The Rocking-Horse Winner
A Short Story by D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Publication Dates
Point of View
Plot Summary
Tragic Irony
Nonverbal Communication
Paul's Age
Freudian Interpretation
Figures of Speech
Questions and Essay Topics
Complete Free Text
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2008.
Revised in 2010..©
Type of Work

.......“The Rocking-Horse Winner” is a short story that incorporates elements of the fable, the fantasy, and the fairy tale. Like a fable, it presents a moral (although it does so subtly, without preachment). Like a fantasy, it presents chimerical events (the boy’s ability to foretell the winners of horse races, the whispering house). Like a fairy tale, it sets the scene with simple words like those in a Mother Goose story: “There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck. She married for love, and the love turned to dust. She had bonny children, yet she felt they had been thrust upon her, and she could not love them. . . . There were a boy and two little girls. They lived in a pleasant house, with a garden, and they had discreet servants, and felt themselves superior to anyone in the neighbourhood.” 
Publication Dates

.......“The Rocking-Horse Winner” first appeared in Harper's Bazaar magazine in July 1926. Hutchinson & Company then published it in London later in the same year in a collection entitled Ghost Stories. In January 1933, Martin Secker published the story in London in another collection, The Lovely Lady. Viking Press in New York published The Lovely Lady later in the same year. 


.......The action takes place in England in the years just after the First World War. The places include a home in an unidentified locale in or near London; London's Richmond Park; a car traveling to a home in Hampshire County, southwest of London; and Lincoln Racecourse in Lincoln, Lincolnshire. The narrator mentions major races in England well known to readers of the story when it first appeared in 1926. These races included the Grand National Handicap Steeplechase at the Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool; the Royal Ascot at Windsor, west of London; the Epsom Derby at Epsom Downs in Surrey, southeast of London; the St. Leger Stakes at Doncaster in South Yorkshire; and the Lincoln, at Lincoln Racecourse in Lincoln, Lincolnshire. 


Paul: Boy who knows that his mother does not love him or his sisters even though she outwardly shows affection and treats her children kindly. After Paul receives a rocking horse one Christmas, he rides it often and develops a strange intuitive power that enables him to correctly predict the winners of horses races. At racetracks, he wins thousands of pounds that he sets aside to defray his mother’s debts.
Hester: Paul’s mother. She becomes dissatisfied with her marriage after her husband fails to make enough money to support the elegant lifestyle that has put the family deep in debt.
Paul’s Father: Man who works in town and has promising prospects that never seem to materialize because, as his wife says, he is unlucky. 
Bassett: The family gardener. He initiates Paul into the world of horse racing, and they becoming betting partners.
Oscar Creswell: Paul’s uncle and his mother’s sister. He provides Paul the money that the boy uses to make his first successful bet.
Miss Wilmot: The family nurse. 
Paul’s Siblings: Two younger sisters, one named Joan and the other unidentified by name.
Chief Artist: Woman who sketches drawings for newspaper advertisements placed by drapers. Hester works for her to make extra money.

Point of View

.......D. H. Lawrence wrote the story in omniscient third-person point of view, enabling him to reveal the thoughts of the characters. The underlined words in the following sentences are examples of passages that present the thoughts of characters.

Paul's mother only made several hundreds, and she was again dissatisfied. She so wanted to be first in something, and she did not succeed, even in making sketches for drapery advertisements. 

His mother had sudden strange seizures of uneasiness about him. Sometimes, for half an hour, she would feel a sudden anxiety about him that was almost anguish. She wanted to rush to him at once, and know he was safe

She had bonny children, yet she felt they had been thrust upon her, and she could not love them. They looked at her coldly, as if they were finding fault with her. And hurriedly she felt she must cover up some fault in herself

