D.H. Lawrence’s short story “The Rocking Horse Winner” has to be one of the best ever written. This public domain story is presented below with my footnotes added and a discussion at the end. The footnotes allow one to switch back and forth without losing your place and should work well on a tablet, phone, or eReader. This is simple admiration for a story that shines brighter than others and explores why. This will be a regular theme at NarrativePalate.com, looking at the very best short stories in the public domain.
The Rocking Horse Winner-D.H. Lawrence
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. 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. Yet what it was that she must cover up she never knew. Nevertheless, when her children were present, she always felt the centre of her heart go hard. This troubled her, and in her manner she was all the more gentle and anxious for her children, as if she loved them very much. Only she herself knew that at the centre of her heart was a hard little place that could not feel love, no, not for anybody. Everybody else said of her: “She is such a good mother. She adores her children.” Only she herself, and her children themselves, knew it was not so. They read it in each other’s eyes. 
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.
Although they lived in style, they felt always an anxiety in the house. There
was never enough money. The mother had a small income, and the father had a
small income, but not nearly enough for the social position which they had to
keep up. The father went into town to some office. But though he had good
prospects, these prospects never materialised. There was always the grinding
sense of the shortage of money, though the style was always kept up.
At last the mother said: “I will see if I can’t make something.” But
she did not know where to begin. She racked her brains, and tried this thing
and the other, but could not find anything successful. The failure made deep
lines come into her face. Her children were growing up, they would have to go
to school. There must be more money, there must be more money. The father, who
was always very handsome and expensive in his tastes, seemed as if he never
would be able to do anything worth doing. And the mother, who had a great
belief in herself, did not succeed any better, and her tastes were just as
And so the house came to be haunted by the unspoken phrase: There must be more
money! There must be more money! The children could hear it all the time though
nobody said it aloud. They heard it at Christmas, when the expensive and
splendid toys filled the nursery. 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 the children would stop
playing, to listen for a moment. 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. “There must be more money! There must be more money!” 
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. The foolish
puppy, too, that took the place of the teddy-bear, he was looking so
extraordinarily foolish for no other reason but that he heard the secret
whisper all over the house: “There must be more money!”
Yet nobody ever said it aloud. The whisper was everywhere, and therefore no one
spoke it. Just as no one ever says: “We are breathing!” in spite of
the fact that breath is coming and going all the time.
“Mother,” said the boy Paul one day, “why don’t we keep a car of
our own? Why do we always use uncle’s, or else a taxi?”
“Because we’re the poor members of the family,” said the mother.
“But why are we, mother?”
“Well – I suppose,” she said slowly and bitterly, “it’s because
your father has no luck.”
The boy was silent for some time.
“Is luck money, mother?” he asked, rather timidly.
“No, Paul. Not quite. It’s what causes you to have money.”
“Oh!” said Paul vaguely. “I thought when Uncle Oscar said filthy
lucker, it meant money.”
“Filthy lucre does mean money,” said the mother. “But it’s
lucre, not luck.”
“Oh!” said the boy. “Then what is luck, mother?”
“It’s what causes you to have money. If you’re lucky you have money.
That’s why it’s better to be born lucky than rich. If you’re rich, you may lose
your money. But if you’re lucky, you will always get more money.”
“Oh! Will you? And is father not lucky?”
“Very unlucky, I should say,” she said bitterly.
The boy watched her with unsure eyes.
“Why?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Nobody ever knows why one person is lucky and another
“Don’t they? Nobody at all? Does nobody know?”
“Perhaps God. But He never tells.”
“He ought to, then. And are’nt you lucky either, mother?”
“I can’t be, it I married an unlucky husband.”
“But by yourself, aren’t you?”
“I used to think I was, before I married. Now I think I am very unlucky
“Well – never mind! Perhaps I’m not really,” she said.
The child looked at her to see if she meant it. But he saw, by the lines of her
mouth, that she was only trying to hide something from him.
