drawing of a young boy riding a rocking-horse

The Rocking-Horse Winner

by D. H. Lawrence

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

And so the house came to be filled with the unspoken words. “There must be more money! There must be more money!” The children could hear it at Christmas, when the expensive and wonderful toys filled the play-room. Behind the shining modern rocking-horse, behind the smart doll’s house, a voice would say quietly, “There must be more money! There must be more money!”

Early in “The Rocking-Horse Winner,” Lawrence characterizes the family as living beyond their means. The mother’s upbringing has led her to expect a certain standard of living that her husband’s paycheck can no longer support. Therefore, despite their pretense of great wealth, the family’s lives are pervaded by encroaching poverty and lack. The mother is anxious imagining the future for her children and the money it will cost to educate them. She thinks, “There was never enough money,” which will then be repeated by the figurative whispers of the house. In the passage above, Lawrence establishes a motif that will continue throughout the story: that the house itself feels and reflects the family’s constant need for money. Though the desire is “unspoken,” it is tangible for all of the family members, even the children. They hear the call for more and more money when they see their lavish Christmas gifts, which the family probably cannot afford. The parents try to provide a lifestyle similar to the one with which the mother was raised, but because they technically do not have sufficient funds to do so, there is always the sense that they need more and more money to reach the standard. The repetition of the phrasing “There must be more money” and its accompanying exclamation point emphasize, in an almost chant-like form, that money will be a continual and ever-present concern for this family, that it will always be a pressing and urgent need, no matter how much they acquire. It is this constant drive for more and more money that will lead to Paul’s tragic downfall.

He went off feeling confused, and, in a childish way, looking for the secret to “luck.” Thinking of nothing else, taking no notice of other people, he went about keeping to himself, looking for luck. He wanted luck, he needed it. . . . He would sit on his big rocking-horse and ride it madly with such energy that worried the little girls. Wildly the horse rode on, the waving dark hair of the boy going up and down, his eyes with a strange fire in them. The girls were too scared to speak to him.

Paul learns from his mother that luck is more important than money because luck can always bring in more money, while money can be lost forever. Hoping to please his mother and eventually silence the house’s whispering, Paul asserts that he is “a lucky person.” His mother does not know how people become lucky, so Paul must try to discover the “secret” on his own. Part of his process becomes riding his rocking-horse, an action that puts him in a trance-like state of concentration. His strategy is, as the narrator says, “childish,” combining a literal toy with a much more serious, adult dilemma: trying to find a way out of poverty. He doesn’t just want to become lucky, though; “he need[s] it,” because his family is suffering and he takes the onus upon himself to help. When Paul rides his rocking horse, he does so “madly,” and “a strange fire” occupies his eyes. He seems to be completely focused on his task and unaware of the world around him. He rocks back and forth “wildly,” as though the sheer repetition will yield results. The state Paul enters on his rocking horse terrifies his sisters and foreshadows his eventual death.

So Uncle Oscar signed the agreement, and Paul’s mother received the whole five thousand. Then something very strange happened. The voices in the house suddenly went mad, like the sound of hundreds of frogs on a spring evening. There were new furnishings, and Paul had classes with a private teacher. He was going to Eton, his father’s school, in the following autumn. There were flowers in the winter, and a show of the rich life Paul’s mother had been used to. But the voices screamed and seemed to shake the house among the flowers and the new furniture. “There must be more money!” they cried. “Oh! . . . There must be more money. More than ever!”

When Paul begins winning large sums of money betting on horse races, he is hoping to give some of the funds to his mother to help pay off the family’s debts. He confides in Oscar that the house whispers about needing more money, so they decide to first give the mother a thousand pounds each year on her birthday, from an anonymous relative. However, she wants all of the money at once, and instead of the five thousand pounds silencing the house, the sum makes the voices even louder. Instead of quieting the voices, the money makes the voices go “mad”; their noise is likened to “the sound of a hundred frogs.” The demands for more money become overwhelming. This is likely because the mother spends the money quickly on frivolous things like “flowers in the winter” and superfluous tutoring for Paul. She does not, in fact, pay off the debts that had so concerned Paul. The voices “shake the house,” disrupting the lives of everyone there; the problem has worsened significantly. The frantic repetition of “There must be more money!” and “More than ever!” suggests that the more money the family acquires, the more insatiable the house will become. Similarly, the more money the mother obtains, the more lavishly and irresponsibly she will spend it in an attempt to keep pace with her former lifestyle.

She stood, unmoving, outside his door listening. There was a strange, and yet not loud noise. Her heart stood still. It was a soundless noise, yet rushing and powerful. Something huge, in violent, quiet motion. . . . She couldn’t say what it was. And on and on it went, like a madness. . . . Then suddenly she switched on the light and saw her son, in his green pyjamas, madly going backwards and forwards on the rocking-horse. . . . “It’s Malabar!” he screamed in a powerful, strange voice. “It’s Malabar!”

In this scene near the end of the story, Paul’s mother returns home from a party to find him riding his rocking horse “like a madness.” Lawrence creates suspense by having the mother slowly approach Paul’s bedroom, first hearing “a strange, and yet not loud noise” that is the rocking of his horse going back and forth. She is deeply affected by the sound despite its relative quiet, and she begins to think of the sound as “violent” and “huge.” When she goes in and sees what Paul is doing, she is shocked to find him riding the rocking horse wildly, like he is possessed. He screams out the name of the horse he predicts will win the Derby. Paul’s practice of riding his rocking horse to learn the winner of the next race is repeatedly described as “madness” and “strange.” He seems to enter a completely different state of mind that disturbs those around him. After screaming Malabar’s name, Paul falls onto the floor and must be taken to bed with “a brain sickness.” The riding motion, and the drive that inspired it, have literally driven the boy to his mental and physical breaking point.

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