1. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Short Story Club (8): The Rocking-Horse Winner by D. H. Lawrence

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by thirdwind, Apr 5, 2013.

    For this discussion we'll be reading "The Rocking-Horse Winner" by D. H. Lawrence. You can find a copy of the story here.

    D. H. Lawrence was an English writer perhaps best known for his novels (Sons and Lovers, Women in Love, Lady Chatterley's Lover). I've only read one novel by him, and that was Sons and Lovers, which is supposed to be his greatest accomplishment (it's definitely worth reading). I've never had the chance to read his stories, so I'm looking forward to this one.
     
  2. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    This story is the only thing I've yet read by D.H. Lawrence. It surprised me in a way: I thought Lawrence's voice would be more modern than this. The tone here is almost that of a tall tale, almost starting with "Once upon a time ..." It's nearly all telling, little showing. The language is simple, trying to make the reader understand things through repetition rather than verbal cleverness: "There must be more money, there must be more money." "He wanted luck, he wanted it, he wanted it." There's even some repetition of description: Paul's "blue glare" and "close-set eyes" appear in more than one place in the story.

    I suppose this has to be taken as a low fantasy, in that the setting is very realistic, but Paul is able to conjure "luck" if he rides his rocking-horse hard enough. He has that supernatural gift and it's never explained. I found that interesting. But clearly, using this gift costs him, weakens him, makes him sick if he pushes too hard, which, of course, he does - he's very much a young boy in that respect, never knowing when to stop.

    I thought the story would end like any folk-tale, offering a warning against working too hard, I guess. Then that last line hit me: "But poor, poor devil, he's best gone out of a life where he rides his rocking-horse to find a winner." I was reminded of that old saying about growing up and putting away childish things. Even though Paul's uncle is benefiting from Paul's talent, he states that it's better for Paul to die than to be trapped by financial necessity in childhood, that childhood represented by the rocking-horse. So long as he has to ride the rocking-horse, he'll never properly grow up, even if he's winning thousands of pounds. Is he really better off dead? Is that what Lawrence is saying here?
     
  3. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    That is how I interpreted it. It's better to be dead than to be completely obsessed about something. I'm not sure if Lawrence is talking about an obsession with money specifically or the concept of obsession itself.

    This is a very fast-paced story. Everything happens quickly. Lawrence doesn't linger too long on descriptions and doesn't describe the actual races at all, opting to tell the reader the results of the race instead (i.e., "Daffodil came in first, Lancelot second, Mirza third."). Lawrence is certainly an old-fashioned writer. Like minstrel mentioned, he loves to tell rather than show. He repeats phrases and emphasizes symbols (in this story, eyes are very important).

    I also found it interesting that the story deals a lot with Paul's relationship with his mother, which is a huge theme in Sons and Lovers. In the novel, Paul Morel's mother takes care of him after he falls sick, but this is only after he is initially neglected. I actually expected this story to be written before Sons and Lovers, but it was the other way around. Sons and Lovers was published in 1913, and this story was published in 1926.

    There's a clear (and somewhat sudden) change in Paul's mother. It doesn't seem like she was too concerned about Paul during the first half of the story. It's only later that she begins worrying about him. I wonder if she somehow found out about his "ability." Maybe she had a hunch after talking to the uncle. I don't know, it's just a guess. But I do think that from a writing point of view, Paul's mother suddenly worrying about her son at the party is odd. It's as if Lawrence didn't know how to bridge that gap and just opted for a quick solution ("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."). For me, this does weaken the story a little bit.

    When it comes to classifying the genre of the story, I would go with magical realism, though I'm hesitant to call it even that. It's debatable whether riding the rocking-horse is actually a magical or fantastical element. Paul's success might just be the result of luck, plain and simple. So even calling this story general fiction is OK with me.
     
