Three of D. H. Lawrence’s most important themes are prominent in “The Rocking-Horse Winner”: the corroding effects of acquisitive behavior on English society, the requirement for a truly loving relationship to achieve happiness and fulfillment, and the existence of forces in the natural world that humans might access if they were not limited by social and cultural conventions. These themes structure and inform the narrative, intertwining so that the presentation and development of each theme is connected to the others. Taken together, they offer a view of the philosophical positions that Lawrence worked toward in his most memorable writing.
Lawrence’s father was a coal miner. He made an adequate living, but his wife had aspirations to a more comfortable and refined social setting. Lawrence himself was more concerned with aesthetic and romantic matters than with monetary ones, but as he began to write about British society he became increasingly displeased with what he felt was an economic system that placed an emphasis on things that he felt were not crucial for human well-being. As he wrote in Apocalypse (1931), “What we want is to destroy our false, inorganic connections, especially those related to money,” a sentiment similar to many others that he expressed throughout his life. The advent of World War I forced Lawrence and his wife, who was of German descent, to move away from the Cornwall coast. Lawrence was living at the time primarily on borrowed funds and, in the words of his wife, was “a walking phenomenon of suspended fury.” In addition, as he became a professional author, dependent on the income his writing produced, he was increasingly involved in negotiations regarding remuneration for his work.
Lawrence wrote “The Rocking-Horse Winner” for a collection of ghost stories being compiled by Lady Cynthia Asquith (who was partially the basis for Hester’s character). He was paid fifteen pounds for the story’s English publication rights and fifty pounds for the American rights. To put this payment in perspective, Virginia Woolf in her 1929 “A Room of One’s Own” recommended a sum of five hundred pounds as minimal to secure an artist’s independence. The sums that Paul’s sure winners return, then, are far beyond what would be required to sustain an upper-middle-class family, and enough to place a family within the reaches of “real money,” if not fabulous wealth. The family’s final winnings of more than eighty thousand pounds would be equivalent to several million pounds in the twenty-first century.
Lawrence chose these impressive sums, far beyond what most of his readers could even contemplate, to demonstrate the futility of seeking ever-larger amounts of money in a futile quest for the elusive satisfaction of being rich. The corrosive effects of such a quest are strikingly illustrated by the ultimate sacrifice that Paul makes. The sacrifice is particularly pathetic, since the love he hopes to give his mother cannot be measured in monetary terms. Paul’s death is an indictment of the social circle in London to which Lawrence was peripherally linked as he became a nationally known author. It represents an expression of what critic Sandra Gilbert has called Lawrence’s revulsion at “the city’s staleness, its walking dead, its mechanised ugliness.”
A preoccupation with money was emblematic in Lawrence’s eyes of the obstacles that prevented a man and a woman from joining in a harmonious partnership built on a mutual understanding of each other’s needs. This utopian goal, which Lawrence recognized as difficult and relatively rarely achieved, was one of the central subjects of his work, and in his finest stories he examines and celebrates both the difficulties a couple has in reaching this goal and the ways in which it might become possible.
In “The Rocking-Horse Winner,” Paul’s parents are so completely alienated from each other that the “love” Hester seeks is, unsurprisingly, transferred to her children, especially her only son. This transference is drawn as a parallel to Lawrence’s own relationship with his mother, who was disappointed to a degree in her marriage, which joined two people of dissimilar sensibilities. Lawrence explored the close relationship between Paul Morrell and his mother in his novel Sons and Lovers (1913), and he wrote to a friend shortly after his mother’s death “We have loved each other almost with a husband and wife love, as well as filal and maternal,” a reflection of the deep emotion that Lawrence felt.
Hester “married for love, and the love turned to dust.” Paul’s father, unnamed, is disdainfully depicted as an absent figure, remote and cold. He is not only unsatisfactory as a male mentor (the role filled by Uncle Oscar, who addresses Paul as “son,” and augmented by Bassett, a kind of surrogate older brother) but also a failure as a man. In a complete dismissal, he is described by Hester as one who is “very unlucky” and by the narrator as one “who never would be able to do anything worth doing.” Paul’s father works in “some office” and his only words in the text are “I don’t know,” spoken stonily, when Hester asks what Malabar means.
As Paul approaches adolescence, his evolving sense of himself as a young man has been severely distorted by the psychic distress he feels in his home, where the unspoken phrase “There must be more money” represents an animistic projection of the psychological condition of the family. The love that Paul desires and that his mother needs is unavailable in the traditional family fashion, leading Paul to undertake his desperate efforts to change the situation.
