The story opens with a description of a woman (still unnamed, but later revealed as Hester) who is unlucky. She used to be in love with her husband when she married him, but at some point she stopped loving him. The woman also struggles to feel warmth or love for her children, and she feels as though she needs to make up for some mistake she has made, although she is not exactly sure what that mistake is. Others in the town remark on what a good mother she is, but she and her children know that she is not.
For most of the story, Hester is nameless. This increases the story’s childlike and “fable-like” tone, but also shows how Hester is essentially a passive character. Hester believes that she is (relatively) poor because she was unlucky in marriage (not work), and she does not play an active role in her children’s lives. She is also very concerned with appearances—she’s good at seeming like a good mother, even if she knows she’s not.
Hester and her three children—two girls and one boy—live in a nice house and employ servants to attend to their needs. But although they appear to be wealthy, they are always running out of money. The father cannot make his ideas turn a profit, and the mother has no success when she tries to make money herself.
Lawrence makes clear in the opening paragraphs of his story that the plot will revolve around money, or the lack thereof. Hester’s family is not actually poor—they just don’t have enough money to appear as rich as Hester wants to.
Everyone in the family feels that the house is haunted. It seems to whisper, “There must be more money! There must be more money!” Even the children’s Christmas presents—a rocking-horse and a doll house—repeat this refrain. The children do not speak of the whispering to one another, but they can tell from looking into each other’s eyes that they all hear it.
The story’s pervasive tone of anxiety and dread truly sets in here, as the children all seem to share the same hallucination that the house is speaking. There is also a clear lack of communication and intimacy even between the children—they don’t speak to each other about the voices, but only share significant glances. Hester again shows her materialism in that she buys expensive toys for the children rather than providing them with real intimacy.
One day Paul, the boy, asks Hester why they don’t have a car and why they must take taxis everywhere. She explains to him that they are poor because Paul’s father “has no luck.” When Paul asks his mother if luck and money are the same thing, she tells him that luck is the reason that people have money.
This philosophy might make more sense if the family was actually poor, or if they had actually faced some problems they had no real control over. As it is, however, the family simply doesn’t have enough money because Hester spends it all. This speech might just be Hester feeling bitter and victimized in the moment, but it has huge repercussions on Paul’s psychology.
Paul is confused because he thought the expression “filthy lucker” referred to money, but Hester corrects him and says the expression is “filthy lucre.” She tells him that she would rather be lucky than rich because rich people can lose their money but lucky people never will. She further explains that she and Paul’s father are not lucky, and that only God knows why certain people are lucky.
Hester sees herself as blameless, and doesn’t consider that her actions might have something to do with the family’s financial situation. By saying that money comes from luck and that luck is God-given, she is able to be upset about her situation without actually having to do anything about it. This constant drive for more money and for a “luck” that seems unattainable is one of the sinister forces that Lawrence sees in modern society.
Paul tells Hester that he is lucky, although he does not know why he decides to say this. She doesn’t believe him, and Paul becomes determined to prove his luck to her. Paul starts to search inside himself for luck and becomes overwhelmed by his desire for it. Eventually he starts madly riding his rocking-horse, looking into its wide, glassy eyes and and asking it to take him to luck. He is certain that the horse can take him there, so he whips the toy into submission. His attitude toward the horse frightens his sisters.
Just as Hester wants luck so that her neighbors think she’s wealthy, Paul wants luck so that his mother will think he’s lucky (and, presumably, will then be proud of him and love him more). Both are concerned with appearances, but Paul is willing to work hard to find luck, while Hester expects it to be given to her. It is never clear why Paul is so drawn to his rocking-horse, but it is obviously an important symbol in the story. A rocking-horse is a toy for a young child, and on one level it symbolizes Paul’s unwillingness to grow up, and his need to be constantly be seeking his mother’s approval. In Freudian psychoanalysis, dreaming about riding a horse is symbolic of sexual intercourse, and some interpretations of the story have seen Paul’s rocking motion as representing sex or masturbation. Either way, there is something strange and disquieting about Paul’s frantic “work” on the horse.