  4. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    This is an interesting point. I noticed it, too, and missed why. I just glanced over that section of the story again to get it straighter in my head, and it turns out that Lawrence was actually doing a fairly complicated thing there. Paul is just becoming successful with his betting, hoping the new money will keep the house from whispering "There must be more money!" all the time. He hates that. But when his mother gets the money, suddenly there's new furniture and tutors and going to Eton and all, and the house almost yells "There must be more money!" Paul thought it would stop, but it just got worse. So he feels more pressure to win even more money, at the same time as he's getting to the age where his mother is saying "Surely you're too big for a rocking-horse." He's under stress in way she'd never seen him before, and that's why she begins worrying about him. Everything was fine with him until the money starting arriving, and she doesn't understand why, just when the money problems are getting solved, he's suffering.

    It seemed a bit weak to me, too, but now I'm not sure it is. Lawrence was juggling several elements there and trying to make it seem as transparent as he could.
     
  5. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    That's a good observation. It looks like you're right. I found a few relevant passages.

    And then a few paragraphs down,

    The part about Paul's mother at the party makes sense now. My mind is at ease. I was worried for a minute that Lawrence had made a careless mistake. :)
     
  6. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    This story really reminded me of Sons and Lovers. I liked how undiplomatic the story was in some ways. I like how grounded this story is, how dirty and undiplomatic. A lot of Lawrence's writings, from what I've said (not much I'll admit) is very much related to what he seen throughout life.

    One of Lawrence's techniques is that of treating writing as a painting. Painting the flowers and the colors in detail around a central point, and any interpretation is left just to the reader. With something like Sons and Lovers, which leaves the reader to philosophize, alone, on the psychoanalytic relationship between mother and the sons. Here there is an example of this too.

    I have to say, this is the most fantastical and light of the stuff I've read by Lawrence. Something actually nice happens! It's amazing. But does this make this magic? I don't think it does personally, and I don't think Lawrence would care if you thought that or not. This seems to be his point. He was very much a part of the Modernist way of thinking, letting the reader do more work than before. And it is also for this reason that not all of the character's struggles are resolved. Paul wins the money in the end, but he doesn't really get what he wants. He's no better a person, he's still the same, so is the money worth it?
     
  7. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    That's another interesting question. You can view Paul as simply a tool for getting money, and when the tool is used too hard, it breaks - he dies. Maybe the story is really about his mother. After all, he was winning for her the whole time, and hoping to quiet the whispering of the house. Was the money worth it to her? She got out of debt, surely, and was well set-up for the next part of her life, but it cost her her son. Was that a fair trade? I don't believe she'd think so.

    But she didn't know what Paul was going through to get the money. She didn't know that she was pressuring him. If she'd known what it was costing him, and eventually her, maybe she'd have scaled back their lifestyle to live more within their means, and he would have lived. Maybe the story is about sacrificing too much for too little.

    I won't defend that point too far, though, because that last line from the uncle still haunts me. It says the boy is better off dead than perpetually tied to his childhood.

    The more I think about this story, the more there seems to be in it.
     
  8. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I'll be honest. I don't like the mother. The first thing she does when she "inherits" the money is go out and buy new furniture and a new tutor for Paul. For her, wealth is a symbol of one's social status, and it's clear that she was used to a life of luxury in her childhood years.

    I guess for me it's more about her lack of responsibility and not the fact that she had no idea what Paul was going through. She's trying desperately to return to her former lifestyle. I know, however, that she cares about Paul. She even tries to send him to the seaside when she sees that he's not feeling well. But overall she's just not the type of character I can easily like. Part of the reason for this may be that the focus of the story is about Paul and not his mother. Paul is a tragic character, and for this reason, it's very hard for me to sympathize with anyone else in the story.
     
  9. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I don't like the mother, either. She's selfish. She doesn't seem to properly understand her own circumstances.

    Now, it may be that part of what motivates her in that direction is a desire to give Paul and his sisters a better life, a life more like she herself had growing up. That's understandable and justifiable. But part of it is that she wants luxury herself, and status, and she doesn't care what it takes - what it costs - to get it until it's too late.

    Besides Paul himself, the only character I like in the story is Bassett. He seems fair, supportive, and treats Paul well.
     
  10. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    I have to say, I like the mother as a character, but not as a person. Because she's selfish and a little cold, she is also realistic. Lawrence was just not about having 'characters', rather people with flaws.
     