“Well, anyhow,” he said stoutly, “I’m a lucky person.”
“Why?” said his mother, with a sudden laugh.
He stared at her. He didn’t even know why he had said it.
“God told me,” he asserted, brazening it out.
“I hope He did, dear!”, she said, again with a laugh, but rather
“He did, mother!”
“Excellent!” said the mother, using one of her husband’s
The boy saw she did not believe him; or rather, that she paid no attention to
his assertion. This angered him somewhere, and made him want to compel her
He went off by himself, vaguely, in a childish way, seeking for the clue to
‘luck’. Absorbed, taking no heed of other people, he went about with a sort of
stealth, seeking inwardly for luck. He wanted luck, he wanted it, he wanted it.
When the two girls were playing dolls in the nursery, he would sit on his big
rocking-horse, charging madly into space, with a frenzy that made the little
girls peer at him uneasily. Wildly the horse careered, the waving dark hair of
the boy tossed, his eyes had a strange glare in them. The little girls dared
not speak to him.
When he 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.
“Now!” he would silently command the snorting steed. “Now take
me to where there is luck! Now take me!”
And he would slash the horse on the neck with the little whip he had asked
Uncle Oscar for. He knew the horse could take him to where there was luck, if
only he forced it. So he would mount again and start on his furious ride,
hoping at last to get there.
“You’ll break your horse, Paul!” said the nurse.
“He’s always riding like that! I wish he’d leave off!” said his elder
But he only glared down on them in silence. Nurse gave him up. She could make
nothing of him. Anyhow, he was growing beyond her.
One day his mother and his Uncle Oscar came in when he was on one of his
furious rides. He did not speak to them.
“Hallo, you young jockey! Riding a winner?” said his uncle.
“Aren’t you growing too big for a rocking-horse? You’re not a very little
boy any longer, you know,” said his mother.
But Paul only gave a blue glare from his big, rather close-set eyes. He would
speak to nobody when he was in full tilt. His mother watched him with an
anxious expression on her face.
At last he suddenly stopped forcing his horse into the mechanical gallop and
“Well, I got there!” he announced fiercely, his blue eyes still
flaring, and his sturdy long legs straddling apart.
“Where did you get to?” asked his mother.
“Where I wanted to go,” he flared back at her. 
“That’s right, son!” said Uncle Oscar. “Don’t you stop till you
get there. What’s the horse’s name?”
“He doesn’t have a name,” said the boy.
“Get’s on without all right?” asked the uncle.
“Well, he has different names. He was called Sansovino last week.”
“Sansovino, eh? Won the Ascot. How did you know this name?”
“He always talks about horse-races with Bassett,” said Joan.
The uncle was delighted to find that his small nephew was posted with all the
racing news. Bassett, the young gardener, who had been wounded in the left foot
in the war and had got his present job through Oscar Cresswell, whose batman he
had been, was a perfect blade of the ‘turf’. He lived in the racing events, and
the small boy lived with him.
Oscar Cresswell got it all from Bassett.
“Master Paul comes and asks me, so I can’t do more than tell him,
sir,” said Bassett, his face terribly serious, as if he were speaking of
“And does he ever put anything on a horse he fancies?”
“Well – I don’t want to give him away – he’s a young sport, a fine sport,
sir. Would you mind asking him himself? He sort of takes a pleasure in it, and
perhaps he’d feel I was giving him away, sir, if you don’t mind.
Bassett was serious as a church. 
The uncle went back to his nephew and took him off for a ride in the car.
“Say, Paul, old man, do you ever put anything on a horse?” the uncle
The boy watched the handsome man closely.
“Why, do you think I oughtn’t to?” he parried.
“Not a bit of it! I thought perhaps you might give me a tip for the
The car sped on into the country, going down to Uncle Oscar’s place in
“Honour bright?” said the nephew.
“Honour bright, son!” said the uncle.
“Well, then, Daffodil.”