One day Paul’s wealthy uncle, Oscar, interrupts Paul while he is riding his horse. He suggests that Paul is too old to be riding a rocking-horse, but Paul refuses to respond. He finally finishes his ride and tells Uncle Oscar that he went where he wanted to go. Uncle Oscar asks Paul if the horse has a name and Paul says the name changes, but that he was named “Sansovino” last week. Uncle Oscar recognizes that this was the name of the horse who recently won a major horse race. Joan, one of Paul’s sisters, tells Uncle Oscar that Paul talks about horse racing with Bassett, the family’s gardener.
Uncle Oscar interprets Paul’s comments about “getting where he wanted to go” and the horse’s changing name as the result of a lively imagination—he doesn’t take them seriously. Despite Joan’s discomfort with Paul’s behavior, no one steps in or asks what is going on. Paul’s family is not invested in him, and they allow him to go down what turns out to be a destructive path.
Uncle Oscar asks Paul which horse he should bet on for the upcoming Lincoln horse race. After Paul makes Oscar promise “honour bright” that he won’t tell anyone else, Paul says to bet on Daffodil—a relatively unknown horse. Paul makes Oscar promise once again not to tell anyone else, because Paul has promised Bassett that the two of them would work together as partners. Paul is only helping Uncle Oscar out at all because Oscar gave him the ten-shilling note he used for his first successful bet.
The story is very short, and lots of things happen without Lawrence stating them directly. By the time of this encounter, Paul has already been using his rocking-horse to achieve a state of “luckiness” and to pick the winners of horse races. Paul’s childlike language (“honour bright”) is contrasted with his adult occupation of betting large amounts of money, and with the disturbing, supernatural aspect of his frenzied rocking.
Uncle Oscar looks into Paul’s bright blue and close-together eyes and promises he won’t tell anyone. Paul tells his uncle that he is going to bet three hundred pounds on Daffodil and keep twenty in reserve. At first, Uncle Oscar doesn’t believe him, but Paul explains that he and Bassett have made a lot of money betting and that Bassett keeps the money safe for Paul.
Paul’s eyes are described as close-together, and later on as “mad,” while his rocking-horse’s are wide-set and calm. Paul pretends to whip his rocking-horse into submission, but Paul is actually the wild one in the relationship.
Uncle Oscar takes Paul to a horse race, and Paul’s eyes look as though they are blazing when he watches the race. When Daffodil wins, his eyes continue to burn, although Paul himself is quite calm. Paul now has about fifteen hundred pounds of winnings. He offers Uncle Oscar a place as a partner with Bassett and himself, but only if Uncle Oscar promises not to tell anyone else.
Paul’s eyes begin to take on a life of their own and they behave differently than does the rest of Paul’s body. Indeed, Paul does not seem to be in control of his blazing eyes—instead, they seem to have a life of their own, as burning with greed and desire.
Paul, Bassett, and Uncle Oscar go on a walk and Paul explains that they always win when he is sure of which horse he should bet on. Uncle Oscar doesn’t totally believe Paul and Bassett, so he asks if he can see Paul’s money. When he sees it, Paul explains to him that he bets almost all of his money when he’s sure, but sometimes he only has an idea, and sometimes he has no idea at all. When Paul isn’t sure, he and Bassett tend to do poorly, so they don’t bet much money then.
Were Paul to truly be lucky, he would not have bad days at the races. Indeed, he would not need to “know” which horse to bet on, but instead would simply make a lucky guess. The very fact that Paul has to work so hard for his “luck” means it isn’t really luck at all. Of course, he can’t see this, and he continues to pursue luck because that is the thing his mother values most.
