David Ellis, in his account of D. H. Lawrence’s late years, explains that the author was paid 15 pounds for allowing the publication of “The Rocking-Horse Winner” in Cynthia Asquith’s 1926 anthology, The Ghost Book. This, states Ellis, was a bargain, because “The Rocking-Horse Winner” became one of the most acclaimed, anthologized, and translated stories of the century. The story first appeared in the July 1926 issue of Harper’s Bazaar before surfacing in Asquith’s collection. It was grouped, posthumously, with other Lawrence works in the 1933 collection The Lovely Lady.
The story’s plot is simple. A young boy, Paul, is harassed by two complementary pressures: ghostly and maternal. His mother, Hester, is tortured by a sense of fiscal limitation: Socially pretentious, she cannot accept the family’s level of income. Paul hears his mother insist that “There must be more money!”—and ghostly voices endlessly repeat this phrase, haunting and taunting him. Paul, encouraged by an opportunistic gardener, learns that he has an uncanny ability to predict the outcome of major horse races. He does this by galloping on a rocking-horse, discovering answers from some indefinable source. His motivation is to rectify his family’s supposed impoverishment. After one supreme, successful effort to predict a Derby winner, Paul falls into a coma and dies, leaving the family rich but without a male heir.
Critical reaction to the story can be as complex as the story is straightforward. Many see the story as a tongue-in-cheek morality tale: The urge for financial gain outweighs familial affection, and money is more important than children’s welfare. Janice Hubbard Harris points to a deeper Lawrentian trait in the story. The sexually frustrated Hester turns her son into a “desirable opposite” of her disappointing husband: Paul’s accumulation of wealth is as spectacular as his father’s is average. Other critics, notably W. D. Snodgrass, have concentrated on the onanistic elements of Paul’s retreat into a world that only he is privy to: Satisfaction is achievable only behind the closed doors of an uneasy, intimacy-bereft home. Perhaps Lawrence also mocks the (mainly) masculine desire to control the external by such feats as prophesying races. Being able to predict the outcomes of sporting events is a fantasy that appeals to all acquisitive persons. “The Rocking- Horse Winner” continues to hold attention. It has been filmed three times, notably by Anthony Pelisser (1950). Its disturbing focus on a boy’s relationship with a rocking-horse, together with Lawrence’s novella about the eponymous stallion St. Mawr, influenced Peter Schaffer’s equally disturbing play about a youth’s breakdown, Equus.
Ellis, David. D. H. Lawrence: Dying Game, 1922–30. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Harris, Janice Hubbard. The Short Fiction of D. H. Lawrence, 224–227. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1984.
Lawrence, D. H. “The Rocking-Horse Winner.” In The Lovely Lady. London: Martin Secker, 1932.
Snodgress, W. D. “A Rocking Horse: The Symbol, the Pattern, the Way to Live,” Hudson Review 11 (1958): 191–200.