  11. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Sure. Everything I said about her had nothing to do with how Lawrence drew her; it had to do with her personality. I have no complaints about how she is portrayed in the story. I just don't like her.
     
  12. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Yeah, and that's one of the things that I find, the more I read Lawrence the more I like about him. He was pretty brave, from a writer's perspective. Brave enough to have a not very likable character as central to the plot. I did write 'not sympathetic' either but I'm not sure that's the case. I do actually have a bit of sympathy for her. She seems rather depressed I thought.
     
  13. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I think she was depressed, too, and she had reason to be. She was chronically short of money. It's not easy to live happily when things used to be better than they are. People need hope, and she has none because she has no luck (at least, that's the reason she tells Paul). She's also depressed because she's responsible for her children and she doesn't love them, nor they her. This is stated clearly in the first paragraph.

    I find it interesting that Paul's father doesn't appear in this story at all. He's alive, but he's not a character. If Paul's mother doesn't love him, his father completely ignores him. I would have thought, given the time period of the story, that horse racing could be a common interest for Paul and his father and could bring them closer together, but that doesn't happen. Paul's uncle is a father figure, I suppose, and Bassett is like his older brother, and they provide all the male companionship he seems to have in his life.
     
  14. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    It's interesting because the first few paragraphs are exclusively about the mother, which is why when I first started reading the story, I assumed that the mother was the main character or the main focus of the story (I think it can be argued that she is).

    It's also interesting how the mother's response is different than that of the father's. We're told in the first paragraph that she married for love, which to me means that she came from the upper class and chose to marry someone from the lower class. But even then, I don't think they're as poor as the mother makes them out to be.

    The father, on the other hand, seems to be content about where he is in life. However, it does say that he has expensive tastes, so I think he is just as much to blame as the mother.

    Also, I can't help but think that there is a strong Oedipal theme here.
     
  15. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Really? I must have missed that. Paul dies in childhood and has virtually no interaction at all with his father, and very little with his mother. You might say giving money to her is analogous to marrying her, especially since she doesn't know where the money is coming from (oh, darn, I'm talking myself into accepting your theory!), but they don't love each other. Lawrence goes out of his way to insist that Paul is providing the money to silence the house, not to benefit his mother.

    Where do you see an Oedipal theme?
     
  16. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Lawrence had the Oedipal theme in a few other works apparently but the story most strongly reminds me of Sons and Lovers, where the Oedipus complex was a major theme. In fact, it even uses one or two of the same names as that novel.
     
  17. thirdwind
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    Paul essentially replaces his father as the mother's provider. It's important to note that Paul never actually spends the money he earns (except to bet and make more money). And the fact that he agrees to give 5000 pounds to his mother suggests that he's willing to part with the money for her benefit. When he begins to lose money, he grows worried and sick because, according to my interpretation, he can no longer provide for his mother. It may not be the greatest example of an Oedipal theme, but I certainly do see elements of it in this story.
     
  18. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    You're probably right. I have to revisit Oedipus. I can get all of Sophocles' Oedipus plays for free on my Kindle, so there's no stopping me!

    I still find it interesting that Paul's father isn't part of the story. I keep thinking that Lawrence may have included him in a much longer, earlier draft, then cut him and all the related material out to make a purer short story. I tend to work in reverse of that - I start small and keep adding things. It becomes hard for me to hold a story down to short-story length, say less than 7,500 words. I'm not yet vicious enough with my own material. I wonder how Lawrence worked. Did he start big and cut, or did he start small and add?
     
  19. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I was actually thinking of posting a similar thought earlier. This is pure speculation, but I wonder if the uncle in the final draft was the father in earlier drafts.
     
  20. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    I studied Sons and Lovers at University, and I remember something about him working the second way. Starting small, from a single point, and adding to it and around it. However, I can't find that in any of my lecture notes, so don't take this as gospel.
     
  21. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Does anyone have any other thoughts about this story? If not, we can move on to the next story.
     
  22. minstrel
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    I think we've beaten this one pretty much to death. Onwards, fellow short-story readers!
     

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