaction, is the point at which they become most irreconcilable. As the mother reads the lawyer's letter that brings with it her thousand-pound birthday present, her surface manner becomes more enclosed and self-contained, her face hardening into greater austerity instead of reflecting the communicative vitality that Paul is attempting to elicit from her:

As his mother read it, her face hardened and became more expressionless. Then a cold, determined look came on her mouth. She hid the letter under the pile of others, and said not a word about it.

"Didn't you have anything nice in the post for your birthday, mother?" said Paul.

"Quite moderately nice," she said, her voice cold and absent.

The mother is rendered even more impassively contained the more Paul attempts to break through to communication. When the mother is allowed to "touch" the whole five thousand pounds at once, the disjunction between the chaotic inner reality and what is articulated in speech is made absolute in the house's response. The contrast between the articulated cold containment and the unarticulated frenzied ecstasy is the frightening revelation to Paul of the impotence of the definitions of luck in which he has placed such faith:

The voices in the house suddenly went mad, like a chorus of frogs on a spring evening. .. . 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!"

The hidden language that Paul cannot control begins literally to fragment in the exclamatory intensity that fights against, rather than becoming reconciled with, the cold containment of external form.

The tension between surface and inner meanings, which is central to the process of interpretation that any parabolic form presumes, and the possibility of misinterpretation that such tension inevitably raises are thus imaged in the two languages from which Paul attempts to wrest final meaning. Paul's dying words—"Mother, did I ever tell you? I am lucky!"—reaffirm his faith in the possibility that absolute surface definition can provide a path to control of the inner language and relationship with the mother. Her response to them—"No, you never did"—brusquely and ironically confirms the limits to the language with which she has equipped him, affirming just how dull the thunder of approximate words can be. Indeed, despite the fact that they are the means by which the anonymous woman finally receives a name, the subsequent curtain lines, with their moralizing summation, are themselves oddly insubstantial, especially given their terminal prominence between quotation marks:

And even as he lay dead, his mother heard her brother's voice saying to her: "My God, Hester, you're eightyodd 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 judgment is given in the brother's voice, which Paul's mother hears, but with no clear indication of whether it is actually spoken, and with an eerie distance established between the named listener and the disembodied speaker.

Even the declarative confidence of the final act of parabolic interpretation is rhetorically cast in some question.

There is, however, an implied possibility of compromised resolution between the two languages—deceitful definition and distracting suggestiveness—whose irreconcilability destroys Paul. It is contained in the partial success that Uncle Oscar and Bassett have in their communications with Paul. We have already seen that Lawrence's use of nomenclature deliberately qualifies their relationship to Paul by emphasizing their possession of varying identities in which Paul has no consistent place. But that emphasis on relativity of identity notwithstanding, what distinguishes Bassett's response to Paul, particularly coming as it does after the mother's patronizing and absent-minded answering of Paul's questions, is its mannerly respect for the responsibilities that genuine communication carries. Bassett's reaction to Oscar Cresswell's interrogation of him about Paul's skills indicates an instinctive sense of the terms on which language can be made to convey rather than to distort both meaning and relationship. Oscar asks whether Paul "ever put anything on a horse he fancies": "Well—I don't want to give him away—he's a young sport, a fine sport, sir. Would you mind asking him yourself? He sort of takes a pleasure in it, and perhaps he'd feel I was giving him away, sir, if you don't mind." Bassett's recognition that language can function as a medium of betrayal is a reflection of the fact that a betrayable relationship exists between him and Paul. Paul's sense of the responsibilities of language complements Bassett's:


"Yes, son?"

"You won't let it go any further, will you? I promised Bassett."

"Bassett be damned, old man! What's he got to do with it?"

"We're partners. We've been partners from the first. Uncle, he lent me my first five shillings, which I lost. I promised him, honour bright, it was only between me and him; only you gave me that ten-shilling note I started winning with, so I thought you were lucky. You won't let it go any further, will you?"

The responsibilities of language require a finely tuned sense both for what is said and for what is left unsaid. Uncle Oscar's admission into the secret is premised upon the understanding that he will keep it, and he joins in an act of linguistic trust which accepts the literalness and secrecy of Paul's claims. The cold power of the spoken word to deceive and the chaotic power of the inner unspoken truth to madden are both defused when the spoken and the unspoken are made complementary rather than adversarial. The contrast with the close of Paul's initial conversation with his mother is made very specific:

"Well, anyhow," he said stoutly, "I'm a lucky person."

