"The Rocking-Horse Winner" (1926) is one of D. H. Lawrence's most popular short stories, an Oedipal drama seasoned with a dash of social commentary and a pinch of the supernatural. It follows the short and tragic life of a boy named Paul, who thinks he has amazing luck after realizing he can predict racehorse winners by furiously riding his rocking horse until he reaches a trance-like state.
Unfortunately, as his family takes advantage his gift and starts raking in the dough, Paul's luck begins to kill him.
After making a huge winning at the big Derby Stakes race, all that rocking leads to Paul's untimely death, leaving his family to ponder if all that money was really worth it.
Yikes. Maybe Paul's luck wasn't such a gift after all.
The story touches on several of the themes Lawrence is most well known for—well, some of them at least. While it doesn't feature the same explicit sexuality that made Lawrence notorious in his day, much like Sons and Lovers, "The Rocking-Horse Winner" focuses quite a bit on the relationship between a mother and her son.
Lawrence's interest in mother-son relationships partly stems from his relationship with his own mother, an educated woman who regretted her marriage to Lawrence's coal-miner father. Much of her frustrated ambition was transferred onto her children, and Lawrence's intellectual abilities were cultivated under her care. Just like Lawrence's own experience growing up, "The Rocking-Horse Winner" explores the impact a mother's own frustrations and sense of failure can have on a sensitive and intelligent child who craves her love.
"The Rocking-Horse Winner" also explores the tension between what we think and what we feel. In the story, the adults are caught up in what they think they should want: Money, success, nice furniture, stuff like that. They are often described as cold or unfeeling, and obsessed with visible signs of wealth and class position.
Paul, on the other hand, is just a kid. His wants and needs are what he genuinely feels rather than what he thinks he should feel. While the adults are concerned with how they measure up to society's definitions of success, Paul is more concerned with receiving his mother's love and seeing his family happy and together.
Paul's way of looking at the world conflicts with the way the adults in the story see things, but when he discovers his luck at predicting winning racehorses, he finds a way to satisfy his family's superficial desires. The story rocks back and forth between Paul's attempts to satisfy the genuine desires of his young heart as well as the mental desires of his ruthless family, asking us: Are we doomed to be destroyed by one or the other?
Wouldn't it be nice be able to repay your parents for all they've done for you? While we're sure they'd appreciate it, we certainly hope it wouldn't make them love you any more than they already do.
In Lawrence's story, Paul uses his rocking horse and his luck as a way to help support his parents and their expensive tastes, thereby earning his mother's love. Pretty messed up, right?
Well, with entire TV shows dedicated to self-obsessed Dance Moms and helicopter parenting becoming more widespread, the idea of a child doing whatever it takes to please a demanding parent isn't all that farfetched.
In this story, Lawrence spins a fable out of Paul and his lucky rocking horse, reminding parents and children alike of the dangers of greed and the importance of love and self-acceptance. Ultimately, the story tells us that at the end of the day, we can only be true to ourselves. Jumping through hoops (or rocking on horses) for the approval of others will only burn us out—true happiness will only come once we decide to commit ourselves to something we passionately believe in, not because we're trying to fulfill other people's expectations. As we can see in this story, seesawing between one's desires and others' expectations can't be sustainable in the long run.
D. H. Lawrence
The University of Nottingham maintains a website devoted to Lawrence's life and works.
Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner"
An e-text version of the story is available on this website.
The Rocking Horse Winner (1998)
A short film directed by Michael Almereyda and starring Eric Stolz.
The Rocking Horse Winner (1983)
A short film adaptation featuring Gabriel Byrne.
The Rocking Horse Winner (1949)
A full-length film adaptation of the story.
The Derby at Epsom (1820) by Theodore Gericault
A painting of the Derby race, the last race for which Paul predicts a winner.