D. H. Lawrence was writing during the early part of the twentieth century, and he, like most writers of the day, was significantly influenced by World War I. He had read and loved the novels of nineteenth-century writers George Eliot, author of Silas Marner, and Thomas Hardy, author of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but grew dissatisfied with the predictability of such characters. After the war, many people began to; question the old ways of looking at the world. Lawrence joined in the questioning by making his characters less sure of themselves, less bound by the rules of polite society that dominated nineteeth-century fiction.
Lawrence became interested in the psychological motivations for why people do the things they do. Psychology as a science was in its infancy at this time. Sigmund Freud, the “father” of modern psychology, was formulating his theories regarding the unconscious through observing his patients at his practice in Vienna. Lawrence was also convinced that the modern way of life, long hours at cruel jobs for little pay, was dehumanizing. His characters were often failures in relationships who felt alienated in their misery. Furthermore, his writing was frequently embellished with themes about greed, materialism, and degrading work, which were issues of increasing concern to people at the time.
The symbolism in this story is very sexually oriented. The rocking horse represents both Paul’s desire to make money for his mother and his own sexuality. The rocking horse is his “mount” which is “forced” onwards in a “furious ride” towards “frenzy.” These descriptions are very suggestive of sexual activity. However, this is disturbing because Paul is very young and he is participating in this act for the sake of his mother. The rocking horse can also represent the fact that the overwhelming desire for money is a road that leads to nowhere, since this is a rocking horse that does not actually travel anywhere. Also, the desire for wealth can be said to be extremely unhealthy as well, since it results in Hester’s unhappiness and Paul’s death.
The opening paragraphs of “The Rocking Horse Winner” are written in a style similar to that of a fairy tale. Instead of “once upon a time,” though, Lawrence begins with “There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck.” This is a conscious attempt on the part of the author to use the traditional oral storytelling technique. This story also combines the supernatural elements of a fable, mainly Paul’s ability to “know” the winners just by riding his rocking horse, with the serious themes of an unhappy marriage and an unhealthy desire for wealth at all costs. The story begins with fable-like simplicity but ends with a serious message about wasted lives.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, D. H. Lawrence, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.