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

D. H. Lawrence


(Short Story Criticism)

"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."

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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W. D. Snodgrass (essay date 1958)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Roy Lamson and others (essay date 1962)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2051 words.)

W. R. Martin (essay date 1962)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 entire section is 951 words.)

William D. Burroughs (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

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]....

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Donald Junkins (essay date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Neil D. Isaacs (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

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....

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

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4534 words.)

Michael Goldberg (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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John B. Humma (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

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

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Charles Koban (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Daniel P. Watkins (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 3105 words.)

Keith Wilson (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 169 words.)