Uncle Oscar asks Paul how he becomes “sure,” and Paul explains that he just knows. Bassett says that the knowledge seems to come from heaven. Uncle Oscar agrees to join the partnership, and Paul makes ten thousand pounds on his next bet. When Uncle Oscar asks Paul what he’s going to do with his money, Paul explains that he started betting for the sake of his mother (Hester). Paul hoped that if he became lucky, “it might stop the whispering.” Uncle Oscar doesn’t understand, but Paul explains that he hates the whispering in his house and that they never have enough money. Paul’s eyes burn with “an uncanny cold fire in them,” and he tells Uncle Oscar multiple times that he doesn’t want his mother to know that he has become lucky.
In this scene, a second cause for Paul’s mad riding is revealed: in addition to proving to his mother that he is lucky, he also wants to stop the voices in his house. These voices cause Paul an incredible amount of anxiety, but instead of talking to his mother about them and addressing the source of the problem, he decides that they will go away if he makes himself lucky. He doesn’t understand that greed is an endless cycle that cannot simply be broken by more money. Once again Paul’s eyes are portrayed as something supernatural and frightening.
Instead of giving Hester money directly, Paul gives five thousand pounds to Uncle Oscar, who takes the money to the bank and arranges for one thousand pounds to be sent to Paul’s mother each year on her birthday. Paul is excited for his mother to receive the first check because the house was whispering even more than usual, despite the fact that Paul’s mother had recently started a job drawing fabrics for a friend’s drapery company.
Paul childishly believes that money is the answer to all his problems, when in fact, his problems stem from greed, a lack of intimacy with his mother, and possibly some kind of psychological neurosis. He is not growing up in a healthy way.
Hester’s face turns cold when she receives the first check. Paul asks her if she had received any nice letters, but she says they were only “moderately nice.” She then leaves the house and goes to the bank, where she asks if she can have all five thousand pounds at once. Following Uncle Oscar’s advice, Paul agrees to give her all of the money at once.
Sadly, the money Paul has worked so hard to win doesn’t improve his mother’s spirits—instead, she just wants more. Lawrence demonstrates here that greed is insatiable—as long as the greed itself is still there, no amount of money will truly satisfy it.
Once Hester has the money, the house starts whispering louder and more madly than ever before. Instead of paying off her debts, Hester buys new furniture and secures a tutor for Paul so that he will be able to attend Eton, a prestigious boys’ school. Scared of the horrible noises his house is making, Paul starts riding his rocking-horse more intensely than ever. But for a number of races, he fails to “know” which horse to bet on and he begins to lose money. He grows “wild-eyed and strange” and behaves as if he is about to burst.
Once again, Hester chooses to prioritize the image she presents to those outside of her home over the feelings of her family within it. The intensity of the whispering makes Paul so anxious that he rides more than ever. He still hasn’t learned that “luck” and money will not stop the house from whispering or make his mother love him, and so the madness inside of him continues to grow, as symbolized by his inhuman eyes.
Hester finally notices the madness in Paul’s eyes and suggests that he go down to the seaside for some rest. Paul explains that he cannot go before the Derby (a big horse race). His mother tells him that gambling runs in the family, and she is concerned by how invested he has become in horse racing. Paul refuses to be sent away from the house. He assures his mother over and over that she doesn’t need to worry about him.
Paul believes that if he rides the rocking-horse enough he solve all of the family’s problems—essentially that he can free his mother from her worries by taking them upon himself. This isn’t how anxiety works, however, and Hester and Paul only feed off each other, growing more anxious every day.
Paul refuses to leave the house because he doesn’t want to leave his rocking-horse—a secret about which even Bassett and Uncle Oscar don’t know. When Hester decides that Paul is too old to stay in the nursery, Paul has his horse moved with him to his bedroom, even though his mother protests that he is too old for such a toy. Paul tells Hester that he wants the rocking-horse to keep him company until he is able to get a real horse.