“Daffodil! I doubt it, sonny. What about Mirza?”
“I only know the winner,” said the boy. “That’s Daffodil.”
There was a pause. Daffodil was an obscure horse comparatively.
“You won’t let it go any further, will you? I promised Bassett.”
“Bassett be damned, old man! What’s he got to do with it?”
“We’re partners. We’ve been partners from the first. Uncle, he lent me my
first five shillings, which I lost. I promised him, honour bright, it was only
between me and him; only you gave me that ten-shilling note I started winning
with, so I thought you were lucky. You won’t let it go any further, will
The boy gazed at his uncle from those big, hot, blue eyes, set rather close
together. The uncle stirred and laughed uneasily.
“Right you are, son! I’ll keep your tip private. How much are you putting
“All except twenty pounds,” said the boy. “I keep that in
The uncle thought it a good joke.
“You keep twenty pounds in reserve, do you, you young romancer? What are
you betting, then?”
“I’m betting three hundred,” said the boy gravely. “But it’s
between you and me, Uncle Oscar! Honour bright?”
“It’s between you and me all right, you young Nat Gould,” he said,
laughing. “But where’s your three hundred?”
“Bassett keeps it for me. We’re partner’s.”
“You are, are you! And what is Bassett putting on Daffodil?”
“He won’t go quite as high as I do, I expect. Perhaps he’ll go a hundred
“What, pennies?” laughed the uncle.
“Pounds,” said the child, with a surprised look at his uncle.
“Bassett keeps a bigger reserve than I do.” 
Between wonder and amusement Uncle Oscar was silent. He pursued the matter no
further, but he determined to take his nephew with him to the Lincoln races.
“Now, son,” he said, “I’m putting twenty on Mirza, and I’ll put
five on for you on any horse you fancy. What’s your pick?”
“No, not the fiver on Daffodil!”
“I should if it was my own fiver,” said the child.
“Good! Good! Right you are! A fiver for me and a fiver for you on
The child had never been to a race-meeting before, and his eyes were blue fire.
He pursed his mouth tight and watched. A Frenchman just in front had put his
money on Lancelot. Wild with excitement, he flayed his arms up and down,
yelling “Lancelot!, Lancelot!” in his French accent.
Daffodil came in first, Lancelot second, Mirza third. The child, flushed and
with eyes blazing, was curiously serene. His uncle brought him four five-pound
notes, four to one.
“What am I to do with these?” he cried, waving them before the boys
“I suppose we’ll talk to Bassett,” said the boy. “I expect I
have fifteen hundred now; and twenty in reserve; and this twenty.”
His uncle studied him for some moments.
“Look here, son!” he said. “You’re not serious about Bassett and
that fifteen hundred, are you?”
“Yes, I am. But it’s between you and me, uncle. Honour bright?”
“Honour bright all right, son! But I must talk to Bassett.”
“If you’d like to be a partner, uncle, with Bassett and me, we could all
be partners. Only, you’d have to promise, honour bright, uncle, not to let it
go beyond us three. Bassett and I are lucky, and you must be lucky, because it
was your ten shillings I started winning with …” 
Uncle Oscar took both Bassett and Paul into Richmond Park for an afternoon, and
there they talked.
“It’s like this, you see, sir,” Bassett said. “Master Paul would
get me talking about racing events, spinning yarns, you know, sir. And he was
always keen on knowing if I’d made or if I’d lost. It’s about a year since,
now, that I put five shillings on Blush of Dawn for him: and we lost. Then the
luck turned, with that ten shillings he had from you: that we put on
Singhalese. And since that time, it’s been pretty steady, all things
considering. What do you say, Master Paul?”
“We’re all right when we’re sure,” said Paul. “It’s when we’re
not quite sure that we go down.”
“Oh, but we’re careful then,” said Bassett.
“But when are you sure?” smiled Uncle Oscar.
“It’s Master Paul, sir,” said Bassett in a secret, religious voice.
