Rocking-Horse Winner” is a short story that incorporates elements of the
fable, the fantasy, and the fairy tale. Like a fable, it presents a moral
(although it does so subtly, without preachment). Like a fantasy, it presents
chimerical events (the boy’s ability to foretell the winners of horse races,
the whispering house). Like a fairy tale, it sets the scene with simple
words like those in a Mother Goose story: “There was a woman who was beautiful,
who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck. She married for
love, and the love turned to dust. She had bonny children, yet she felt
they had been thrust upon her, and she could not love them. . . . There
were a boy and two little girls. They lived in a pleasant house, with a
garden, and they had discreet servants, and felt themselves superior to
anyone in the neighbourhood.”
Rocking-Horse Winner” first appeared in Harper's Bazaar magazine
in July 1926. Hutchinson & Company then published it in London later
in the same year in a collection entitled Ghost Stories. In January
1933, Martin Secker published the story in London in another collection,
Lovely Lady. Viking Press in New York published The Lovely Lady
later in the same year.
action takes place in England in the years just after the First World War.
The places include a home in an unidentified locale in or near London;
London's Richmond Park; a car traveling to a home in Hampshire County,
southwest of London; and Lincoln Racecourse in Lincoln, Lincolnshire. The
narrator mentions major races in England well known to readers of the story
when it first appeared in 1926. These races included the Grand National
Handicap Steeplechase at the Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool; the Royal
Ascot at Windsor, west of London; the Epsom Derby at Epsom Downs in Surrey,
southeast of London; the St. Leger Stakes at Doncaster in South Yorkshire;
and the Lincoln, at Lincoln Racecourse in Lincoln, Lincolnshire.
Paul: Boy who knows
that his mother does not love him or his sisters even though she outwardly
shows affection and treats her children kindly. After Paul receives a rocking
horse one Christmas, he rides it often and develops a strange intuitive
power that enables him to correctly predict the winners of horses races.
At racetracks, he wins thousands of pounds that he sets aside to defray
his mother’s debts.
Paul’s mother. She becomes dissatisfied with her marriage after her husband
fails to make enough money to support the elegant lifestyle that has put
the family deep in debt.
Paul’s Father: Man
who works in town and has promising prospects that never seem to materialize
because, as his wife says, he is unlucky.
Bassett: The family
gardener. He initiates Paul into the world of horse racing, and they becoming
Oscar Creswell: Paul’s
uncle and his mother’s sister. He provides Paul the money that the boy
uses to make his first successful bet.
Miss Wilmot: The
Two younger sisters, one named Joan and the other unidentified by name.
Chief Artist: Woman
who sketches drawings for newspaper advertisements placed by drapers. Hester
works for her to make extra money.
H. Lawrence wrote the story in omniscient third-person point of view, enabling
him to reveal the thoughts of the characters. The underlined words in the
following sentences are examples of passages that present the thoughts
Paul's mother only
made several hundreds, and she was again dissatisfied. She so
wanted to be first in something, and she did not succeed, even in making
sketches for drapery advertisements.
His mother had sudden
strange seizures of uneasiness about him. Sometimes, for half an hour,
would feel a sudden anxiety about him that was almost anguish.
wanted to rush to him at once, and know he was safe.
She had bonny children, yet
felt they had been thrust upon her, and she could not love them.
They looked at her coldly, as if they were finding fault with her. And
hurriedly she felt she must cover up some fault in herself.
her preoccupation with material things, Hester neglects to provide Paul
the love he needs to develop into a normal, mentally stable child.
Sense of Values
makes stylish living the chief goal of her marriage. Consequently, her
relationship with her husband and the care and nurture of her children—in
particular, Paul—stagnate. Whenever money becomes available, she spends
beyond her means. Though she and her husband rear their children in a "pleasant
house" with servants and a nurse, they seem to regard them as objects for
display, like the furnishings in the home. Hester's spending and indebtedness
create anxiety that haunts the house and personifies itself by repeatedly
whispering the phrase: "There must be more money."
for material objects, stylish living, and money so obsesses Paul's mother
that she neglects Paul and his sisters. Paul then "inherits" her obsession.
But he wants to win money for his mother, not for himself, in order to
prove that he has the luck that his father lacks. Having luck and money
will make him lovable to his mother, he apparently believes, and silence
the house voices. When he discovers that the five thousand pounds he sets
aside for her is not enough to achieve his goals, he becomes obsessed with
winning more. His mania ultimately kills him.
