A reading of a classic short story
‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’ is a short story by D. H. Lawrence, which was first published in 1926. It’s a story about luck, money, and success, and the dangers of chasing after these and investing too much in them. But how we should analyse and interpret the story remains unclear. In this post we’re going to offer some notes towards an analysis of this classic D. H. Lawrence story. You can read ‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’ here.
In summary, ‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’ focuses on a young boy, Paul, who wishes to win money for his mother and who manages to do so by riding his rocking-horse until he enters a state of near-frenzy and he manages to ‘predict’ the name of the horse that will win the next major race. He does this several times, winning ever greater sums of money for his mother, egged on by his Uncle Oscar in whom he confides about the rocking-horse trick. Eventually, however, he rides his rocking-horse into such a frenzy that he collapses and, upon hearing news that he has won a large fortune from his latest bet, he dies. Given this short summary of the story’s plot, what is the moral of the story? It’s difficult to say for certain, but one likely interpretation of ‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’ is that if you expend all your energy trying to accrue wealth, it will end up destroying you. This is, indeed, what it does to Paul: riding his rocking-horse proves very bad for his health.
But this is not the only way in which we might analyse Lawrence’s short story. Is ‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’ meant to be read as symbolic? Some critics (such as Ben Stoltzfus in his book Lacan and Literature: Purloined Pretexts) have noted that Paul, a preadolescent boy, spends a lot of time shut away in his room riding the horse, and that he rides it so frenziedly that he ends up going into a trance. We might add that, tellingly, Paul has moved the rocking-horse from the nursery into his bedroom, suggesting a desire to upgrade from childhood into adolescence, which would include a desire for sexual knowledge and exploration. In summary, is the riding of the rocking-horse supposed to be Freudian sexual code? D. H. Lawrence was very interested in Sigmund Freud’s theories of the unconscious, and he also wrote an essay, ‘Pornography and Obscenity’, against masturbation. To interpret ‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’ as a cautionary tale about the dangers of ‘self-pollution’ seems too reductive, but it may be that this analysis might be linked with the interpretation offered above, and that Lawrence is seeking to draw a parallel between sexual drives and the pursuit of wealth. Here we might mention Freud’s own idea of ‘sublimation’, whereby the male’s Oedipal desire for the mother is repressed and this drive has to find an alternative outlet: chasing financial success might be one such ‘alternative drive’.
‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’: how should we analyse that title in light of the story that follows? On the one hand it seems to describe the story, and the character of Paul, accurately: he uses the rocking-horse to ‘predict’ the winner of the next big horse race, and ends up winning huge sums of money by only betting when he’s completely ‘sure’ that he’s got the right winner. But on the other hand, he ends up being overcome by his own success and the excitement it generates, and dies. In summary, ultimately he is as much a ‘loser’ as a winner – or rather, more a loser than a winner, since the money, and his talent for ‘guessing’ the correct winner, are no good to him when he’s dead.
What significance should we give to the names of the winning horses in Lawrence’s story? The first such named horse is Sansovino, who really did win the Epsom Derby in 1924. Does Lawrence introduce this name into his story to blend a degree of realism into his fantastical story?
In the last analysis, ‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’ is a curious blend of realism with folk-tale elements, given its suggestion of Paul’s supernatural abilities (or those of the rocking-horse) and the narrative patterning of the short story. It’s one of D. H. Lawrence’s finest achievements in short fiction.
Image: Rocking horse by Clem Rutter, 2014, via Wikimedia Commons.