“It’s as if he had it from heaven. Like Daffodil, now, for the Lincoln.
That was as sure as eggs.”
“Did you put anything on Daffodil?” asked Oscar Cresswell.
“Yes, sir, I made my bit.”
“And my nephew?”
Bassett was obstinately silent, looking at Paul.
“I made twelve hundred, didn’t I, Bassett? I told uncle I was putting
three hundred on Daffodil.”
“That’s right,” said Bassett, nodding.
“But where’s the money?” asked the uncle.
“I keep it safe locked up, sir. Master Paul he can have it any minute he
likes to ask for it.”
“What, fifteen hundred pounds?”
“And twenty! And forty, that is, with the twenty he made on the
“It’s amazing!” said the uncle.
“If Master Paul offers you to be partners, sir, I would, if I were you: if
you’ll excuse me,” said Bassett.
Oscar Cresswell thought about it.
“I’ll see the money,” he said.
They drove home again, and, sure enough, Bassett came round to the garden-house
with fifteen hundred pounds in notes. The twenty pounds reserve was left with
Joe Glee, in the Turf Commission deposit.
“You see, it’s all right, uncle, when I’m sure! Then we go strong, for all
we’re worth, don’t we, Bassett?”
“We do that, Master Paul.”
“And when are you sure?” said the uncle, laughing.
“Oh, well, sometimes I’m absolutely sure, like about Daffodil,” said the
boy; “and sometimes I have an idea; and sometimes I haven’t even an idea,
have I, Bassett? Then we’re careful, because we mostly go down.”
“You do, do you! And when you’re sure, like about Daffodil, what makes you
“Oh, well, I don’t know,” said the boy uneasily. “I’m sure, you
know, uncle; that’s all.”
“It’s as if he had it from heaven, sir,” Bassett reiterated.
“I should say so!” said the uncle.
But he became a partner. And when the Leger was coming on Paul was ‘sure’ about
Lively Spark, which was a quite inconsiderable horse. The boy insisted on
putting a thousand on the horse, Bassett went for five hundred, and Oscar
Cresswell two hundred. Lively Spark came in first, and the betting had been ten
to one against him. Paul had made ten thousand.
“You see,” he said. “I was absolutely sure of him.”
Even Oscar Cresswell had cleared two thousand.
“Look here, son,” he said, “this sort of thing makes me
“It needn’t, uncle! Perhaps I shan’t be sure again for a long time.”
“But what are you going to do with your money?” asked the uncle.
“Of course,” said the boy, “I started it for mother. She said
she had no luck, because father is unlucky, so I thought if I was lucky, it
might stop whispering.”
“What might stop whispering?”
“Our house. I hate our house for whispering.”
“What does it whisper?”
“Why – why” – the boy fidgeted – “why, I don’t know. But it’s
always short of money, you know, uncle.”
“I know it, son, I know it.”
“You know people send mother writs, don’t you, uncle?”
“I’m afraid I do,” said the uncle.
“And then the house whispers, like people laughing at you behind your
back. It’s awful, that is! I thought if I was lucky -”
“You might stop it,” added the uncle.
The boy watched him with big blue eyes, that had an uncanny cold fire in them,
and he said never a word.
“Well, then!” said the uncle. “What are we doing?”
“I shouldn’t like mother to know I was lucky,” said the boy.
“Why not, son?”
“She’d stop me.”
“I don’t think she would.”
“Oh!” – and the boy writhed in an odd way – “I don’t want her to
“All right, son! We’ll manage it without her knowing.” 
They managed it very easily. Paul, at the other’s suggestion, handed over five
thousand pounds to his uncle, who deposited it with the family lawyer, who was
then to inform Paul’s mother that a relative had put five thousand pounds into
his hands, which sum was to be paid out a thousand pounds at a time, on the
mother’s birthday, for the next five years.
“So she’ll have a birthday present of a thousand pounds for five
successive years,” said Uncle Oscar. “I hope it won’t make it all the
harder for her later.”