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2008
.......A  beautiful woman blessed with advantages marries a handsome man for love, but the love eventually runs dry. Feeling as if her three children—a boy and two girls—“had been thrust upon her,” the narrator says, she resents them in her heart. Outwardly, however, she behaves as if she loves them dearly, and people say she is wonderful mother. She does not fool the children, however. They know she does not love them, nor anyone else. They see it in her eyes.
.......The children and their parents reside in a nice house with “discreet” servants, but the mother and father never seem to have enough money to support their elegant lifestyle even though they both have incomes. At his office in town, the father has promising business prospects, but that is all they are—promising. 
.......The parents try various schemes to increase their income, but financial success eludes them. 
.......And so the house comes to be haunted by the unspoken phrase: There must be more money!
.......At Christmas, even the rocking horse, the teddy bear, the big doll in its pram, and the puppy hear the phrase.
.......One day, Paul asks his mother, Hester, why the family always borrows the car of her brother, Oscar Creswell, instead of getting one of its own. She explains that they lack the money to buy one. When her husband tries to make more money, he has no luck. If you're lucky, she tells Paul, you have money. That is why it is better to be born lucky than rich. When asserts that he himself is lucky, his mother does not seem to believe him. Peeved at her lack of faith in him but wanting to prove himself to her, he goes off by himself wondering how to generate luck. In the following days, he rides his rocking horse in the nursery in a wild charge to nowhere while his sisters play with their dolls. Getting off, he commands the horse “to take me where there is luck,” then remounts it and rides on, whipping the horse on the neck with a lash Uncle Oscar bought for him. Paul's nurse, Miss Wilmot, cautions him that his rough riding will break the toy, and his sister Joan says, “I wish he’d leave off!”
.......When Uncle Oscar visits him one day with his mother, the boy is riding hard as usual.
.......“Riding a winner?” the uncle says.
.......His mother tells the boy that he is getting too big to be riding a rocking horse. But Paul does not respond until he completes his ride. When he dismounts, he says, “Well, I got there.” His mother asks where, and he says, “Where I wanted to go.” When Uncle Oscar asks what he named the horse, Paul says he has different names. In the previous week, his name was Sansovino, after the name of a horse that won the race at Ascot. His sister explains that the family’s gardener, Bassett, keeps Paul up to date on racing news. Basset, who served as Creswell's batman (military officer's assistant) in the war (the First World War, known in author Lawrence's time as the Great War), loves horse racing and places bets for Paul. Later, when Creswell takes Paul for a ride through the countryside to his home in Hampshire, he asks the boy for advice on which horse to bet on in the Lincoln race. Paul recommends Daffodil.
.......“What about Mirza?” 
.......Paul says, “I only know the winner.”
.......When he began gambling, Paul says, he lost five shillings Basset had given him. Then he started winning with ten shillings from Uncle Oscar and concluded that his uncle had passed luck onto him. At all costs, though, he wants his uncle to keep his betting a secret. After Creswell agrees to remain mum on the subject, he asks the boy how much he plans to bet on Daffodil. Paul’s answer—three hundred pounds—stuns and amuses him. 
.......Sometime later, he takes Paul to the Lincoln races, where Oscar bets on Mirza and gives Paul money to place a bet.
.......“The child had never been to a race-meeting before," the narrator says, "and his eyes were blue fire.”
.......Daffodil wins and Mirza finishes third.
.......Uncle Oscar then asks Paul whether he is telling the truth about the amounts of money that he bets. Paul affirms that he is and says his uncle can become partners with him and Bassett if he is so inclined. But the boy again asks him to keep everything a secret.
.......One afternoon, Creswell takes Paul and Basset to Richmond Park (a recreation area in London). There, Bassett tells Creswell that he and Paul lose only when they are in doubt about a horse. But they always win when Paul regards a particular horse as a sure thing.
......."It's as if he had it from heaven,” Bassett says. 
.......Bassett keeps all of Paul’s winnings for him under lock and key except for twenty pounds held in reserve in the deposit of the Turf Commission.
.......In another race, Paul is sure about a horse named Lively Spark when odds are ten to one against it. Paul wins ten thousand pounds, Basset five thousand, and Uncle Oscar two thousand. When Creswell asks Paul about his plans for his winnings, the boy tells him he is reserving it for his mother, who has no luck because his father has no luck. After his mother gets the money, the house will stops whispering that the family is short of money, Paul says.
.......Paul gives his uncle five thousand pounds to deposit with the family lawyer. The lawyer in turn is to give Paul’s mother a thousand pounds each year on her birthday but is not to reveal the source of the money except to say that a relative had reserved it for her.
.......His mother, meanwhile, had begun to earn extra money sketching figures of women in the latest fashions. An artist friend for whom she works sells the sketches to drapers for their newspaper ads. However, because her wages are meager—far less than her artist friend makes—Hester remains unhappy.
.......On her birthday in November, she receives her first thousand of Paul's winnings. However, she asks the lawyer to give her the rest of the money to defray her mounting debts. That afternoon, Uncle Oscar informs Paul of his mother’s request, leaving it up to him whether she should get the full amount.
.......“Oh, let her have it,” Paul decides, saying he can get more when he bets on the Grand National, the Lincolnshire, or the Derby.
In the following months, Paul’s mother outfits the house with luxurious furnishings and flowers, hires a tutor for Paul, and enrolls him in Eton (prestigious secondary school in Berkshire) for autumn. But the house voices do not stop. Instead, they become incessant: “There must be more money . . . more than ever!” They scare Paul.
.......Although he studies Latin and Greek with his tutor, he spends most of his time discussing horses with Bassett. Unfortunately, he receives no flashes of inspiration, as before, and he loses a hundred pounds at the Grand National and another hundred at Lincolnshire. 
.......“He becomes wild-eyed and strange,” the narrator says.
.......Desperate, Paul says, “I’ve got to know for the Derby!”
.......His mother tries to persuade him to take time off and go to the seaside to calm his nerves, but Paul says he prefers to remain at home until after the Derby. She assents to his wishes, but makes him promise not to preoccupy himself with the races.
.......“You needn’t worry,” he says.
.......The reason the boy does not want to go away is his rocking horse, which is now in his bedroom.
.......Two days before the Derby, Paul’s mother attends an evening party. Suddenly, she becomes terribly uneasy about the boy, as if something bad is happening to him, so she calls home and asks Miss Wilmot whether Paul is all right.
......."He went to bed as right as a trivet,” she tells Paul’s mother. “Shall I run up and look at him?"
.......Paul’s mother, satisfied that the boy is in no danger, tells the nurse not to bother. Besides, she says, she and her husband will return home soon.
.......When they arrive at about 1 o’clock, Paul’s father makes himself a drink and his mother goes upstairs to check on the boy. Outside his room, she hears a noise—“soundless, yet rushing and powerful”—coming from inside. When she enters the room and turns on the light, she sees Paul riding the rocking horse in a frenzy.
.......“What are you doing?”
.......In “a strange, powerful voice,” the narrator says, Paul cries out, “It’s Malabar!”
.......He then falls from the horse and lies unconscious. His mother runs to him.
.......Afflicted with “some brain-fever,” the narrator says, “he talked and tossed, and his mother sat stonily by his side."
.......Paul shouts, "Malabar! It's Malabar! Bassett, Bassett, I know! It's Malabar!"
.......During the next three days, Paul remains in a stupor. Neither his father nor mother knows what Malabar means, but Oscar informs them that it is the name of a horse entered in the Derby.
.......Oscar and Bassett later confer, and Oscar bets a thousand pounds on Malabar at odds of fourteen to one. Bassett places a bet for Paul.
.......On the evening of the third day, Oscar does not return, but his mother allows Bassett to enter the room in hopes that he might say something to revive Paul.
.......“Master Paul,” he says, “Malabar came in first all right, a clean win. I did as you told me. You've made over seventy thousand pounds, you have; you've got over eighty thousand.”
.......Paul says, “I call that lucky, don't you, mother? Over eighty thousand pounds! I knew, didn't I know I knew? Malabar came in all right. . . I never told you, mother, that if I can ride my horse, and get there, then I'm absolutely sure—oh, absolutely! Mother, did I ever tell you? I am lucky!"
......."No, you never did," said his mother.
.......During the night, Paul dies.
.......As he lies before her, Hester hears the voice of her brother: “My God, Hester, you're eighty-odd thousand to the good, and a poor devil of a son to the bad. But, poor devil, poor devil, he's best gone out of a life where he rides his rocking-horse to find a winner."