"Why?" said his mother, with a sudden laugh.

He stared at her. He didn't even know why he had said it.

"God told me," he asserted, brazening it out.

"I hope He did, dear!" she said, again with a laugh, but rather bitter.

"He did, mother!"

"Excellent!" said the mother, using one of her husband's exclamations.

The boy saw she did not believe him; or rather, that she paid no attention to his assertion. This angered him somewhere, and made him want to compel her attention.

The mother's, and by rhetorical association the father's linguistic dishonesty with Paul, which makes of language an agent of mocking condescension, is what originally drives Paul to compel her attention by proving the extravagant claim that impulse has caused him to make. In the relationship with Bassett, who listens and respects, Paul is under no such pressure, and language is freed into genuine communication because it has nothing either to assert with false bravado or to conceal. Consequently, meaning is not hopelessly fractured and lost between a spoken definitional language that offers only deceptive false definitions and an unspoken language of suggestion that offers only frenzied chaos. Because of the genuine relationship between Paul and Bassett, the spoken and the unspoken cohere in an act of communicative trust into which Oscar Cresswell can be incorporated.

Against that context, Paul's anxiety to keep his mother out of the secret that he shares with Bassett and Cresswell is a clear indication of the irreconcilability of the spoken and unspoken languages that govern his relationship with her. The riding of the rocking-horse is an act of secrecy and isolation, presumably to be revealed, if at all, only after a successful and absolute demonstration of Paul's claim to be lucky has quietened the hidden voices. But that will never happen, because the languages are functions of the nature of the relationship between Paul and his mother. Relationship governs the viability of language, but Paul works as if language governs the viability of relationship. By placing his faith in the power of his language of external definition (most particularly that of himself as "lucky") to still the hidden language, he is assuming that language can be made to determine meaning by an act of linguistic main force—"I am lucky!" But without a preexisting relationship between Paul and his mother that will make language viable, the more that Paul attempts to collapse "luck" and "love" into each other by concealed and, therefore, relationship-denying acts that address the hidden imperatives of the house's voices, the more irreconcilable the two languages become.

The story's parabolic nature invites the provision of emotional and moral equivalents for its languages. The hidden language defines the emotional reality—in the mother's case revealing her obsessive fascination with material substitutes for a dying marriage, in the son's case his equally obsessive fascination with the material means by which he hopes to effect relationship with his mother. Hence the Freudian no-man's-land in which maternal and filial imperatives meet. The spoken language is that of assertive but inaccurate definition, which glances over the surface of the emotional reality and makes it all the more damaging by refusal to acknowledge its existence. The reality that spoken language conceals comprises impossibly contradictory and tragically symbiotic impulses. The mother's impulse is toward an emotional solipsism that colours the whole household and makes of it an externalization of her own frustrated desires. The son's impulse is toward a denial of personal identity in his pursuit of the means to gratify his mother and establish relationship with her. He attempts to relieve her of worry by a secret process whose mysteries cannot be revealed. Hence the obliqueness of his assurances to her, assurances couched in terms that suggest complete identity of child with mother:

"You needn't worry. I wouldn't worry, mother, if I were you."

"If you were me and I were you," said his mother, "I wonder what we should do!"

"But you know you needn't worry, mother, don't you?" the boy repeated.

"I should be awfully glad to know it," she said wearily.

"Oh, well, you can, you know. I mean, you ought to know you needn't worry," he insisted.

"Ought I? Then I'll see about it," she said.

The logical end of Paul's submission of his own emotional and physical existence to his mother's imperatives is the ultimate anonymity, death, that denies independent existence. When the mother is assigned a name only after Paul's death, she assumes an identity that is the final stage in her son's loss of his.

