The Rocking-Horse Winner
“The Rocking-Horse Winner” (1926) is one of D. H. Lawrence’s most popular short stories, an Oedipal drama seasoned with a dash of social commentary and a pinch of the supernatural. It follows the short and tragic life of a boy named Paul, who thinks he has amazing luck after realizing he can predict racehorse winners by furiously riding his rocking horse until he reaches a trance-like state.
Unfortunately, as his family takes advantage his gift and starts raking in the dough, Paul’s luck begins to kill him.
After making a huge winning at the big Derby Stakes race, all that rocking leads to Paul’s untimely death, leaving his family to ponder if all that money was really worth it.
Yikes. Maybe Paul’s luck wasn’t such a gift after all.
The story touches on several of the themes Lawrence is most well known for—well, some of them at least. While it doesn’t feature the same explicit sexuality that made Lawrence notorious in his day, much like Sons and Lovers, “The Rocking-Horse Winner” focuses quite a bit on the relationship between a mother and her son.
Lawrence’s interest in mother-son relationships partly stems from his relationship with his own mother, an educated woman who regretted her marriage to Lawrence’s coal-miner father. Much of her frustrated ambition was transferred onto her children, and Lawrence’s intellectual abilities were cultivated under her care. Just like Lawrence’s own experience growing up, “The Rocking-Horse Winner” explores the impact a mother’s own frustrations and sense of failure can have on a sensitive and intelligent child who craves her love.
“The Rocking-Horse Winner” also explores the tension between what we think and what we feel. In the story, the adults are caught up in what they think they should want: Money, success, nice furniture, stuff like that. They are often described as cold or unfeeling, and obsessed with visible signs of wealth and class position.
Paul, on the other hand, is just a kid. His wants and needs are what he genuinely feels rather than what he thinks he should feel. While the adults are concerned with how they measure up to society’s definitions of success, Paul is more concerned with receiving his mother’s love and seeing his family happy and together.
Paul’s way of looking at the world conflicts with the way the adults in the story see things, but when he discovers his luck at predicting winning racehorses, he finds a way to satisfy his family’s superficial desires. The story rocks back and forth between Paul’s attempts to satisfy the genuine desires of his young heart as well as the mental desires of his ruthless family, asking us: Are we doomed to be destroyed by one or the other?
“The Rocking-Horse Winner” introduces us to Hester, a woman who dreams of living a luxurious lifestyle she cannot afford. She lives in a modest house with her husband and her three children, two girls and a boy. Although she and her husband never mention their financial woes, the children sense that their house and everything inside of it whisper about the need for more money. Kind of creepy, huh? Hester attempts to make money at various jobs, but she isn’t very successful at any of them.
One day Hester’s son Paul asks her what makes some people lucky. She tells him that people with luck are the ones who make lots of money; Paul’s father is unlucky because no matter how hard he tries, he can’t make enough money. This makes Paul determined to prove that he is lucky to his mother.
Paul discovers that when he rides his rocking horse long enough, he is somehow able to “know” what the winning racehorse will be. Using this knowledge, he asks Bassett, the family gardener, to help him place bets and hold onto his winnings. Eventually, Uncle Oscar discovers Paul’s gambling scheme and joins in as a partner too. Paul arranges to have a lawyer send his mother five thousand pounds with the money he’s won, which she promptly spends on all kinds of luxuries.
Meanwhile, unaware of her son’s gambling habit, Hester grows concerned about Paul’s health. She plans to send Paul to the seaside to recover, but Paul convinces her to let him stay until after the Derby Stakes race. One evening while out at a party, Hester is overcome with anxiety over Paul. When she returns home, she discovers that he is still riding his rocking horse. Paul collapses with a brain fever, but not before he utters the name of the Derby Stakes winner. Now that’s what we call a dramatic finish.
With this information, Uncle Oscar and Bassett go ahead and place their bets and make off with a hefty winning when the Derby Stakes winner is announced. On hearing this news, Paul dies later that night.