.......In her preoccupation with material things, Hester neglects to provide Paul the love he needs to develop into a normal, mentally stable child. 

Faulty Sense of Values

.......Hester makes stylish living the chief goal of her marriage. Consequently, her relationship with her husband and the care and nurture of her children—in particular, Paul—stagnate. Whenever money becomes available, she spends beyond her means. Though she and her husband rear their children in a "pleasant house" with servants and a nurse, they seem to regard them as objects for display, like the furnishings in the home. Hester's spending and indebtedness create anxiety that haunts the house and personifies itself by repeatedly whispering the phrase: "There must be more money."


.......Lust for material objects, stylish living, and money so obsesses Paul's mother that she neglects Paul and his sisters. Paul then "inherits" her obsession. But he wants to win money for his mother, not for himself, in order to prove that he has the luck that his father lacks. Having luck and money will make him lovable to his mother, he apparently believes, and silence the house voices. When he discovers that the five thousand pounds he sets aside for her is not enough to achieve his goals, he becomes obsessed with winning more. His mania ultimately kills him.


.......Oscar Creswell acknowledges that Paul's wagering makes him nervous. But rather than take steps to stop Paul, he encourages him and asks for tips on winning horses. When Paul lies deathly ill muttering the name of his pick for the Derby, Oscar runs off "in spite of himself" and places a bet on the horse at fourteen to one odds. 


.......Paul rides his rocking horse like a knight on a quest. He seeks a great prize, luck, that will enable him to win money wagering on horses. His winnings will free his mother from a great monster, indebtedness, that consumes all of her attention. Once free, she will be able to turn her attention to Paul and give him the greatest prize of all: love.


