D. H. Lawrence’s The Rocking-Horse Winner is the story of a boy’ s gift for picking the winners in horse races. An omniscient narrator relates the tale of a boy whose family is always short of money. His mother is incapable of showing love and is obsessed with the status that material wealth can provide. Her son is acutely aware of his mother’s desire for money, and he is motivated to take action. He wants to help her, but he also wants to silence the voice that haunts him, the voice of the house itself whispering,”There must be more money! There must be more money!”
Paul questions his mother about the family’s circumstances. When he asks her why they do not have a car and why they are the “poor members of the family,” she responds “it’s because your father has no luck.” Dissatisfied with her answer, the boy presses her for an explanation of what makes one person lucky and another unlucky. Finally, he declares that he knows himself to be lucky because God told him so. With the help of Basset the gardener and his mother’s brother Oscar, Paul sets out to prove his brazen assertion true by picking the winners in horse races. While riding on his rocking horse, Paul envisions the winners.
Paul proves to be unnaturally talented at divining the winners of the races, and before too long he has saved a considerable sum of money. When his uncle asks him what he plans to do with the money he reveals that he wants to give it to his mother. He hopes that his contribution will bring her luck and make the house stop whispering. Because Paul wants to keep his success at betting a secret, Paul arranges through his uncle to give his mother an anonymous gift of a thousand pounds each year for five years. His gift does not have the intended effect, however. Instead of being delighted when she opens the envelope on her birthday, Paul’s mother is indifferent,”her voice cold and absent.” Desperate to please her, the boy agrees to let his mother have the whole five thousand at once.
Instead of quieting the voices in house, Paul’s generous gift causes the voices to go “mad, like a chorus of frogs on a spring evening.” Although his mother finally can afford some of the fine things she has been craving, like fresh flowers and private school for Paul, the voices just “trilled and screamed in a sort of ecstasy.” The more Paul gives, the more his mother and the voices in the house demand. Though his uncle tries to calm him, Paul becomes obsessed with picking the winner of the upcoming Derby, “his blue eyes blazing with a sort of madness” as he rides his rocking horse. The mother feels uncharacteristically sympathetic toward her son and urges him to join the family at seaside, but Paul insists on staying until after the Derby.
The reason that Paul needs to stay in the house until the Derby is that his “secret of secrets” is his childhood rocking horse. The secret that he has never revealed to Basset or Uncle Oscar is that he is able to ride the rocking horse, which he has long since outgrown, until the wooden horse reveals to him the name of the winner in the next race. With so much riding on the Derby and the house whispering more insistently than ever, Paul knows he must be prepared for the ride of his young life. In fact, Paul is so anxious that even his mother feels the tension and suffers “sudden strange seizures of anxiety about him.” Nevertheless, she decides to attend a big party two nights before the Derby, leaving Paul at home.
Throughout the evening the mother is distracted by worry about her son’s well-being. When she and her husband come home around one o’clock, she rushes immediately to Paul’s room. Standing outside his door, the mother is frozen in her tracks by a “strange, heavy, and yet not loud noise” coming from inside the room. When she finally gathers the courage to enter the room she sees her son “in his green pajamas, madly urging on the rocking-horse.” She has arrived just in time to here him cry out ‘”It’s Malabar!’ … in a powerful, strange voice.” Then, “his eyes blazed at her for one strange and senseless second” and he crashes to the floor unconscious.
Neither the mother nor the father understand the significance of the word, but Uncle Oscar knows that it is one of the horses racing in the Derby. Oscar, “in spite of himself,” places a bet on Malabar and passes on the tip to Basset. By the third day, the day of the Derby, the boy has still not regained consciousness and his condition appears to be worsening. Desperate for anything that might help her son, the mother allows Basset a short visit with Paul. Paul does regain consciousness, but just long enough to learn that Malabar had been the winner and that he has made over eighty thousand pounds for his mother. His mother still does not acknowledge that her son had been lucky or that she truly loves him. At the moment of Paul’s death, Oscar chides his sister: “My God, Hester, you’re eighty-odd thousand pounds the to good, and a poor devil of a son to the bad.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, D. H. Lawrence, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.