In “The Rocking-Horse Winner,” a young boy, Paul, perceives that there is never enough money in his family, he sets out to find a way to get money through luck. He discovers that if he rides his rocking-horse fast enough, he will somehow “know” the name of the winning horse in the next race. He begins to make money and secretly funnel this money to his mother, but the desire for more money only grows more intense instead of going away. He finally rides his rocking-horse so furiously in order to discover the winner of the Derby that he falls into illness and dies, just as the winning horse earns his family an enormous fortune.
The obsession with wealth and material items is pitted against the responsibilities of parenting in “The Rocking-Horse Winner.” It is the responsibility of the parents to provide for the children in a family. It is also the responsibility of the parents to spend money wisely and budget carefully, so that the bills are paid and no one goes without food, clothing, or shelter. However, in this story, author D. H. Lawrence turns this on its ear, making the parents complete failures at financial dealings and their son Paul incredibly gifted at making money, albeit by gambling.
The parents in the story drift from one thing to another, never really finding anything they can do to provide for the family. The mother “tried this thing and the other, but could not find anything successful.” The father, whose main talents are having expensive tastes and being handsome, “seemed as if he would never be able to do anything worth doing.” When Paul gives his mother 5,000 pounds from his winnings, rather than paying off debts and saving for the future, she spends all of it on material things, causing an even more urgent need for more money.
Generosity and Greed
The disparity between Paul’s generosity and his mother’s greed is another theme of “The Rocking-Horse Winner.” Paul generously offers all his winnings to the family, in order to relieve the family’s dire need for money. He seems to have no needs of his own and is motivated solely by the desire to help his mother. Paul’s unselfish generosity is contrasted starkly with the mother’s greed and selfishness. When the mother first receives the news from the lawyer that she has “inherited” 5,000 pounds from a long-lost relative which will be paid out to her in yearly increments of 1,000 pounds (a scheme dreamed up by Paul), she does not inform the family of their good fortune. Instead, she goes immediately to the lawyer and asks to receive the entire amount right away. Paul agrees, and the money is spent foolishly on more material things for the house. Instead of relieving the family’s need for money, Paul’s plan backfires and thus there is a need for even more money.
Paul and his mother are complete opposites. Paul, in his childish innocence, gives and gives to the family, without any desire for thanks and without any desire to keep any of the money for himself. He ultimately gives the most precious gift of all: his life. Hester, Paul’s mother, has no idea where all this money is coming from and does not seem to care. Hester has become so obsessed with wealth that her heart turns completely to stone; she cannot even feel sad when her son dies.
Paul’s desire to earn money for the family can be said to be an unconscious desire to take his father’s place, a concept that psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud termed the “Oedipus complex.” This is a reference to the story from ancient Greece in which Oedipus, who was raised away from his parents, accidently kills his father and marries his mother. Freud suggested that all boys go through a stage where they want to take their father’s place. Paul’s desire to take care of the family’s needs is Oedipal. Since the main way of earning this money—the rocking horse—is also bound up in sexual imagery, it seems clear that Lawrence intentionally characterizes Paul this way.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, D. H. Lawrence, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.