In “The Rocking-Horse Winner” by D.H. Lawrence, there is a family who makes a show of being rich to maintain their social standing and hide the endless worry of not enough money. The mother is not really close to her children; she is gentle and motherly towards them but actually feels no love for them. The love in her marriage has also become only external, though it once was not. She and the husband have good prospects but as hard as they have both tried to be successful, the money is still short. The problem is never talked about, but felt; the children grow up always aware of the atmosphere of, as if the house itself whispers about it. One day, the little son, Paul, asks his mother why their family does not have a car and she tells him bitterly that they are the poor members of the family because their father has no luck and she cannot be lucky, married to him. Paul asks if luck is money, and she tells him that luck is only what causes money; she says nobody in the family is lucky. Without much thought, Paul declares himself lucky and that God told him. His mother responds by laughing sarcastically, hurting something inside Paul. From then on his focus is to find luck. While his little sisters play he rides the nursery’s wooden riding horse, so wildly that his sisters are afraid of him. He whips the horse and commands it to take him to luck because he knows that it can take him if he forces it to. For a while he is scolded and questioned but eventually his family and nurse give up. Paul’s Uncle Oscar visits and finds Paul on the rocking horse; when he asks Paul what the horse’s name is, Paul gives the name of a horse that has recently won a race. Uncle Oscar takes Paul to his first horse race; Paul told them that Daffodil would win, and Daffodil wins. Paul and Bassett, the gardener, let Uncle Oscar in on their secret – Paul tells the uncle that sometimes he knows which horse will win, he is always right, and by this time he and Bassett have a lot of money. Paul decides to trust Oscar with the secret because he thinks Uncle Oscar is lucky. Uncle Oscar joins their alliance. They become increasingly confident in their bets. Paul tells his uncle that he had started seeking money for their mother but to not tell her because he thinks she would make him stop. Paul decides to give five thousand pounds to a lawyer to give his mother a thousand pounds every year on her birthday, and tell her that a family member had given it to Uncle Oscar. When Paul’s mother opens the letter from the lawyer, he waits tensely for her reaction but she does not seem happy. She makes a request with the lawyer to take the whole five thousand at once because they were in debt. Paul agrees to this but ever afterwards he hears the whispering of the house get worse. As Paul grows older he tries to focus on his studies. He has lost two bets and is desperate for money. His thoughts become all centered on the coming Derby race, waiting for it. His mother notices how unhealthy he looks and suggests he go to the seaside for a while but he is horrified by the idea of leaving the house before the race because he has a secret that the others don’t know about. He assures his mother several times that she need not worry. It is revealed that Paul’s secret is his rocking-horse, which he has moved to his bedroom. As the race draws near the mother becomes extremely paranoid about him and gets rushes of fear about him now and then that she doesn’t understand. A couple of nights before the Derby, she is at a large party and is gripped with the feeling and calls the governess to ask if Paul is alright. The governess is surprised by the question; she answers that the last time she saw him he had been fine and offers to check on him but the mother changes her mind. When she and her husband come home late that night she slowly makes her way up the stairs, becoming more and more aware of a strange, heavy noise coming from Paul’s room, unending and familiar. She opens the door with apprehension. The room is dark but the sound is now overwhelming; she sees a shape rocking in the dark, turns on the light suddenly and there is Paul crazed and concentrated on the rocking-horse. She is scared. Their eyes meet and he screams the name Malabar, falling over unconscious. His mother is suddenly overcome with maternal instincts. Bassett and Uncle Oscar make the bets. He is taken to the hospital where he lies fitfully for three days. Bassett comes and tells him that sure enough, Malabar has won as he predicted and they made over eighty thousand pounds. Paul is overwrought with emotion and tries to tell his mother about his rocking-horse secret and tells her he is lucky. That night he dies and his uncle remarks to his mother that it may be best that he is gone from a life of worrying about money.
One thing that makes this story so compelling is its repetition. Throughout the piece, the tension rises around Paul’s obsession with getting more money in the house’s increasingly manic whispers of “there must be more money.” The theme of luck is also repeated to show Paul’s interpretation of money as a small child and as he grows up. The repetition also carries the chronic tension into the present so that there is always this compassion for Paul because you know his motives and where he’s coming from. This allows readers to watch Paul be consumed by his insatiable need for more luck/money (these are made almost interchangeable) with sympathy; being able to watch his motives as they waver between selfless and selfish is also part of what makes the story so irresistible because it is a critique of human nature, and a reflection of ourselves.
When I read this I am struck by the mother’s role in the story. The story begins with a detailed block of exposition for her, creating a character that provides the first conflict, really.
The boy saw she did not believe him; or rather, that she paid no attention to his assertion. This angered him somewhere, and made him want to compel her attention. He went off by himself, vaguely, in a childish way, seeking for the clue to ‘luck’.
The conditions that Paul is raised in are just right for him to develop his obsession in, creating a very complex story – mother doesn’t actually love the children, he seeks her attention and approval; she tells him nobody in the family has luck, luck becomes his objective. The relationship between Paul and his mother sets Paul up to fill his role in the story. The flawless character development of these very flawed characters (and telling through third person omniscient) is something that struck me and made me realize how powerful background information is to creating believable characters that belong to their plot, and it is something that I would like to practice in my own writing.
- Who do you think is to blame for Paul’s gradual collapse and then death? Is there a point where Paul’s mother’s actions no longer have an effect on Paul’s obsession?
- Why do you think Paul’s father is almost completely absent in the story? Does he have any impact on the plot?
- By the end of the story, does Paul’s mother love him?