“The Rocking-Horse Winner” takes place in England in the 1920s. The family lives in a “pleasant” house near London and employs several servants. Though they live in comfort, the family (especially Hester) is preoccupied by their perceived rotten luck. Most of the story’s action takes place inside the family home, which eventually becomes “haunted” by the family’s unspoken and endless desire for more money. From all over the house, the children begin to hear whispered voices demanding “There must be more money!” As Paul’s anxious desire for wealth grows, the house becomes a more and more malevolent force; the house’s “whispers” for more money become screams instead. Rather than serving as a domestic haven, the family home has become the focal point of the family’s obsession with money and social status, suggesting that those who live lives of materialism will never feel comfortable or “at home.”
There are several symbols throughout “The Rocking-Horse Winner.” The most obvious symbol is the rocking horse itself. Paul receives the horse as a Christmas gift and it quickly comes to represent his growing anxiety about money. Ironically, though the rocking horse is an object that Paul owns, it is he who seems possessed by the horse, feverishly rocking away on it for hours at a time. Though Paul frantically rides the horse in search of luck, the reality that he is not actually moving symbolizes the futility of mindlessly pursuing wealth. Though the rocking horse is on one level a symbol of Paul’s desire for money, it also represents the dangers of materialism. Just as his mother compulsively spends to make herself feel better, Paul places all his hopes for luck, money, and maternal affection on a mere object, and in the end his utter dependence on the rocking horse leads to his death.
Some scholars interpret the rocking horse as a symbol of Paul’s anxiety over his impending adulthood. Though a rocking horse is usually used by younger children, Paul continues to play with it. The fact that his obsession with the rocking horse is somewhat unusual is mentioned to him several times: “ ‘Aren't you growing too big for a rocking-horse? You're not a very little boy any longer, you know,’ said his mother.” In trying to win his mother’s affection through money, Paul is stepping into the financial void left by his unsuccessful father. Some interpret Paul’s desire for his mother’s approval as an example of Freud’s Oedipus complex. In this interpretation, the rocking horse symbolizes Paul’s budding sexuality as well as his unconscious desire to compete with his father for his mother’s affection. Of course, the pressure of this adult role ultimately leads to Paul’s death, showing how the substitution of money for love can distort and destroy healthy family relationships.
Another symbol in the story is money. At the beginning of the story, Paul asks his mother whether luck and money are the same thing, having misunderstood the expression “filthy lucre” (money gained in a dishonest way) as somehow relating to luck. Hester’s answer shows that she clearly believes luck and money to be linked, a connection that nearly all the characters believe in as well. While Paul believes that money symbolizes luck, he also believes that it represents love. Indeed, he tries to gain his mother’s affection by giving her the money she so desperately desires. Of course, the events of the story show us that money symbolizes neither love nor luck: Hester does not love Paul more when he wins her money, and Paul’s quest for money ultimately leaves him dead. Though the characters of “The Rocking-Horse Winner” believe money to be symbolic of luck and love, D.H. Lawrence portrays money as a negative and alienating force that redirects people’s attention away from the human pursuits that truly matter such as hard work, love, and intimacy.
“The Rocking-Horse Winner” shares many characteristics with the fairy tale and fable genres. The introduction of the story echoes the “once upon a time” format of most fairy tales: “There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck.” In addition to the classic opening lines, the clear and simple prose contributes to the fable-like quality of the story. And, like a fable, “The Rocking-Horse Winner” ultimately conveys a moral lesson about money’s toxic effect on human relationships. Like many fairy tales, the story features a child protagonist who encounters elements of fantasy such as the whispering house and the magic rocking horse. This fairy tale format highlights the childlike beliefs of the adult characters in the story. For example, Hester’s belief that money comes from luck rather than hard work is itself a fantasy. In many ways, “The Rocking-Horse Winner” explores the gray area between childhood and adulthood. We see the collision of these two worlds through Paul’s obsession with a childhood toy that allows him to win at gambling—a decidedly adult pursuit. At the broader level, D.H. Lawrence continues this exploration of childhood and adulthood by juxtaposing the innocent and child-friendly medium of the fairy tale with a dark, adult story about the dangers of obsessing over money.