.......In the first paragraph of the story, the narrator says Hester does not love her children. Nevertheless, outwardly she pretends to love them, and people say, "She is a good mother. She adores her children."


.......The climax occurs when Paul falls off his rocking horse after suffering a seizure that leads to his death. 

Tragic Irony

.......Paul picks the winning horse in the Epsom Derby but loses his life. The fortune he had amassed, eighty thousand pounds (the equivalent of millions of dollars today), thus became his misfortune. 

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Nonverbal Communication

.......Much of the communication in the story comes through the eyes. For example, on the question of whether the mother loves her children, the narrator says in the first paragraph that "only she herself, and her children themselves, knew it was not so. They read it in each other's eyes." Regarding the house voices, the narrator says, "They would look into each other's eyes, to see if they had all heard. And each one saw in the eyes of the other two that they too had heard." After Paul tells his mother early in the story that he is lucky, the narrator says, "The boy saw she did not believe him; or rather, that she paid no attention to his assertion." In describing Paul, the narrator frequently focuses on the boy's eyes to communicate a mood or a meaning, as in these passages:

..1....The boy watched her [his mother] with unsure eyes.
..2....Wildly the horse careered, the waving dark hair of the boy tossed, his eyes had a strange glare in them.
..3....But Paul only gave a blue glare from his big, rather close-set eyes.
..4...."Well, I got there!" he announced fiercely, his blue eyes still flaring, and his sturdy long legs straddling apart.
..5....The boy gazed at his uncle from those big, hot, blue eyes, set rather close together.
..6....The child had never been to a race-meeting before, and his eyes were blue fire. 
..7....The child, flushed and with eyes blazing, was curiously serene. 
..8....The boy watched him with big blue eyes, that had an uncanny cold fire in them, and he said never a word.
..9....He became wild-eyed and strange, as if something were going to explode in him.
10...."I've got to know for the Derby!" the child reiterated, his big blue eyes blazing with a sort of madness.
11... But the child lifted his uncanny blue eyes.
12....His eyes blazed at her for one strange and senseless second, as he ceased urging his wooden horse.
13....He neither slept nor regained consciousness, and his eyes were like blue stones. 
.......Of the rocking horse, the narrator says, "When he [Paul] had ridden to the end of his mad little journey, he climbed down and stood in front of his rocking-horse, staring fixedly into its lowered face. Its red mouth was slightly open, its big eye was wide and glassy-bright."
.......The narrator also tells the reader that "[t]he gardener, a shortish fellow with a little brown moustache and sharp little brown eyes, tiptoed into the room, touched his imaginary cap to Paul's mother, and stole to the bedside, staring with glittering, smallish eyes at the tossing, dying child."
.......D. H. Lawrence's attention to the eyes helps to convey the inmost feelings of characters in some instances. In other instances, it enhances the mysterious and sometimes unsettling atmosphere of the story by leaving open to question what a gaze or a stare means. In addition, it correctly calls attention to the fact that a good deal of communication between human beings is nonverbal and that glaring eyes, frowns, furrowed brows, and shrugs can sometimes communicate more meaning than words.

Paul's Age

.......Shortly after the story begins, the narrator says Paul receives a rocking horse for Christmas. Generally, such a gift is appropriate only for a child between ages four and eight. Later, the narrator says Paul's mother enrolled him in Eton, one of the most prestigious public schools in England, for the autumn term (known as the Michaelmas Half, which runs from September to the middle of December). Students who attend Eton range in age from thirteen to eighteen. Paul died sometime in June, about three months before his scheduled entrance to Eton. The narrator indicates the month of Paul's death when he reveals that the boy won the Epsom Derby, which always takes place on the first Saturday in June. Thus, Paul is thirteen at the time of his death unless his birthday occurs between the first Saturday in June and the September date of his scheduled Eton entry.
.......Knowing Paul's age is important, inasmuch as it can suggest the state of his mind at the end of the story. If he is thirteen—or about to turn thirteen—when he suffers a seizure and falls off his rocking horse, one may speculate that he suffers from stunted maturity and perhaps a psychological disorder that alters his perception of reality.