Lawrence had a degree of disdain for what is regarded as purely rational analysis and maintained a belief in a kind of mystic power in the universe. He expressed this attitude in Apocalypse, where he wrote “We ought to dance with rapture that we should be alive and in the flesh, and part of the living incarnate cosmos.” Paul’s rides on his rocking horse are both a literal and a symbolic version of this dance, as he attempts to join the flow of energy that will reveal the mysteries of the universe. Lawrence’s vivid descriptions of Paul’s rides have an autoerotic component, but they are much more than a youth’s distortions of emerging sexuality. Paul follows an instinctual aspect of his being, the “blood-consciousness” that Lawrence thought was a part of primal man, lost to the civilized citizens of England, and an element of male virility that could only be realized in a proper relationship with a woman. The fact that Paul’s demise is attributed to his need to “force” his horse to take him to “where there was luck” suggests the well-meant but misguided way that Paul seeks access to illumination. His death is a cautionary comment on the misdirection of the life force as a consequence of social constraints that Lawrence railed against throughout his writing life.
As the story begins, luck seems to be simply be a matter of chance, and perhaps more specifically chance which has to do with material and superficial conditions. The first explicit discussion between the characters on luck comes when Paul asks his mother about money and, tellingly, conflates the word "lucre," which means money, with "luck." However, the further Paul asks his mother about luck, the more it becomes apparent that luck is something much more; and at the end of their conversation it is something which Paul must prove to his mother, since she does not believe him. When Paul rides his horse, he speaks of luck as a place which he needs to get to.
One could say justifiably that this story is about love, the inability of love, or how love comes too late. The story begins with the impossibility of love, specifically of Paul's mother loving her children, due to her self-centeredness. In contrast, Paul intensely desires to get his mother's attention by proving that he is lucky, which is to say that he desires her love. His success and luck in gambling seem to only drive her further into selfish desire, but it turns out that the self-destructive aspect of his obsession begins to catch her attention. However, it is not until it this obsession has consumed Paul that his mother makes her first real move of concern and love towards him.
From the very first paragraph of the story, outer appearances are placed in contrast to inner realities. Moreover, although it is assumed that to other people the hidden tensions between the two levels may not be apparent, Lawrence describes all the characters within Paul's family as having a sort of unspoken awareness of what is going on within each other. Although the parents do not seem to complain explicitly about not having enough money, their anxieties come across very clearly and powerfully to their children in the form of the whispering of the house. Paul's mother, in particular, is not very forthright with her feelings, preferring to keep them bottled up within herself, such as when she does not directly speak of her dissatisfaction with the gift Paul secretly gave her but just says that it was "Quite moderately nice."
The driving force of the story is desire: desire for money, luck, love, recognition, expression. In other words, there is always something lacking which ends up producing strong, though not always recognized, emotions. Paul's mother desires more money but never speaks so explicitly about this desire; the house does it for her. Likewise Paul desires his mother's love and recognition. Every desire poses itself as an image of fulfillment, especially for Paul, who imagines a "there" which he can "get" to. However, the fulfillment of this desire - his greatest gambling win and his winning his mother's love - ends up consuming him so entirely that he dies.
The reaction of almost all the characters towards the tensions between inner and outer in the story is, for the most part, to remain silent. Uncle Oscar takes interest in Paul for his precocity in predicting races, but never tries to figure out how it is that Paul gains his insight; or if he does know, then he says and does nothing about it, despite the destructive path it leads Paul to take. Ironically, this silence makes problems and anxieties even more clear and compelling to everyone in the family. What the characters do not say, the house whispers or shouts to them obsessively, so that they can never escape their problems and anxieties.
Although some inner anxieties, which are left unspoken by the characters, end up being articulated by other forces such as the whispering of the house, there are also certain emotional realities which remain unnoticed or only sensed in the dimmest of ways. For the reader and Paul's mother, it is not until the end that we "catch" Paul in the middle of one of his rides; though we may have seen him "urging" his horse on early in the story, the connection among Paul's gambling insight, his madness, and the rocking-horse is not clearly established until the final revelatory scene. Before then, Paul is anxious to keep what he is doing a secret from everyone, even his gambling partners.
In the beginning of the story, Paul is, along with his sisters, still under the care of their nurse. However, by the end, he is beyond everyone in his family, even his mother, who at last wants to love him. For Paul, it is not so much the school that he ends up being able to attend or the tutors whom he works with, but his desperate and obsessive riding of his horse in order to gain gambling insight which at once releases him from the bonds of childhood while at the same time prevents him from developing in a healthy manner. He ends up a kind of exaggerated child, possessing extreme childlike passions and fascinations, without cuteness and pliability.