At this point Paul seems to know that his relationship with the rocking-horse is strange and unhealthy, and he does everything he can to protect it and keep it secret. Time is passing and Paul is growing older, but he still clings to the rocking-horse—a clear sign that he isn’t growing up in a healthy manner. Once again, there may be a sexual aspect to Paul’s shame and secrecy regarding his frantic riding.
As the Derby approaches, Paul becomes more and more nervous, and his eyes begin to look “uncanny.” His mother becomes very worried about him. Two nights before the Derby, while at a party in town, Hester is overwhelmed with concern for Paul. The anxiety “gripped her heart till she could hardly speak,” and she telephones the nurse (who takes care of the children) to make sure everything is all right. The nurse offers to go check on Paul in his room, but his mother doesn’t want to wake him, so she waits to check on him until she gets home.
Paul’s eyes take on a supernatural appearance, as though another being is inhabiting his body. Hester’s original coldness has gradually grown into a greater concern for her child (mostly in the form of new anxiety and worry), but this hasn’t really brought the two together yet. She is on the road to becoming a better mother, but by now it may be too late.
When Hester arrives home and goes to Paul’s door, she hears a violent, rushing noise coming from his room. She cannot identify the noise, although it sounds familiar to her. She opens the door finds Paul furiously riding his rocking-horse. A flash of light illuminates Paul and his horse and he says, “It’s Malabar” over and over again in a strong, deep voice. Then Paul collapses on the ground and his mother rushes toward him.
There are many fantastical moments in this story that are never fully explained, but the extent to which Paul’s body is taken over by a strange force certainly demonstrates the all-consuming nature of greed and blind desire. This scene once again could also be interpreted in light of Freudian psychoanalysis as related to the “Oedipal complex.” Sigmund Freud believed that young boys are naturally first attracted to their mothers and want to replace or kill their fathers (as the Classical Greek character Oedipus killed his father and married his mother). Children only grow up healthily when they overcome this desire. The association here between Paul’s frantic rocking, his desire to please his mother, and his mother “walking in on him” in the middle of the act all could suggest something like this. It is a testament to the power of Lawrence’s story that so many interpretations could work for it at once—the dangers of greed, a boy trying to win the love of a cold mother, and a story of psychological and sexual neurosis.
Three days later, Paul’s condition is critical, and Hester feels as if her heart has been replaced with a stone. Bassett comes in and tells Paul that Malabar has won the Derby. Paul asks his mother if she thinks that he’s lucky. Paul says that if he rides his rocking-horse hard enough he becomes lucky. His mother says that she didn’t know this. Paul dies that night.
Hester seems to finally feel an appropriate love toward her son, but it is too late—he’s dead. Paul’s death is presented briefly and coldly, as a tragedy stemming from all the causes listed above, but ultimately as just a small, sensitive boy being used by adults and by forces beyond his control until he could handle it no longer.
After Paul’s death, Uncle Oscar tells Hester, whose name is finally revealed, that she is better off than she was before—she has lost a “poor devil of a son” but in exchange has gained eighty-thousand pounds in Paul’s winnings. Uncle Oscar explains says that Paul is better off dead anyway, and he’s “best gone out of a life where he rides his rocking-horse to find a winner.”
It’s notable that Lawrence doesn’t give us Hester’s reaction to Paul’s death—whether she feels guilty, whether she truly grieves him and loves him, or whether his death has any effect on her materialism and greed. Instead we just hear Oscar’s callous reaction to the death, weighing his nephew’s life in terms of gains and losses (like the odds at a horse race). He suggests that Hester is better off with eighty thousand pounds than with a strange, weak son, but his comment about Paul is more difficult to interpret. It could just be a description of what he saw as Paul’s strangeness, but it could also be that Oscar sees how “crazed” Paul had become—or even that Oscar understands that this world was too harsh and greedy for someone as sensitive as Paul, and Paul never would have been able to be healthy or happy.