Freudian Interpretation

.......Since the publication of "The Rocking-Horse Winner" in 1926, many writers have suggested that Paul's frantic rides on his rocking horse are manifestations of an Oedipus Complex. In an 1899 book entitled Die Traumdeutung (Interpretation of Dreams) Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of psychoanalysis, introduced this term to describe a psychological stage of development in which Freud maintained that a male child unconsciously desires sexual relations with his mother or a female child unconsciously desires sexual relations with her father. In coining his term, Freud drew upon the story of Oedipus in Greek mythology. Here is the story, in brief:
.......An oracle warns King Laius of Thebes that his wife, Jocasta, will bear a son who will one day kill him. After Jocasta gives birth to a boy, Laius acts to defeat the prophecy. First, he drives a spike through the child's feet, then takes him to Mount Cithaeron and orders a shepherd to kill him. But the shepherd, taking pity on the baby, spares him after tying him to a tree. A peasant finds the baby and gives him to a childless couple—Polybus (also Polybius), King of Corinth, and his wife, Periboea (also Merope). They name the boy Oedipus (meaning swelled foot) and raise him to manhood. 
.......One day, when Oedipus visits the oracle at Delphi, the oracle tells Oedipus that a time will come when he slays his father and marries his mother. Horrified, Oedipus later strikes out from Corinth. He does not want to live anywhere near his beloved parents, Polybus and Periboea, lest a trick of fate cause him to be the instrument of their demise. What he does not know, of course, is that Polybus and Periboea are not his real parents.
.......On the road to Thebes, which leads away from Corinth, Oedipus encounters his real father Laius, whom he does not recognize, and several attendants. Laius, of course, does not recognize Oedipus either. Oedipus and Laius quarrel over a triviality–who has the right of way. The quarrel leads to violence, and Oedipus kills Laius and four of his attendants. 
.......Outside Thebes, Oedipus encounters the Sphinx, a winged lion with the head of a woman. The grotesque creature has killed many Thebans because they could not answer her riddle: What travels on four feet in the morning, two at midday, and three in evening? Consequently, the city lives in great terror. No one can enter or leave the city. 
.......When Oedipus approaches the Sphinx, the beast poses the riddle. Oedipus, quick of mind, spits back the right answer: man. Here is the explanation: As an infant in the morning of life, a human being crawls on all fours; as an adult in the midday of life, he walks upright on two legs; as an old man in the evening of life, he walks on three legs, including a cane. 
.......Surprised and outraged, the Sphinx kills herself. Jubilant Thebans then offer this newcomer the throne of Thebes. Oedipus accepts it and marries its widowed queen, Jocasta. Jocasta is, of course, the mother of Oedipus, although no one in Thebes becomes aware of this fact until much later. Thus, the oracle's prophecy to Laius and Oedipus is fulfilled.

Figures of Speech

Following are examples of figures of speech in the story.


Behind the shining modern rocking-horse, behind the smart doll's house, a voice would start whispering: "There must be more money! There must be more money!" 
And yet the voices in the house . . . simply trilled and screamed in a sort of ecstasy: "There must be more money! 

His eyes blazed at her for one strange and senselesssecond, as he ceased urging his wooden horse. 

The child had never been to a race-meeting before, and his eyes were blue fire.
Comparison of the eyes to fire

It came whispering from the springs of the still-swaying rocking-horse, and even the horse, bending his wooden, champing head, heard it. The big doll, sitting so pink and smirking in her new pram, could hear it quite plainly, and seemed to be smirking all the more self-consciously because of it. 
Comparison of the rocking horse and doll to living beings

It was a soundless noise, yet rushing and powerful.
The voices in the house suddenly went mad, like a chorus of frogs on a spring evening.
Comparison of the voices to frogs

He neither slept nor regained consciousness, and his eyes were like blue stones.
Comparison of the Paul's eyes to stones

Study Questions and Essay Topics

1..Do either of the following: 
....a. Add several paragraphs to Lawrence's story indicating that Paul's mother becomes a better person after her son's death.
....b. Add several paragraphs to Lawrence's story indicating that Paul's mother remains unchanged after her son's death. 
2. The second sentence of the story says Paul's mother "married for love." Do you believe she was truly in love or merely infatuated?
3. Is Bassett genuinely concerned about Paul's welfare, or does he simply regard Paul as a "money machine?"
4. When Paul's mother calls home from the party to ask Miss Wilmot whether Paul is all right, is she motivated by guilt—and perhaps fear of being viewed as a bad mother—for leaving him at home? Or is she genuinely concerned about his welfare? 
5. Are the house voices real? Or does Paul hear them because he is mentally disturbed?
6. Well-to-do English parents in Lawrence's day frequently turned the care of children over to nursemaids and others on the household servant staff. Do you think Lawrence wrote "The Rocking-Horse Winner" partly to chastise parents for this practice? Do you believe this practice can be beneficial under certain circumstances?
7. Write a psychological profile of Paul. Include research to support your viewpoints. 
8. Write a psychological profile of Paul's mother. Include research to support your viewpoints.