The Rocking Horse Winner & Other Stories

The Rocking Horse Winner & Other StoriesD. H. Lawrence is, like, a thing. I disliked Lady Chatterley’s Lover but love “Bavarian Gentians”; to test whether the thing is a matter of fiction v. poetry will require reading more of each! In the meantime, there is this pocket-size edition of three of the man’s short stories: “The Rocking Horse Winner,” “A Sick Collier,” and “Smile.”

The star of the show is the title story. There is a family, the father and mother spend beyond their means, and the children grow up in a house in which the unspoken phrase There must be more money! There must be more money! echoes and seeps. The boy Paul has a rocking horse and an ability to predict the winner of horse races. These things are connected.

The mother/son relationship which drives Paul reminded me of mother/daughter relationships in A Visit from the Goon Squad, but inverted. Jennifer Egan’s novel has a couple of mother-makes-sacrifices-for-her-daughter chapters; in one of them a woman Dolly takes a PR job to a genocidal general for money to keep her preternaturally poised nine-year-old daughter in private school. That kind of thing. In “The Rocking Horse Winner,” preternaturally lucky Paul does what he does for his selfish money-grabber of a mother.

Or such is the rhetoric. Paul’s luck benefits his uncle Oscar and the gardener Bassett, too, but these men are portrayed with some care as perfectly decent. You know Bassett to be decent right away, the grave way he respects Paul’s privacy; Oscar is more of a wild card–I kept waiting for him to maybe turn out villainous but was glad when he didn’t, which goes to show how Lawrence handles reader sympathies in this story.

Yet he is not unsympathetic to the mother, Hester; the story’s first paragraph sets up her dilemma. You feel she can’t help not caring–which might be condemnation enough. The last paragraph is Oscar’s, in direct discourse, and exhibits a technique Lawrence uses earlier in the story and also in Lady Chatterley’s Lover: a repetition of key phrases. Repetition creates a sense of inexorability; if There must be more money! haunts the house Paul grows up in, then “poor devil,” the implication is, will haunt Hester, who learns to care on the cusp of loss.

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