Analysis Overview

Setting

“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.”

Symbols

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.

Writing Style

“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.

Style and Technique

The story begins with the deceptively simple and formulaic language of the fairy tale: “There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck.” This language underscores the inappropriateness of a life lived, as Hester lives it, in the belief that just as in fairy tales, luck and happiness are unpredictable because they come from the outside rather than being matters over which the individual exercises some control.

The supernatural elements in the story, rather than providing an opportunity for escape, augment its sense of reality. The futility of the materialistic quest, and its lack of destination, are well symbolized in Paul’s frantic riding of his rocking horse. That the house whispers “There must be more money” seems not so much a supernatural or magical element as a brilliantly sustained metaphor for the unspoken messages that shape and often take over the life of a family. In all, the story is a brilliant study in the sustained use of symbolism to suggest with bold economy the death-dealing consequences of the substitution of money for love.

The Rocking-Horse Winner

Paul, the protagonist of this haunting story, is a sensitive boy who would do anything to gain and keep his mother’s love. Though she is beautiful, talented, well-bred, and blessed with three lovely children, she is preoccupied by her lack of luck. Luck, to the mother, is what brings you money. Father is not lucky, for the family does not have the means to live in style. The anxious children, especially the morbidly perceptive Paul, hear their house whisper, “There must be more money.”

Paul longs to silence the house and his mother’s creditors. After discussing racetrack lore with the family gardener, Paul furiously rides his rocking-horse. During the wild, rhythmic plunging, the nearly hypnotized Paul “knows” the name of the horse that will win big at the next race. With the trustworthy gardener to place his bets, Paul rapidly accumulates a heady sum.

With his uncle’s help, Paul arranges a birthday surprise for his mother--one thousand pounds annually for the next five years. He eagerly watches his mother open her mail only to find that she wants, and gains, all five thousand pounds at once. The voices of the house go mad as the mother redecorates, fills the rooms with flowers and the nursery with new toys. “There must be more money” becomes a scream, not a whisper.

Paul returns to his frantic late-night rides. He feels that he must “know” for the Derby because his mother, still cool, remote, and dissatisfied, longs to live in greater style. Even she realizes that something is wrong with Paul, who has grown overwrought and feverish. Entering his room late at night, she hears the rhythmic plunge of the rocking-horse. Paul collapses in a brain fever as he mutters over and over “Malabar,” the name of the horse to win the Derby. The gardener bets Paul’s money as planned; his mother is 80,000 pounds to the good. “I am lucky,” are Paul’s dying words.

Historical Context

The Modern Era
Lawrence was writing during the early part of the twentieth century, and he, like most writers of the day, was significantly influenced by World War I. He had read and loved the novels of nineteenth-century writers George Eliot, author of Silas Marner, and Thomas Hardy, author of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, but grew dissatisfied with the predictability of such characters. After the war, many people began to question the old ways of looking at the world. Lawrence joined in the questioning by making his characters less sure of themselves, less bound by the rules of polite society that dominated nineteeth-century fiction.

Lawrence became interested in the psychological motivations for why people do the things they do. Psychology as a science was in its infancy at this time. Sigmund Freud, the "father" of modern psychology, was formulating his theories regarding the unconscious through observing his patients at his practice in Vienna. Lawrence was also convinced that the modern way of life, long hours at cruel jobs for little pay, was dehumanizing. His characters were often failures in relationships who felt alienated in their misery. Furthermore, his writing was frequently embellished with themes about greed, materialism, and degrading work, which were issues of increasing concern to people at the time.

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Literary Style

Style
The opening paragraphs of "The Rocking-Horse Winner" are written in a style similar to that of a fairy tale. Instead of...

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Compare and Contrast

  • Then: The financial circumstances experienced by the family in "The Rocking-Horse Winner" are shared by many upper-class...

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Topics for Further Study

  • Although the children's father is mentioned in "The Rocking-Horse Winner," he never actually appears. Why do you think the mother's...

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Media Adaptations

  • The Rocking-Horse Winner was filmed in 1950 by Two Cities Films and stars John Mills and Valerie Hobson. The adaptation was...

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What Do I Read Next?

  • The Collected Short Stories of D. H. Lawrence (1974) is the complete collection of Lawrence's short stories.
  • ...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Harris, Janice Hubbard. The Short Fiction of D. H. Lawrence. Rutgers University Press, 1984, pp. 1-11, 224-27....

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Bibliography

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Cowan, James C. D. H. Lawrence: Self and Sexuality. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002. A sensible examination of the complex nature of Lawrence’s considerations of sexual behavior in his work.

Kearney, Martin F. Major Short Stories of D. H. Lawrence: A Handbook. New York: Garland, 1998. “The Rocking-Horse Winner” is one of six Lawrence stories treated here. Each one receives comprehensive discussion, including an account of the history of its composition and publication, as well as critical analysis.

Poplawski, Paul, ed. Writing the Body in D. H. Lawrence: Essays on Language, Representation, and Sexuality. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. An uneven but often enlightening series of essays on some of Lawrence’s central concerns, tending toward theoretical considerations of Lawrence’s writing.

Reeve, N. H. Reading Late Lawrence. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Especially incisive discussions of Lawrence’s later works of fiction.

Worthen, John. D. H. Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider. Berkeley, Calif.: Counterpoint, 2005. An informative, knowledgeable account of Lawrence’s life by the author of the first volume of an acclaimed three-book Cambridge University Press biography.