The Rocking-Horse Winner by D. H. Lawrence, 1933
THE ROCKING-HORSE WINNER
by D. H. Lawrence, 1933
The final stories of D. H. Lawrence, written in the middle and late 1920s, represent a period of formal experimentation for the author. He moved away from traditional narrative realism and the settings of rural and urban England to the realm of the mythical, supernatural fairy story. As Frank O'Connor said, the withdrawal of the sense of actuality pushes the stories closer to the tales of Poe than to the studious realism of Chekhov and Maupassant, yet that sense of the miraculous always present in Lawrence's narrative saves them from becoming mere exercises in the occult and uncanny.
"The Rocking-Horse Winner" (collected in The Lovely Lady, 1933), Lawrence's second attempt to write a contribution for a collection of ghost stories compiled by Lady Cynthia Asquith in 1926, is a fusion of various narrative modes. Perhaps closer to the German märchen (in its bleakness) than the fairy story, it is a conscious artistic adaptation of the oral storytelling technique. The story combines elements of the supernatural and the fable with a variety of Lawrence's favorite traits, such as the unhappy marital relationship, the capitalist obsession with money and work, and the pervasive sexual and religious symbolism. The characters only live in so far as they progress the narrative, making the story similar to Doyle Springer's definition of an "apologue," an overt and stylized parable in which the characters are never our prime concern since some idea shapes the whole.
The basic plot concerns a middle-class couple who live beyond their means and the effect this kind of life has on their young son. Upset by his mother's unhappiness and mindful of her belief that the family is "unlucky," he sets out to discover "luck" and thereby obtain wealth. He secures both by riding his rocking-horse to the point of frenzy and, aided by his uncle and the gardener, magically coming up with the names of winners in classic races. The fortune he amasses, however, doesn't bring his mother the happiness he had expected, and in an effort to pursue still greater wealth he collapses and dies at the very moment of his greatest victory.
The suspension of incredulity required by the reader is barely apparent because of the subtlety with which Lawrence narrates the events:
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.
The fairy-tale simplicity of the opening sentence is echoed in Lawrence's next story, "The Man Who Loved Islands," a more overt moral fable. The short sentences of "The Rocking-Horse Winner," divided into two or three syntactical clauses each time, impart the sense of a fixed, eternal unfolding of events with their nursery rhyme simplicity, especially the repetition of "she," "yet," and "and" at the beginning of each clause. This linguistic repetition occurs throughout the narrative, with the stresses falling on the phrases "there must be more money," "luck," and "when I'm sure." The spectral quality is reinforced by the first of those phrases being given to inanimate objects; in this way the satire on the consumerism and rapacity of polite society is emphasized by, of all things, the house furnishings:
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!"
The avaricious nature of the capitalist ethos is further parodied by the number of proverbs and clichés that are either directly stated or associated with the tale. The phrase "lucky in money, unlucky in love" assumes the mantle of a double entendre as the events unfold; "the wooden horse that takes its rider nowhere" symbolizes the capitalist urge for advancement merely to maintain the status quo.
A tribute to Lawrence's narrative control are the astonishing number of symbolic patterns in the text that defy any single, coherent reading. The two most obvious are images associated with sex and religion. Paul has an Oedipal urge to replace his failed father in a family where money is taken as the nexus of affection. The symbolism of sexual activity centers on Paul's "mount," which is "forced" onwards in a "furious ride" towards "frenzy." Likewise, it is impossible to ignore the allusions toward masturbation in Paul's "secret of secrets" (especially in his death scene) if one recalls Lawrence's sentiments in his essay "Pornography and Obscenity": "Masturbation is the one thoroughly secret act of the human being…. The body remains, in a sense, a corpse, after the act of self-abuse."
The religious symbolism is more apparent but less easy to understand. Bassett perceives Master Paul as a seer, telling Oscar in a "secret, religious voice" that "it's as if he had it from Heaven," an irony considering Paul's claim that "God told" him of his luck. Yet the märchen framework is that of a hero who bargains with evil powers for forbidden knowledge and wealth. His mother's fear in the final scene ("What in God's name was it?") turns into a nightmare when her "poor devil" of a son collapses and dies during his last vision.
The diversity of narrative modes and the complexity of the symbolism make "The Rocking-Horse Winner" much more than a neat parable about an acquisitive society's implicit death wish. As Brian Finney has noted, the reversal of expectation, the breaking of literary conventions, and the movement toward verbal play and self-conscious artifice make this story a forerunner of Borges and Beckett and one of the finest achievements of postmodernist prose.