Paul’s mother had her birthday in November. The house had been ‘whispering’
worse than ever lately, and, even in spite of his luck, Paul could not bear up
against it. He was very anxious to see the effect of the birthday letter,
telling his mother about the thousand pounds.
When there were no visitors, Paul now took his meals with his parents, as he
was beyond the nursery control. His mother went into town nearly every day. She
had discovered that she had an odd knack of sketching furs and dress materials,
so she worked secretly in the studio of a friend who was the chief ‘artist’ for
the leading drapers. She drew the figures of ladies in furs and ladies in silk
and sequins for the newspaper advertisements. This young woman artist earned
several thousand pounds a year, but 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.
She was down to breakfast on the morning of her birthday. Paul watched her face
as she read her letters. He knew the lawyer’s letter. As his mother read it,
her face hardened and became more expressionless. Then a cold, determined look
came on her mouth. She hid the letter under the pile of others, and said not a
word about it.
“Didn’t you have anything nice in the post for your birthday,
mother?” said Paul.
“Quite moderately nice,” she said, her voice cold and hard and
She went away to town without saying more.
But in the afternoon Uncle Oscar appeared. He said Paul’s mother had had a long
interview with the lawyer, asking if the whole five thousand could not be
advanced at once, as she was in debt.
“What do you think, uncle?” said the boy.
“I leave it to you, son.”
“Oh, let her have it, then! We can get some more with the other,”
said the boy.
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, laddie!” said Uncle
“But I’m sure to know for the Grand National; or the Lincolnshire; or else
the Derby. I’m sure to know for one of them,” said Paul.
So Uncle Oscar signed the agreement, and Paul’s mother touched the whole five
thousand. Then something very curious happened. The voices in the house
suddenly went mad, like a chorus of frogs on a spring evening. There were
certain new furnishings, and Paul had a tutor. He was really going to Eton, his
father’s school, in the following autumn. There were flowers in the winter, and
a blossoming of the luxury Paul’s mother had been used to. And yet the voices
in the house, behind the sprays of mimosa and almond-blossom, and from under
the piles of iridescent cushions, simply trilled and screamed in a sort of
ecstasy: “There must be more money! Oh-h-h; there must be more money. Oh,
now, now-w! Now-w-w – there must be more money! – more than ever! More than
It frightened Paul terribly. He studied away at his Latin and Greek with his
tutor. But his intense hours were spent with Bassett. The Grand National had
gone by: he had not ‘known’, and had lost a hundred pounds. Summer was at hand.
He was in agony for the Lincoln. But even for the Lincoln he didn’t ‘know’, and
he lost fifty pounds. He became wild-eyed and strange, as if something were
going to explode in him.
“Let it alone, son! Don’t you bother about it!” urged Uncle Oscar.
But it was as if the boy couldn’t really hear what his uncle was saying.
“I’ve got to know for the Derby! I’ve got to know for the Derby!” the
child reiterated, his big blue eyes blazing with a sort of madness.
His mother noticed how overwrought he was.
“You’d better go to the seaside. Wouldn’t you like to go now to the
seaside, instead of waiting? I think you’d better,” she said, looking down
at him anxiously, her heart curiously heavy because of him.
But the child lifted his uncanny blue eyes. 
“I couldn’t possibly go before the Derby, mother!” he said. “I
“Why not?” she said, her voice becoming heavy when she was opposed.
“Why not? You can still go from the seaside to see the Derby with your
Uncle Oscar, if that that’s what you wish. No need for you to wait here.
Besides, I think you care too much about these races. It’s a bad sign. My
family has been a gambling family, and you won’t know till you grow up how much
damage it has done. But it has done damage. I shall have to send Bassett away,
and ask Uncle Oscar not to talk racing to you, unless you promise to be
reasonable about it: go away to the seaside and forget it. You’re all
“I’ll do what you like, mother, so long as you don’t send me away till
after the Derby,” the boy said.
