One of the most interesting aspects about D.H. Lawrence’s short-story, “The Rocking-Horse Winner,” (1926) is the story’s haunting, almost horrific imagery. Although the story conveys a harsh theme, that of child-exploitation, the climax of the story and the associated images create an unforgettable experience for the reader. Many great works of fiction defy categorization and draw from various genres. A story such as “The Rocking-Horse Winner” presents a difficulty so far as classifying the story into a specific genre.
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There are good reasons to consider the story as a satirical look at the money-mad state of modern-society as Lawrence experienced it nearly one-hundred years ago. There are also good reasons to consider the story to be a work of fantasy of speculative fiction. In final analysis, the story, though not without aspects of black humor, is probably best regarded as a horror story with a very strong social message.
The story is also, “among other things, a story of the supernatural.” (Moore, 1951, p. 278) and, as such, is very memorable due to the underlying mystery of the story’s fantastical elements. Of course, a sensitive reader might decide or intuit that the source of Paul’s uncanny power to predict the race winers was born out of his fierce desire to be loved, a mechanism or “rational” explanation for the boy’s abilities is never offered.
The absence of any rational explanation for the boy’s ability assures that the reader will assume it is born out of love and innocence, which allows Lawrence the chance to develop his penetrating theme: “The theme of greed illustrates the consequence of a boy’s having to win his mother’s approval through material possessions rather than the unconditional love that parents feel for their children” (Smith, 2002, p. 160) and this theme is an important theme — as important as any theme in literature.
The reason this theme is so important is that no society of civilization can afford to ignore or abuse their children because children represent the future of any given society.
As such, it is the role of
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adults to nurture — rather than exploit — children. However, all too often, and even more-so in Lawrence’s time, children were regarded merely as a “means to an end” or as a nuisance or an obligation. The exploitation of children is symbolized in the story not only by Paul himself, but by the rocking-horse which he rides to his feverish visions of “luck” and money: “the innocent […] young boy who, ironically, rides a child’s toy to satisfy the urges of the adults in his life” (Smith, 2002, p. 160).
Obviously, the even greater irony is that the child, Paul, is in practice more “adult” than the chronologically mature people around him. His actions are born out of the desire to serve and gratify those he loves as he sees their needs and expectations. On the other hand, the “adults” in Paul’s world fail to recognize that Paul is even a person, let alone a child who needs their guidance and protection.
The irony is that the “adults'” pursuit of money is merely a game, a pursuit of children while their true purpose and responsibility in life: to nurture and protect the young and to grow a better world, is left undone while they pursue material greed. That is why, at root, the story is a horror story adn not merely black-satire, because the exploitation of Paul is final: he is made to ride his “luck” until it kills him: “The Rocking-Horse Winner” is a horrible commentary on today’s money-madness-horrible because its evil forces crush the child in the story” (Moore, 1951, p. 277).
The idea that a child’s love is turned through the greed of the adults to nothing more than money…and death creates a tragic ending for the story which makes the story’s moral even more profound.
It is possible that Lawrence was speaking not only, literally, of the children in society who are put at risk by greed and exploitation, but the essential innocence and goodness that is in everyone, whether they are a child or an adult, and how greed and selfishness can corrupt and murder those aspects within individuals. This reading of the stroy views the aspects of the narrative as symbols: the boy, Paul, as a symbol for humanity’s innocence and goodness, the rocking horse as a symbol of the exploitation of childhood, the money as symbols of love turned to greed, and death as symbol of the humanity’s loss of its compassion and innocence.
This type of interpretation allows the story to be read as having a broad, sociological implication and could, in some ways, even be consider a political interpretation. If the story is,”in the truest sense, a horror story” (Moore, 1951, p. 279) part of that true horror comes from the fact that Lawrence was able to reach a universal expression of the social injustices he perceived and comment on these injustices through a cast of characters and a progression of images that could be very widely comprehended.
This story is one of the most powerful, memorable and complex pieces of literature that I have encountered and I think that the fact that it functions not only as a work of art but as a work of deep social significance means that this story deserves a wide readership. There are many stories which seek to point out social ills or to present tragedies which contain a lesson or a moral, but few works of fiction are as haunting or as universally important as D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking-Horse Winner.”
In this tale, “Lawrence has here written a study not only of the gambling neurosis-even the winners are destroyed–but also of the entire money neurosis that destroys so many modern families” (Moore, 1951, p. 278) and he has reminded anyone who cares to observe his story that the price of greed is innocence and love.
Moore, H. T. (1951). The Life and Works of D. H. Lawrence (1st ed.). New York: Twayne
Smith, P. A. (2002). Thematic Guide to Popular Short Stories. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.