A Feminist Reading of D.H. Lawrence’sThe Rocking Horse Winner
The man that does not know sick women does not know women.
– S. Weir Mitchell
“The Rocking Horse Winner” is the story of a boy’s gift for picking the winners in horse races. An omniscient narrator relates the tale of a boy whose family is always short of money. His mother is incapable of showing love and is obsessed with the status that material wealth can provide. This paper will explore the premise that D.H. Lawrence presented the figure of the mother as the villain; a loathsome, unloving character with no commitment to genuine values. This evil mother figure will ultimately be the “male-destroyer” by turning her “nameless” husband away and, in essence, killing her young son, Paul.
Hester, Paul’s mother, is incapable of loving others. “Only she herself knew that at the center of her heart was a hard little place that could feel no love, no, not for anybody./ Only she herself, and her children themselves, knew. They read it in each other’s eyes.” (RHW) The mother is not only obsessed with money, but she is also irresponsible with the money she does get. When Paul arranges through his attorney to give her a thousand pounds a month from his winnings, she immediately begs for the entire amount. However, instead of paying her debts, she spends the money on new things for the house. This results in an even greater need for more money. She also does not express any thanks for this sudden windfall, depriving Paul of the joy of providing the much-needed income for his family. “She was down to breakfast on the morning of her birthday. Paul watched her 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 and determined look came on her mouth.” (RHW) The vivid description of the mother’s face hardening and her look, a cold one, is characteristic of a villainous woman- the femme-fatale. Paul asked her if she has received anything nice in the mail for her birthday. The mother responds in a cold and absent voice. Then “went away to town without saying more.” (RHW) This coldness of heart, the neglect of her son, the villainous qualities that run throughout the story will ultimately be the cause of Paul’s untimely death.
Although at the end of the story Hester becomes increasingly concerned about Paul’s deteriorating health, she still does not love him, even when he dies. At the beginning of the story, it is stated that “at the center of her heart was a hard little place that could feel no love, no, not for anybody.” This image is repeated at the end of the story, when Hester sits by her son’s bedside “feeling her heart had gone, turned actually into a stone.” Every fairy tale, myth, or cartoon I can remember from my youth, all had people turning into stone when their eyes have feasted upon the wicked witch or possessed being. Hester’s heart turns into a stone because she embodies the wicked witch, the one who has the power to turn others into stone; to kill them with an inner selfishness and neglectful tendencies. She does eventually succeed in her villainous attempts by turning her son Paul into stone when he dies at the end still trying to make his mother happy with his luck.
Before he dies Paul asks, “Mother, did I ever tell you? I’m lucky,” she responds, “no, you never did.” However, the reader remembers that Paul did, indeed, tell her that he was lucky earlier in the story. Since she pays little attention to him, she does not remember this. In fact, this earlier conversation that Paul has with his mother is a pivotal part of the story. Paul senses his mother’s “cold heart” and tries in some way to reach her.
“Mother, 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.”
“Is luck money, mother?” he asked, rather timidly.
“No, Paul! Not quite. It’s what causes you to have money.”/ It’s what causes you to have money. If your 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 your lucky, you will always get more money.”
“And is father not lucky?”
“Very unlucky, I should say,” she said bitterly… “I married an unlucky husband.”
… “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 bitter.
I can’t imagine what impact an exchange like this one might have on a young child. The reader can only feel sympathy for this confused, misdirected boy; his mother’s words again bitter and cold. He learns through this conversation that luck is money, so he uses his luck to try and give her happiness. But as he finds out, she is like a fungus that destroys the things that giver her “life.” His uncle is right, “he’s best gone out of a life where he rides his rocking horse to find a winner.” The fact that she does not remember this conversation when Paul asks her about it at the end of the story, furthermore affirms the mother’s selfishness and unloving nature. When a parent stops paying attention to her children, the family is doomed.
When Hester finally receives the financial fortune she has always wanted but loses her son in the process, the reader realizes that Hester will probably not feel the loss of her son and will probably waste all that money in record time. All of these details show Hester to be cold, unfeeling, wasteful, and shallow.
D.H. Lawrence contrasts the personality of the villainous mother in the story by creating very attractive and likable male characters. Bassett is the family gardener who helps Paul place bets on horses. He takes the boy seriously and follows all the boy’s instructions in placing the bets. He also keeps Paul’s money safely hidden away. He is the only adult who treats Paul with a serious respect. It is Bassett’s seriousness that convinces Uncle Oscar that Paul’s gift for picking winners is real. He is trustworthy and kind, but he is also a servant, so once Uncle Oscar takes over, he respectfully withdraws from the action.
Uncle Oscar, while not the most virtuous of characters, can still be seen as a character who helps Paul, not hinders him. He is the one who arranges for Hester to receive the money from Paul’s earnings, as per Paul’s request. In an exchange between Paul and Oscar, it is apparent that Paul does not want his mother to know where the money is coming from and just how luck he is, Uncle Oscar abides by all of Paul’s wishes.
“I don’t want her to know, uncle.”
“All right, son! We’ll manage it without her knowing.”
They managed it very easily. Paul handed over five thousand pounds into his hands, which sum was to be paid out at 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.”
These male characters provide an enormous contrast for that of the evil mother. Each one, tries in a way, to help Paul and guide him through life, a tremendous task usually taken on by a mother. The only luck this boy seems to have is to be able to spend time with the male characters who try to take him under their wing, escaping, if just for a moment, the evil clutches of Hester. They know too well that Hester is evil and through their words almost predict the fact that she will spend all of the new found money in an instant and not be grateful in any way shape or form.
The father in the story, who does not play a big part and remains nameless throughout, seems to be a weak and “tortured” character. It is apparent that the wife, Hester, has no respect for him and has no problem verbalizing just how “unlucky” he is to anyone who will listen, including her young son, Paul. “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.” I’m sure Hester reminded him of his inadequacies day in and day out. The way the father seems to be victimized and imprisoned by the wicked witch mother can only further point out to Paul that he needs to be the savior for the family. When Hester confides in her son that she is, in fact, dissatisfies with her husband, the mother sets in motion the boy’s futile quest to please her; the very thing that winds up killing him.
It seems apparent that the family’s house has become haunted by the evil mother, hence the constant whispering There must be more money! There must be more money! The house, too, has fallen victim to the mother’s selfishness and need for more money. It envelopes the mother’s greed and pleasure seeking tendencies; the absolute need for material goods. The house’s whispers are, in actuality, the whispers of the mother- whispers that will aide in Paul’s frenzy and eventual death.
“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 said it aloud. The whisper was everywhere, and therefore no one spoke it.”
The personification of the house clearly represents the embodiment of the mother. Her voice is everywhere, her husband hears it, her children hear it- all the time. The whispers frightened Paul terribly and send him on his destructive plight of picking the winners of the horse races, trying furiously to quiet the voices of the house and, of course, his mother. Over the course of the story, Paul becomes increasingly affected by the house’s whispers; his mother’s greed and insatiable desire for material goods.
The unfortunate component of the story is that the family, especially Paul could not stop the wicked witch mother from destroying all that was good and genuine. She didn’t not even learn anything from Paul’s death. This villainous creature will still be unsatisfied and seek for something to fulfill her needs. Paul died in vain. Paul never gave her life. He merely sustained the illusion of life that she was seeking; money. One only hopes to warn the next male victim that this loathsome woman chooses to destroy for her own monetary gains.