It is quite possible that the first caveman envied his neighbor who had a bigger cave. For whatever reason, the drive to accumulate material goods—money, houses, cars, and more—seems to be hardwired into humans’ DNA. What is worse is the fact that for many people, there never seems to be a point at which they can say, “Yes. I have enough now.” This is driving force that powers D.H. Lawrence’s short story, “The Rocking Horse Winner.” Through its young hero, who only wants to make his mother happy and give her his “luck,” the story illustrates the futility of ever trying to have enough, and it also shows the lengths that love will drive some people to in order to try to make their loved ones happy.
As the story opens, the reader is introduced to Hester, a middle-class woman in London. Married with three children, a boy and two girls, she seems to have an enviable life—a nice house, a garden, and even servants. Yet, “There was always the grinding sense of the shortage of money, though the style was always kept up (Lawrence 223).” Both Hester and her husband have what the narrator calls expensive tastes, and there seems to be a constant underlying feeling in the house that whatever income they have, it is just not enough. Their children quickly pick up on the idea that “There must be more money! There must be more money! (223).” Paul, the only son, is particularly sensitive to the subliminal message that seems to echo throughout the house. He finally asks his mother straight out why they do not have enough money. Hester, bitter over a life that is apparently not as rewarding as she had anticipated, says that Paul’s father has no luck—which means she has none either.
Paul, determined to make his mother happy, tries to create his own luck—and miraculously, he does so by riding his toy rocking horse and “psyching” himself into a state where he can pick horse race winners. With the help of his uncle and one of the servants, Paul gradually parleys a small bet into five thousand pounds (223-229), which he cleverly has sent to his mother under the guise of an inheritance. But no matter how much he makes, it is never enough to soothe his mother’s anxiety or prevent her from spending even more. In the end, Paul literally gallops himself to death on his rocking horse, after making one last prediction and winning 80,000 pounds, a fortune. His mother has financial security (for now), but her son is dead (236).
One of the tragedies of “The Rocking Horse Winner” is the contrast between Paul and his mother. Paul does not care about the money he has won, even though for a young boy, it is a very large amount of cash. He only keeps enough “in reserve” for future bets (228). He plans to have the five thousand pounds given to his mother on a yearly basis, but when she greedily wants it all, he allows that, too. Paul only wants his mother to be happy and not to worry. He only wants the chorus of “There must be more money” to finally stop in his house—but it will never stop. The more money his mother has, the more she spends and the less secure she feels. Sadly, she also misses her son’s love for her. Hester never realizes until it is too late that the greatest treasure she has is her son’s love.
The second tragedy combines Paul’s abnormal sensitivity and the utter lack of the same shown by the two adults who know what he is doing. Neither Paul’s uncle nor Bassett the gardener make any attempt to stop Paul’s obsession. Indeed, both profit from it. Bassett is Paul’s “partner,” making his own bets based on the boy’s odd precognition (227). Once Paul’s uncle discovers his talent, he too profits from the bets (230). He admits that Paul’s strange talent makes him “nervous,” but he does nothing to stop it, even as Paul’s mania grows worse. In the end, no one stops Paul from driving himself into “brain fever” and from there into the grave (235).
Perhaps the worst tragedy is that Hester apparently has some of her son’s unusual mental skills, since she leaves a party and rushes home to find him as he slips into madness. Hester, “all of her tormented motherhood flooding upon her (235),” finally tries to nurture and care for her child, but it is too late to save him. Even in his final delirium, his race predictions take precedence over his mental health, and he earns that fortune of 80,000 pounds for his mother, who will probably run through it and end as she began—with not luck at all. Now, however, she will also be without her son.
The supernatural elements of “The Rocking Horse Winner” do not detract from its central messages. Greed can never be satisfied, even with the help of supernatural means. Hester’s money will never fill the void inside. Paul, sacrificing everything to make her happy, still fails in his quest. His love and his power were not enough, and neither happiness nor luck can be found in that middle-class London home.
- Lawrence, D.H. (2014). The Complete Short Stories of D.H. Lawrence. New York: Penguin. Print.