The disastrous imbalance of the mother's solipsism and Paul's impulse to self-annihilation in attempts to gain vicarious luck for her is, like the irreconcilable languages in which surface and inner worlds are conveyed, offered an implicit corrective in Paul's relationship with Bassett. Just as language and silence are brought into productive balance in the dealings of Paul with Bassett, so self-interest and sympathy are made generatively complementary. Bassett unequivocally benefits from Paul's talents, as does Oscar Cresswell. The benefit is, between the three, freely acknowledged, and Paul has himself chosen his partners, as we have seen, for partially pragmatic reasons: Bassett has lent him his first five shillings and Cresswell has given him the ten-shilling note with which he began winning. The partnership is thus both a business one and a human one, and continues successfully for more than a year. The fact that Bassett profits from Paul's predictions in no way modifies his genuine concern for and interest in the boy. Similarly, the Oscar Cresswell who is capable "in spite of himself of putting money on Malabar while Paul lies gravely ill is also the Uncle Oscar who, concerned with his nephew's increasingly maddened pursuit of the definitive name of the Derby winner, has earlier urged him, "Let it alone. . . . Don't you bother about it!" Paul's talents are made oddly generative within the charmed circle of communication that he enters with Bassett and Cresswell, and what they generate forms the closest that the boy comes to genuine relationship. Their potentially destructive power is held in check by the controls that sympathy and concern attempt to provide. By contrast, the secrets that govern the relationship of Paul with his mother—the totality of her self-concern and the totality of his submission to the atmosphere created by her solipsism—prevent any controls from checking his pursuit of absolute knowledge as means to a non-generative and ultimately life-destroying end: his mother's material desires which he has been tragically taught to associate with the gift of luck. Luck and absolute knowledge are from first principles mutually incompatible, since one is premised on the dynamism of chance and the other on the static assurance of fixed terms. Always built into the assumptions of Bassett and Cresswell in their association with Paul is the possibility that he can lose, by the very nature of his gift: '". . . sometimes I'm absolutely sure, like about Daffodil,' said the boy; 'and sometimes I have an idea; and sometimes I haven't even an idea, have I, Bassett? Then we're careful, because we mostly go down.'" Built into the boy's assumptions, as he increasingly distances himself from Bassett and Cresswell in his secret identification with his mother's absolute needs, is the certainty that he must win.

Admittedly, the secret rides by which Paul establishes his luck are presented from the outset as disturbingly intense, an emotional and physical flagellation of self and horse:

He wanted luck, he wanted it, he wanted it. . . . he would sit on his big rocking-horse, charging madly into space, with a frenzy that made the little girls peer at him uneasily. Wildly the horse careered, the waving dark hair of the boy tossed, his eyes had a strange glare in them. .. . he would slash the horse on the neck with the little whip he had asked Uncle Oscar for.

But Lawrence moves attention away from the overpowering intensity of the actual solitary rides when he concentrates on the partnership of Bassett, Cresswell, and Paul. Bassett sees Paul's powers as a heaven-sent gift rather than a satanic one and, since they are the creators of the only community that Paul seems to enjoy, there seem grounds for assuming that Bassett may in part be correct. And if he is, Paul's powers have a clear and hitherto neglected part in the story's parabolic concerns and structure.

It is remarkable that criticism has done little with the story's basic mysterious premise, that Paul can predict horse-race winners by riding a rocking-horse. This may be because it seems uncomfortably alien to the serious thematic concerns that the story is customarily seen to address. Where it has been discussed, its possibilities as sexual metaphor for Paul's onanistic preoccupation with the image of his mother have seemed so glaring as to obscure other possibilities. But as often it has simply been ignored. For while criticism can read "The Rocking-Horse Winner" as a secular parable about the evils of materialism, about a child's destruction by the pressures of marital discord, about the Oedipal experience, or, as this discussion has partially done, about the blandishments of language and the problems of interpretation, it can also be read, and often is but only by less sophisticated readers, as a supernatural story. The focus of interest then becomes the magical power that Paul possesses rather than the social or psychological truths that the power is used to explore, and the story becomes a horror tale, which is what the cinema largely made of it, rather than a parable. Thematic criticism has therefore tended to accept Paul's power as a gratuitous necessity while ignoring its possible contribution to the story's parabolic nature.

However, Bassett's assumption of a heavenly source for Paul's predictions does not occur in isolation. The mother's initial careless claim that "perhaps God" knows why one person is lucky and another not rapidly provokes Paul's brash and unthinking claim to be lucky because "God told me." While this declaration may function at one level as an aspect of the definitional corner into which his mother's unthinking comments box him, it is also readable as an actual truth. Bassett twice, "in a secret, religious voice," claims, "It's as if he had it from heaven." When he first discusses Paul with Cresswell, Bassett's face is "terribly serious, as if he were speaking of religious matters" and Bassett is "serious as a church." The community of secrecy into which Paul, Bassett, and Cresswell enter is increasingly lost to Paul as he becomes more isolated by the "secret within a secret" that "he had not divulged, even to Bassett or to his Uncle Oscar." What begins as a shared benediction becomes an overwhelming weight that Paul alone shoulders. His desire to turn his gift into absolute knowledge, a desire underlined in the frequency with which he resorts to the adverb "absolutely" as modifier for his state of certainty, becomes a denial of its nature as a gift. Put another way, the heaven-sent power that Paul possesses works in productive relationship with both friendship and self-interest in the partnership of Paul, Bassett, and Cresswell, delivering a spiritual blessing couched in unashamedly secular, not to say mercantile, terms. But his desire to turn the gift into a static definitional imperative, to clutch onto it as proof of completed service to the mother, involves its corruption and translation into dead matter.