“Send you away from where? Just from this house?”
“Yes,” he said, gazing at her.
“Why, you curious child, what makes you care about this house so much,
suddenly? I never knew you loved it.”
He gazed at her without speaking. He had a secret within a secret, something he
had not divulged, even to Bassett or to his Uncle Oscar.
But his mother, after standing undecided and a little bit sullen for some
moments, said: “Very well, then! Don’t go to the seaside till after the
Derby, if you don’t wish it. But promise me you won’t think so much about
horse-racing and events as you call them!”
“Oh no,” said the boy casually. “I won’t think much about them,
mother. You needn’t worry. I wouldn’t worry, mother, if I were you.”
“If you were me and I were you,” said his mother, “I wonder what
we should do!” 
“But you know you needn’t worry, mother, don’t you?” the boy
“I should be awfully glad to know it,” she said wearily.
“Oh, well, you can, you know. I mean, you ought to know you needn’t
worry,” he insisted.
“Ought I? Then I’ll see about it,” she said.
Paul’s secret of secrets was his wooden horse, that which had no name. Since he
was emancipated from a nurse and a nursery-governess, he had had his
rocking-horse removed to his own bedroom at the top of the house.
“Surely you’re too big for a rocking-horse!” his mother had remonstrated.
“Well, you see, mother, till I can have a real horse, I like to have some
sort of animal about,” had been his quaint answer.
“Do you feel he keeps you company?” she laughed.
“Oh yes! He’s very good, he always keeps me company, when I’m there,”
So the horse, rather shabby, stood in an arrested prance in the boy’s bedroom.
The Derby was drawing near, and the boy grew more and more tense. He hardly
heard what was spoken to him, he was very frail, and his eyes were really
uncanny. 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. 
Two nights before the Derby, she was at a big party in town, when one of her
rushes of anxiety about her boy, her first-born, gripped her heart till she
could hardly speak. She fought with the feeling, might and main, for she
believed in common sense. But it was too strong. She had to leave the dance and
go downstairs to telephone to the country. The children’s nursery-governess was
terribly surprised and startled at being rung up in the night.
“Are the children all right, Miss Wilmot?”
“Oh yes, they are quite all right.”
“Master Paul? Is he all right?” 
“He went to bed as right as a trivet. Shall I run up and look at
“No,” said Paul’s mother reluctantly. “No! Don’t trouble. It’s
all right. Don’t sit up. We shall be home fairly soon.” She did not want
her son’s privacy intruded upon.
“Very good,” said the governess.
It was about one o’clock when Paul’s mother and father drove up to their house.
All was still. Paul’s mother went to her room and slipped off her white fur
cloak. She had told her maid not to wait up for her. She heard her husband
downstairs, mixing a whisky and soda.
And then, because of the strange anxiety at her heart, she stole upstairs to
her son’s room. Noiselessly she went along the upper corridor. Was there a
faint noise? What was it?
She stood, with arrested muscles, outside his door, listening. There was a
strange, heavy, and yet not loud noise. Her heart stood still. It was a
soundless noise, yet rushing and powerful. Something huge, in violent, hushed
motion. What was it? What in God’s name was it? She ought to know. She felt
that she knew the noise. She knew what it was.
Yet she could not place it. She couldn’t say what it was. And on and on it
went, like a madness.
Softly, frozen with anxiety and fear, she turned the door-handle.
The room was dark. Yet in the space near the window, she heard and saw
something plunging to and fro. She gazed in fear and amazement.
Then suddenly she switched on the light, and saw her son, in his green pyjamas,
madly surging on the rocking-horse. The blaze of light suddenly lit him up, as
he urged the wooden horse, and lit her up, as she stood, blonde, in her dress
of pale green and crystal, in the doorway.
“Paul!” she cried. “Whatever are you doing?”