As the story begins, we are introduced to Hester, a woman who lives with her husband, two daughters, and a son in a nice neighborhood. Hester is dissatisfied with motherhood and feels that she needs more money in order to maintain a more luxurious standard of living. The children also sense their mother’s desire for more wealth. They can hear the house whispering about money. One day, the son, Paul, asks his mother why they don’t have a car of their own like their uncle Oscar. The mother explains that Paul’s father has no luck, and is unable to make as much money. Paul declares that he has luck. Paul starts to spend a lot of time riding his rocking horse. He believes that if he rides the horse long enough, it will tell him where he can find luck. Paul’s sister, Joan and his nanny are annoyed by his rocking horse habit. One day, Paul’s mother and Uncle Oscar watch as he rides on his rocking horse. Paul’s mother comments that he is too old to be riding a rocking horse, but Uncle Oscar is amused that Paul names his horse after winning racehorses. Uncle Oscar asks Bassett, the family’s gardener, whether he’s been talking about horseracing with Paul, and whether he puts any money on horses for Paul. Bassett hesitates. Uncle Oscar then asks Paul whether he puts money on the horses. Paul tells his Uncle Oscar that he has been winning a lot of money betting on horses—getting his start with a ten-shilling note that was a gift from Uncle Oscar. He always keeps twenty pounds in reserve, and has plans to bet three hundred pounds on a horse named Daffodil at the next race. Uncle Oscar humors Paul, and offers to put five pounds on a horse for him. Paul asks the money be put on Daffodil. Daffodil wins. Uncle Oscar still doesn’t believe Paul when Paul says that he now has fifteen hundred pounds, with twenty in reserve and twenty more won using Uncle Oscar’s five pounds. Uncle Oscar confronts Bassett about the money. Bassett reveals he and Paul have been partners. Bassett has been holding Paul’s money for him. Paul explains that when he’s absolutely sure about a horse, it’s a sure win. If he feels even a little uncertain about a horse, they usually lose. Uncle Oscar decides to be a partner as well. For the next big race, Paul predicts that a horse named Lively Spark is going to win. Paul places a thousand pounds on the horse, Bassett places five hundred, and Uncle Oscar two hundred. Lively Spark wins at 10-1 odds, meaning that Paul wins ten thousand pounds, Bassett wins five thousand pounds, and Uncle Oscar two thousand pounds. Paul wants to give the money to his mother, but doesn’t want his mother to know that it’s from him or how he’s made the money. Uncle Oscar arranges for a lawyer to send a letter to his mother, informing her that a relative has left her five thousand pounds to be distributed over five years, that is, one thousand pounds per year on her birthday. When his mother’s birthday approaches, it seems that the house has been whispering more about money than usual. Paul now has meals with his parents; he is too old for a nanny. When his mother receives the letter about the thousand pounds, she visits the lawyer and asks for five thousand pounds all at once. Paul agrees, and Uncle Oscar arranges to have the whole five thousand pounds given to Paul’s mother. Paul’s mother spends the five thousand pounds on home décor and an expensive new tutor for Paul. But with all the money, the house begins to whisper even louder that there must be more money. Paul is desperate to win, but he isn’t absolutely sure about the Grand National, where he loses a hundred pounds. He’s also unsure about the Lincoln, where he loses fifty pounds. Paul’s mother worries that Paul seems headed toward a mental breakdown, and she suggests that he takes a break at the seaside. Paul wants to bet on the Derby race, and convinces his mother not to send him away until after the Derby. By this time, Paul has had the rocking horse moved from the nursery into his room. Two days before the Derby, Paul’s parents are at a big party in town. Hester suddenly becomes worried about Paul and calls the governess, who reassures her everything is alright. Paul’s parents return home after midnight. Paul’s mother discovers that Paul is still riding his rocking horse in his room. Paul collapses with a brain fever, screaming, “Malabar!” For three days, Paul lies ill and unconscious in his room with his mother at his bedside. Meanwhile, Oscar and Bassett have put their money on Malabar. On the third day, Bassett visits Paul, and informs Paul that Malabar has won. Paul has made over seventy thousand pounds on the race, with his total race winnings at eighty thousand pounds. Paul is overjoyed, but the excitement is too much for him and he dies that night. Oscar comforts Paul’s mother.