Seen in this light, the tale's parabolic direction has obvious affinities with that other hauntingly pragmatic biblical parable, that of the talents [Matthew 25: 14-30]. A gift productively used, which involves the willingness to let it go and to share its capacity for generation, multiplies itself. A gift buried and hidden out of fear of loss and desire to placate is non-generative, and its temporary possessor loses both it and himself. Paul himself is the one person not to benefit from his gift. Like the unworthy servant, he loses even that which he has and becomes, not his mother's saviour, but her "poor devil of a son." He may not, like the servant, be cast into outer darkness, but he certainly dies in the night, with his uncle's ambiguous threnody articulating the doubtful benefits he has brought to a Hester who is "eighty-odd thousand to the good" and "a son to the bad."

With such a reading, the supernatural element becomes not merely the given that spurs the story's themes into movement, nor merely a metaphor for the boy's psychophysical health, but an integral part of the parabolic matter and structure of "The Rocking-Horse Winner." Like the biblical parables that influence it, it becomes a remarkably economical exploration of certain truths in which the moral burden and secular matter are made to work together in a very controlled, and at times disconcertingly pragmatic, way. The questions about language and interpretation with which this discussion began are also integral to the parabolic concerns that have just been suggested. The boy pays the price for not reading the messages, both the deceitful one from his mother and the potentially generative heaven-sent one, aright. He treats a concealed illness of the spirit as if it can be cured by displayed material coin, and he treats a divine gift as a self-commandable profane skill. He also treats language as an absolute medium of definition rather than as an ambiguous revealer of approximate truths. In short, he is hermeneutically naïve and misinterprets his own parable. And the relatively short shrift that characterization gets in the genre allows the message, for those who do read it aright, to be salutary, without an accompanying overburden of pain from a sense of poetic injustice. Paul is sacrificed to the same parabolic necessity that makes "The Rocking-Horse Winner" the most didactically and structurally cohesive of Lawrence's short stories.

As the history of the dominant strain of interpretation of this story has shown, such a reading is neither inevitable nor definitive. By the nature of parable, all interpretation risks misinterpretation, as Paul's misreading of language tragically attests. The demonic associations of Paul's gift are incontrovertibly there, but by the same token—the associative resonances of language—so are the heavenly, and to lose sight of the latter, which traditional interpretation has done, skews the story no less than to ignore the former. Paul's gift is as double-edged and as ambiguously generated as his relationships with Bassett and Cresswell, relationships governed equally by self-interest and altruism. But a parabolic tradition that can accommodate the ironic contradictions of a good Samaritan or a repentant prodigal, and whose source is apotheosized in a death shared with two criminals, needs no reminding of the kinship of fair and foul. The achievement of Lawrence's story, like that of its biblical forebears, lies in its ability to hold contradiction in balance and distil complex meaning from narrative simplicity.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 169


Amon, Frank. "D.H. Lawrence and the Short Story." In The Achievement of D.H. Lawrence, pp. 222-34. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953.

Discusses symbolism and similarities in structure between "The Rocking-Horse Winner" and traditional fables.

Holland, Norman N. "Myth." In The Dynamics of Literary Response, pp. 255-58. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

Considers myth and the absence of a feeling of resonance in "The Rocking-Horse Winner."

Rohrberger, Mary. "D.H. Lawrence: The Rocking-Horse Winner'." In Hawthorne and the Modern Short Story: A Study in Genre, pp. 74-80. The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1966.

Examines how character, setting, and action serve as symbols in the story and how they are used, along with the rocking-horse, "to direct meaning."

Additional coverage of Lawrence's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 121; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography: Modern Writers, 1914-1945; Discovering Authors; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 10, 19, 36, 98; Major 20th-century Writers; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 4; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 9, 16, 33, 48; and World Literature Criticism.

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