“It’s Malabar!” he screamed in a powerful, strange voice. “It’s
His eyes blazed at her for one strange and senseless second, as he ceased
urging his wooden horse. Then he fell with a crash to the ground, and she, all
her tormented motherhood flooding upon her, rushed to gather him up.
But he was unconscious, and unconscious he remained, with some brain-fever. He
talked and tossed, and his mother sat stonily by his side.
“Malabar! It’s Malabar! Bassett, Bassett, I know! It’s Malabar!”
So the child cried, trying to get up and urge the rocking-horse that gave him
“What does he mean by Malabar?” asked the heart-frozen mother.
“I don’t know,” said the father stonily.
“What does he mean by Malabar?” she asked her brother Oscar.
“It’s one of the horses running for the Derby,” was the answer.
And, in spite of himself, Oscar Cresswell spoke to Bassett, and himself put a
thousand on Malabar: at fourteen to one.
The third day of the illness was critical: they were waiting for a change. The
boy, with his rather long, curly hair, was tossing ceaselessly on the pillow.
He neither slept nor regained consciousness, and his eyes were like blue
stones. His mother sat, feeling her heart had gone, turned actually into a
In the evening Oscar Cresswell did not come, but Bassett sent a message, saying
could he come up for one moment, just one moment? Paul’s mother was very angry
at the intrusion, but on second thoughts she agreed. The boy was the same.
Perhaps Bassett might bring him to consciousness.
The 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.
“Master Paul!” he whispered. “Master Paul! 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. Malabar came in all right,
“Malabar! Malabar! Did I say Malabar, mother? Did I say Malabar? Do you
think I’m lucky, mother? I knew Malabar, didn’t I? Over eighty thousand pounds!
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. If I ride my horse till I’m
sure, then I tell you, Bassett, you can go as high as you like. Did you go for
all you were worth, Bassett?”
“I went a thousand on it, Master Paul.”
“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
“No, you never did,” said his mother.
But the boy died in the night.
And even as he lay dead, his mother heard her brother’s voice saying to her,
“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.”
“Every story is really two stories”–Ann Hood, New York Times Best Selling Author
In a writing workshop with Ann Hood, she discussed the inner/outer story and how every great story has two conflicts living on the same page. Here the surface story centers on young Paul’s need for luck because There must be more money. The narrative drives us to how he goes about finding it. The story bubbling underneath centers around whether or not he will receive his mother’s love if he attains luck. It is about their relationship. The theme of luck is the universal story (and the third story) binding the whole narrative. “No luck”, ironically, is causation for “luck” later, which then leads to a full circle turn back to “no luck”. This universal story seeks to answer the question: can luck buy one happiness? But also embedded in the story is a sense of the supernatural interspersed with social realism. As Nabokov said, “Beauty plus pity—that is the closest we can get to a definition of art,” and this is what we have, mixed with a bit of the grotesque in “The Rocking Horse Winner.”
Lawrence takes the two central characters, Paul and his mother, and re-sculpts them during the course of the story. Paul transitions from naive child to having an adult-like aura. Meanwhile, Hester, the mother, is re-shaped to show genuine concern for him. In this sense, it appears Paul’s original intent (to earn his mother’s love by becoming lucky) seems to pay off. Yet, he barely notices. His quest for finding luck, and therefore money, blinds him from his original desire. Such is human behavior when money is involved. One could also argue Paul has become a gambling addict, and is thus blinded, but the main point is how he scarcely notices his mother’s new concern for his well being. The reader is kept hooked by Paul’s slow deterioration and wonderment over what the rocking horse represents (desire, materialism).
To repeat a footnote, objects are animate in the story. The rocking horse is the conduit for luck. The house, the voice whispering for more money. Animating objects leans us more toward a children’s narrative, yet there is something very serious and adult about the house crying out for more money. The two animate objects are contrasts, both getting louder as the story progresses and feeding off of one another. The house cries long and loud for more money once Paul has given it a taste, which forces him to hop aboard the rocking horse and drive it more wildly to find luck, the penalty of which, is his own health. Yet, the house is where Paul does his business and intimately connected with luck. He moves his rocking-horse within the house. The house he so much detests because of the voices whispering within, he suddenly requests not to be removed from before the Derby is over. His business has taken over and transformed him into the same adult voice in which the house whispers, merging social reality with the magic realism/fairy tale element of animation.