Creswell acknowledges that Paul's wagering makes him nervous. But rather
than take steps to stop Paul, he encourages him and asks for tips on winning
horses. When Paul lies deathly ill muttering the name of his pick for the
Derby, Oscar runs off "in spite of himself" and places a bet on the horse
at fourteen to one odds.
rides his rocking horse like a knight on a quest. He seeks a great prize,
luck, that will enable him to win money wagering on horses. His winnings
will free his mother from a great monster, indebtedness, that consumes
all of her attention. Once free, she will be able to turn her attention
to Paul and give him the greatest prize of all: love.
the first paragraph of the story, the narrator says Hester does not love
her children. Nevertheless, outwardly she pretends to love them, and people
say, "She is a good mother. She adores her children."
climax occurs when Paul falls off his rocking horse after suffering a seizure
that leads to his death.
picks the winning horse in the Epsom Derby but loses his life. The fortune
he had amassed, eighty thousand pounds (the equivalent of millions of dollars
today), thus became his misfortune.
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. Nonverbal Communication
of the communication in the story comes through the eyes. For example,
on the question of whether the mother loves her children, the narrator
says in the first paragraph that "only she herself, and her children themselves,
knew it was not so. They read it in each other's eyes." Regarding the house
voices, the narrator says, "They would look into each other's eyes, to
see if they had all heard. And each one saw in the eyes of the other two
that they too had heard." After Paul tells his mother early in the story
that he is lucky, the narrator says, "The boy saw she did not believe
him; or rather, that she paid no attention to his assertion." In describing
Paul, the narrator frequently focuses on the boy's eyes to communicate
a mood or a meaning, as in these passages:
boy watched her [his mother] with unsure eyes.
the horse careered, the waving dark hair of the boy tossed, his eyes had
a strange glare in them.
Paul only gave a blue glare from his big, rather close-set eyes.
I got there!" he announced fiercely, his blue eyes still flaring, and his
sturdy long legs straddling apart.
boy gazed at his uncle from those big, hot, blue eyes, set rather close
child had never been to a race-meeting before, and his eyes were blue fire.
child, flushed and with eyes blazing, was curiously serene.
boy watched him with big blue eyes, that had an uncanny cold fire in them,
and he said never a word.
became wild-eyed and strange, as if something were going to explode in
got to know for the Derby!" the child reiterated, his big blue eyes blazing
with a sort of madness.
But the child lifted his uncanny blue eyes.
eyes blazed at her for one strange and senseless second, as he ceased urging
his wooden horse.
neither slept nor regained consciousness, and his eyes were like blue stones.
the rocking horse, the narrator says, "When he [Paul] had ridden to the
end of his mad little journey, he climbed down and stood in front of his
rocking-horse, staring fixedly into its lowered face. Its red mouth was
slightly open, its big eye was wide and glassy-bright." .......The
narrator also tells the reader that "[t]he gardener, a shortish fellow
with a little brown moustache and sharp little brown eyes, tiptoed into
the room, touched his imaginary cap to Paul's mother, and stole to the
bedside, staring with glittering, smallish eyes at the tossing, dying child." .......D.
H. Lawrence's attention to the eyes helps to convey the inmost feelings
of characters in some instances. In other instances, it enhances the mysterious
and sometimes unsettling atmosphere of the story by leaving open to question
what a gaze or a stare means. In addition, it correctly calls attention
to the fact that a good deal of communication between human beings is nonverbal
and that glaring eyes, frowns, furrowed brows, and shrugs can sometimes
communicate more meaning than words.
after the story begins, the narrator says Paul receives a rocking horse
for Christmas. Generally, such a gift is appropriate only for a child between
ages four and eight. Later, the narrator says Paul's mother enrolled him
in Eton, one of the most prestigious public schools in England, for the
autumn term (known as the Michaelmas Half, which runs from September to
the middle of December). Students who attend Eton range in age from thirteen
to eighteen. Paul died sometime in June, about three months before his
scheduled entrance to Eton. The narrator indicates the month of Paul's
death when he reveals that the boy won the Epsom Derby, which always takes
place on the first Saturday in June. Thus, Paul is thirteen at the time
of his death unless his birthday occurs between the first Saturday in June
and the September date of his scheduled Eton entry.
Paul's age is important, inasmuch as it can suggest the state of his mind
at the end of the story. If he is thirteen—or about
to turn thirteen—when he suffers a seizure and falls off his rocking horse,
one may speculate that he suffers from stunted maturity and perhaps
a psychological disorder that alters his perception of reality.
the publication of "The Rocking-Horse Winner" in 1926, many writers have
suggested that Paul's frantic rides on his rocking horse are manifestations
of an Oedipus Complex. In an 1899 book entitled Die
Traumdeutung (Interpretation of Dreams) Austrian neurologist
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of psychoanalysis, introduced this
term to describe a psychological stage of development in which Freud maintained
that a male child unconsciously desires sexual relations with his mother
or a female child unconsciously desires sexual relations with her father.
