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The Rocking-Horse Winner

by D. H. Lawrence

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How is the mother characterized in D. H. Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner"?

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Paul's mother values material possessions, and above all else, she values luck.

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Paul's mother Hester is portrayed in a decidedly unflattering way, as a shallow, self-centered woman, obsessed with money and social status. Although everyone thinks she's a good mother, in actual fact she only cares for herself and her own needs. That largely explains why she's so insistent on having more money, which drives Paul towards getting back on the rocking horse time and time again.

Even though Paul continually brings her luck, Hester remains deeply unsatisfied, as if she senses that it can't last. No amount of money is ever enough for Hester; she must always have more. Hester's greed and overweening self-regard would be bad enough at the best of times. But in due course they will come to have tragic consequences. And although Hester could not reasonably have foreseen them, she should've realized that her monstrous selfishness would end in tears sooner or later.

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In "The Rocking-Horse Winner" by D.H. Lawrence, Paul's mother, Hester, is not an admirable woman in any way. She claims she has no luck, yet in the opening lines of the story we learn that she is beautiful, married for love, and has beautiful children. She "started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck." Her love "turned to dust," and though her children are lovely, she feels as if "they had been thrust upon her, and she could not love them." She had a good life, but she chose to ruin it.

As a mother, Hester is a mess and does not really know how to fix herself.

[W]hen her children were present, she always felt the centre of her heart go hard. This troubled her, and in her manner she was all the more gentle and anxious for her children, as if she loved them very much. 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. 

Hester is clearly not a good mother, as she has to work hard just to feel "as if" she loves them.

Hester also lives in a constant state of discontent. She calls herself unlucky and she feels as if she can never have enough. Though her family lives in a fine house in a superior neighborhood and has servants and nice things, Hester is not satisfied and wants more--plus she has expensive tastes. She worries about why she is not successful, failing to measure success by a loving husband, two lovely children, and a fine home. She knows the fault is in her, which adds to her discontent. 

Hester is ungrateful. Though she constantly feels as if she needs more, when she gets it she is not thankful. In fact, she just wants more. Paul manages to gift her with some money, but she immediately spends it on worthless things and wants more, all without ever expressing any thankfulness or gratitude. It is as if she thinks she deserves it, though, ironically, she also feels unworthy. 

Hester was not born unlucky, but she creates an unlucky life. When Paul begins to seem unwell, she is mildly concerned. The narrator refers to her as "the heart-frozen mother," and it is an apt description. When her son actually dies, she remains unmoved; the last lines of the story are spoken by her brother and they are about money, not Paul.

Hester is characterized by her own selfishness and discontent. Since these are things created not by her circumstances but by her choices, she is not a sympathetic character. What happens to her is bad, but because she does not particularly care, neither do we. We do not know specifically what will happen to her after Paul dies, but we do know that she will spend everything her son left her and will then want more. None of it will make her happy and we remain unmoved by her plight. 

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How does this characterization of the mother in "The Rocking-horse Winner" by D.H. Lawrence differ from the stepmothers in fairy tales like Cinderella?

This is an interesting question. Hester is the antagonist in D.H. Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner," and she is a woman who has no discernible redeeming qualities.

Hester is selfish and cold-hearted, unable to love either her husband or her children. Presumably she does not love herself, either, but we find it difficult to muster up any sympathy for her. She is a beautiful woman who "started with all the advantages" and was able to marry for love; she has two beautiful children, and at least one of them is willing to die for her despite the fact that she is unmoved by his sacrifice. Nothing awful or extraordinary happens to change her auspicious beginning, so her becoming a miserable, selfish, and discontented woman is purely her choice.

Hester does not abuse her children in a traditional sense, but they are quite aware that she does not love them.

[W]hen her children were present, she always felt the centre of her heart go hard. This troubled her, and in her manner she was all the more gentle and anxious for her children, as if she loved them very much.  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.

Her treatment of them is abusive in the sense that she neglects them. Things are worse for her son, Paul, once he begins to make money in an attempt to make things better for his mother. She may not know every detail of what her son is doing, but she is aware that he is not well and still does not care. When he dies after revealing the name of the next winner of the big horse race, we know that she is unmoved by anything but the money--and even her emotions about that will be gone soon enough.

Unlike Hester, the stepmothers in fairy tales are usually referred to as "evil." The stepmother in Cinderella, for example, is selfish like Hester, but she is also evil. She wants what she wants for herself and her daughters, for sure, but she wants it at the deliberate expense of Cinderella's life. She strips the poor girl of everything sacred: her memories of her father, her mother's belongings, and her future. In the end the stepmother's plans are foiled and she pays the price for her actions, but until then she is cruel, selfish, and unkind to Cinderella while her own daughters get the best of everything. Hester at least treats her children with equal disdain, and we have no sense that that she would have treated her daughter any differently than she did Paul if the girl had been the one making the money.

While Hester's abuse is shown primarily through neglect, Cinderella's stepmother's abuse is cruel and obvious, and this is the primary difference between the two women. The stepmother's selfishness and abuse is active, while Hester's selfishness and abuse is passive. In the end, of course, we get to see that the stepmother pays for her actions, but we can only imagine the life of continued misery and discontent ahead for Hester. 

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What are the mother's values in D. H. Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner"?

In D. H. Lawrence's short story "The Rocking-Horse Winner," Paul's mother values material possessions. Because she values material possessions, she lives with her family in an expensive home cared for by servants even though neither she nor her husband can really afford the lifestyle:

Although they lived in style, they felt always an anxiety in the house. There was never enough money. 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.

Her husband also values material possessions. In fact, both are described as having "expensive tastes," and since they cannot afford their tastes or their lifestyle, they are constantly in debt.

Because the mother places so much value on material possessions, she values money. But, above money, she values luck, because she feels it is luck that brings people money, as she explains to Paul when he asks her why they never have enough 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.

Because she sees herself and her husband as unlucky, she is in a constant state of misery and worry and even becomes obsessively greedy for more money once Paul begins secretly winning money for her through betting on horse races.

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