“The Rocking Horse Winner” has a perfect ending resolving both conflicts. First, Paul’s luck runs out with his own death. The lack of information surrounding the cause of death leads the reader to believe it was his intensity and fervor to attain luck that is to blame. Luck has driven him to be unlucky. His luck doesn’t enable him to find his mother’s love, and perhaps towards the end, he doesn’t even care any longer. Likewise, the mother is now lucky when it comes to money, yet has paid the price of her son to obtain it. Curiously, she is voiceless at the end, and the reader is left without ample evidence to know what she prefers, her son’s death or the eighty thousand pounds. Yet, one can perhaps one and guess. The role reversal is without doubt intended, and the reader is left wondering what the definition of luck really is, leaving us with D.H. Lawrence’s fundamental and universal question: what is luck?
This line also foreshadows the ending. The first line draws the reader in immediately as now the question of why is planted. The next line moves to love, and plants a reason for the need of luck. The first lines are a brilliant setup of the mother and the family dynamic, the children wary of the mother and the mother feigning love for them setting up the tension between the characters.
The second source of tension is money and ties hand-in-hand with luck. No
luck. No money. And he hammers this point home with Paul’s question shortly.
There must be luck to have money. Subtly, he uses this repetition of “There
must be more money” so not only the reader can hear it, but all of the other characters and objects in the story can hear it as well. Hence, we arrive at the magical rocking horse.
The dialog cements the mother-son relationship—bitter, cold, mocking. Yet,
Paul’s innocence leans the reader into his corner. Now we must root for him,
even if he turns a bit crazy and violent in his quest for luck.
Paul has more of an adult air to him now, transitioning away from childhood. Is the
magic of the rocking horse the cause? Or is it the ruthlessness of his
adult behavior in gambling maturing him? In any case, the reader gets the
sense Paul will stop at nothing to get what he wants. He appears to be far
more driven than either parent.
The religious references are obvious. But notice how Lawrence redirects us
back to Paul from Bassett. The story is Paul’s story, so Lawrence moves us quickly
back to him. Notice how the uncle calls the boy “old man.” While this is a
joke, it supports Paul’s transition away from childhood, who treats his uncle
suspiciously and not innocently.
Again, the incredulous uncle believes it all a joke, not believing in Paul’s
luck. Paul is speaking as an adult, reacting like one too, yet the uncle
still doesn’t believe him (“Pounds,” said the child with a surprised look at
Superstitious Paul doesn’t want anything to screw with his luck.
Objects are animate in the story. The rocking horse is the conduit for luck,
the house the voice whispering for more money. Yet, Paul doesn’t want his
mother knowing, partly because of the reason he gives, partly because he fears
it might end his luck (his mother is unlucky), and partly because it might
destroy what he truly wants.
Here lies the first hint his mother cares for him, but does Paul notice? Is
her character undergoing change too?
The damage she is speaking about certainly foreshadows what is to come, but we
can only make a vague inference that whom she is speaking about is his father.
Further evidence of his mother’s change of heart. Yet, it is subtle with the phrase
“almost anguish” throwing us out of it a bit.
Perhaps this was common in the time, but the use of Master Paul for a child is
a very adult title.
From climax of Paul falling from the rocking horse to conclusion, Malabar
winning seems to overwhelm Paul’s illness, even for Paul himself. The cost of
luck is death, which ironically is unlucky. Yet, Lawrence leaves us without
the mother’s emotion which further clouds the picture of her feelings. We
assume her devastation, but there is scant evidence. What we do know, is now
she is lucky, and perhaps that was the irony which Lawrence wanted to leave us