In coining his term, Freud drew upon the story of Oedipus in Greek mythology.
Here is the story, in brief:
oracle warns King Laius of Thebes that his wife, Jocasta, will bear a son
who will one day kill him. After Jocasta gives birth to a boy, Laius acts
to defeat the prophecy. First, he drives a spike through the child's feet,
then takes him to Mount Cithaeron and orders a shepherd to kill him. But
the shepherd, taking pity on the baby, spares him after tying him to a
tree. A peasant finds the baby and gives him to a childless couple—Polybus
(also Polybius), King of Corinth, and his wife, Periboea (also Merope).
They name the boy Oedipus (meaning swelled foot) and raise him to manhood.
day, when Oedipus visits the oracle at Delphi, the oracle tells Oedipus
that a time will come when he slays his father and marries his mother.
Horrified, Oedipus later strikes out from Corinth. He does not want to
live anywhere near his beloved parents, Polybus and Periboea, lest a trick
of fate cause him to be the instrument of their demise. What he does not
know, of course, is that Polybus and Periboea are not his real parents.
the road to Thebes, which leads away from Corinth, Oedipus encounters his
real father Laius, whom he does not recognize, and several attendants.
Laius, of course, does not recognize Oedipus either. Oedipus and Laius
quarrel over a triviality–who has the right of way. The quarrel leads to
violence, and Oedipus kills Laius and four of his attendants.
Thebes, Oedipus encounters the Sphinx, a winged lion with the head of a
woman. The grotesque creature has killed many Thebans because they could
not answer her riddle: What travels on four feet in the morning, two at
midday, and three in evening? Consequently, the city lives in great terror.
No one can enter or leave the city.
Oedipus approaches the Sphinx, the beast poses the riddle. Oedipus, quick
of mind, spits back the right answer: man. Here is the explanation: As
an infant in the morning of life, a human being crawls on all fours; as
an adult in the midday of life, he walks upright on two legs; as an old
man in the evening of life, he walks on three legs, including a cane.
and outraged, the Sphinx kills herself. Jubilant Thebans then offer this
newcomer the throne of Thebes. Oedipus accepts it and marries its widowed
queen, Jocasta. Jocasta is, of course, the mother of Oedipus, although
no one in Thebes becomes aware of this fact until much later. Thus, the
oracle's prophecy to Laius and Oedipus is fulfilled.
Following are examples of
figures of speech in the story.
the shining modern rocking-horse, behind
the smart doll's house, a voice would start whispering: "There
must be more money! There must be more
And yet the voices
in the house . . . simply trilled and
in a sort of ecstasy:
"There must be more
eyes blazed at her for one strange
urging his wooden horse.
The child had never
been to a race-meeting before, and his eyes were blue fire.
Comparison of the eyes
It came whispering from the
springs of the still-swaying rocking-horse, and even the horse, bending
his wooden, champing head, heard it. The big doll, sitting so pink and
smirking in her new pram, could hear it quite plainly, and seemed to be
smirking all the more self-consciously because of it.
Comparison of the rocking
horse and doll to living beings
It was a soundless
noise, yet rushing and powerful.
The voices in the
house suddenly went mad, like a chorus of frogs on a spring evening.
Comparison of the voices
He neither slept nor regained
consciousness, and his eyes were like blue stones.
Comparison of the Paul's
eyes to stones
Questions and Essay Topics
either of the following:
Add several paragraphs to Lawrence's story indicating that Paul's mother
becomes a better person after her son's death.
Add several paragraphs to Lawrence's story indicating that Paul's mother
remains unchanged after her son's death.
2. The second sentence of
the story says Paul's mother "married for love." Do you believe she was
truly in love or merely infatuated?
3. Is Bassett genuinely
concerned about Paul's welfare, or does he simply regard Paul as a "money
4. When Paul's mother calls
home from the party to ask Miss Wilmot whether Paul is all right, is she
motivated by guilt—and perhaps fear of being viewed as a bad mother—for
leaving him at home? Or is she genuinely concerned about his welfare?
5. Are the house voices
real? Or does Paul hear them because he is mentally disturbed?
6. Well-to-do English parents
in Lawrence's day frequently turned the care of children over to nursemaids
and others on the household servant staff. Do you think Lawrence wrote
"The Rocking-Horse Winner" partly to chastise parents for this practice?
Do you believe this practice can be beneficial under certain circumstances?
7. Write a psychological
profile of Paul. Include research to support your viewpoints.
8. Write a psychological
profile of Paul's mother. Include research to support your viewpoints.