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