The Rocking-Horse Winner

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Themes and Colors
Greed and Materialism  Theme Icon
Luck and Hard Work Theme Icon
Anxiety Theme Icon
Family and Intimacy Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Rocking-Horse Winner, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Anxiety Theme Icon

Paul’s home is so full of anxiety that even the house itself seems to worry over the family’s financial situation. Hester and Paul, the two main characters, take different approaches to relieving their anxiety. Hester complains and spends more, while Paul works with Bassett and rides his rocking-horse frantically—but neither character is successful. In fact, both of them become more anxious as the story progresses. Paul is made so anxious by his whispering house that he starts obsessively riding his rocking horse for hours in search of “luck.” He does end up making lots of money this way, but Hester only becomes more anxious when she receives Paul’s monetary gift. Further, as Paul becomes more obsessed with riding his horse, Hester grows anxious about him as well. In the beginning of the story, Hester seems to think little about her children, but by the end she is concerned with Paul’s wellbeing—so much so that Paul himself tries to reassure her and tell her not to worry. Yet in the end, her anxiety does not compel her to pay enough attention to Paul to prevent his death—she is too focused on her own feelings, even if those feelings still relate to Paul. Anxiety thus is portrayed in the story as something that becomes separate from its initial cause, so that those who suffer from it often focus on the anxiety itself rather than on its causes.

Although this story is full of anxiety, that anxiety is rarely acknowledged out loud. Indeed, Paul and his siblings do not even discuss their mutual feeling that their house is whispering about the need for more money. Anxiety in the story is internal and unspoken, and it separates people. It is conveyed not through conversation or connection but silently, though the eyes. Paul is repeatedly described as having mad or frenzied eyes, particularly in contrast to the rocking-horse’s cool and calm ones, and the children only use glances to “share” that they all hear the whispering house. Overall, this sense of anxiety and dread permeates the entire story, affecting the characters and their actions, and also the general mood of the work itself.

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Anxiety ThemeTracker

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Anxiety Quotes in The Rocking-Horse Winner

Below you will find the important quotes in The Rocking-Horse Winner related to the theme of Anxiety.
The Rocking-Horse Winner Quotes

And so the house came to be haunted by the unspoken phrase: There must be more money! There must be more money!

Related Characters: Paul, Hester, Joan
Page Number: 270
Explanation and Analysis:

Hester's reckless spending compared her moderate income (and the moderate income of her husband) creates debt for the family. Paired with this debt is constant anxiety of how the family will appear to the neighbors and to society. The pressure for money and to maintain a certain status and lifestyle creates tension, greed, and necessity in the house. Thus the family feels that the house is haunted by the unspoken words: "There must be more money!"

The lines of this "haunting" are repeated throughout the story, and though they do not seem to be spoken audibly by family members, the words are felt by the children, the mother, and even Uncle Oscar, who will later agree that the house is always short of money. The haunting is figurative, representing the family's constant desire for more wealth, but the whispering is felt and heard literally, too, by the children, in particular Paul.

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Yet nobody ever said it aloud. The whisper was everywhere, and therefore no one spoke it. Just as no one ever says: “We are breathing!” in spite of the fact that breath is coming and going all the time.”

Related Characters: Paul, Hester, Joan
Page Number: 270
Explanation and Analysis:

These lines describe the uncanny feeling that the house is always whispering that there must be more money. This constant whispering is then juxtaposed with the family's silence. The family does not communicate with one another or share their worries or anxieties, displaying a lack of intimacy and openness. Thus the greed and pressure for money is transformed into unspoken tension, and from this tension to the haunting that deeply affects the young children. This haunting, we see, becomes an essential part of living in the family and in the house, since it is compared even to the act of breathing. Money is equated with breath, which is constantly needed and fulfilled subconsciously to maintain life. By making this comparison, Lawrence shows the perils of overvaluing wealth or mistaking money for something that truly matters or gives life.

Absorbed, taking no heed of other people, he went about with a sort of stealth, seeking inwardly for luck. He wanted luck, he wanted it, he wanted it. When the two girls were playing dolls, in the nursery, he would sit on his big rocking-horse, charging madly into space with a frenzy that made the little girls peer at him uneasily.

Related Characters: Paul, Joan
Related Symbols: The Rocking-Horse
Page Number: 272
Explanation and Analysis:

After learning his mother's opinions about luck, Paul becomes obsessed with this reality and the idea that he is lucky. He begins to retreat even beyond the regular lack of intimacy he experienced in the house, stealthily turning inward and becoming exceedingly anxious and private. He wanted luck—and note that Lawrence emphasizes the strength of this desire by repeating the phrase three times.

Here we are introduced to the physical activity which he believes will drive his luck and which mirrors his crazed mental state: the boy sits on his rocking-horse and rides it (in place) in a frenzy. This motionless effort at once makes no progress, since the horse doesn't go anywhere, but is also rewarded, since he eventually seems to reach the state of "luck" that he seeks.

Note also that the frenzied riding of the rocking-horse can be read as sexual and Freudian, pulsed with the strange desire for Paul to "get there" for himself and for his mother. 

And he would slash the horse on the neck with the little whip he had asked Uncle Oscar for. He knew the horse could take him to where there was luck, if only he forced it. So he would mount again, and start on his furious ride, hoping at last to get there.

Related Characters: Paul, Oscar Cresswell (Uncle Oscar)
Related Symbols: The Rocking-Horse
Page Number: 272
Explanation and Analysis:

Riding the rocking-horse and commanding it to "take me to where there is luck!" Paul whips the horse as if it is a living creature, and as if it will aid him in his quest for luck. He demonstrates his belief that he can force the horse to take him to luck, indicating that luck can be made or reached through sheer willpower and effort. The strange behavior seems indicative of neurosis and the anxiety generated by the materialistic pressure from the house and family, and also stems from the lesson on luck from his greedy mother.

We can note that these lines in particular lend themselves to a darker, more sexual reading, noting "mounting," "furious ride," and "get there."

“I started it for mother. She said she had no luck, because father is unlucky, so I thought if I was lucky, it might stop the whispering.”

Related Characters: Paul (speaker), Oscar Cresswell (Uncle Oscar), Hester, Paul’s father
Page Number: 278
Explanation and Analysis:

Soon after cutting Uncle Oscar into his partnership with Bassett, Paul makes ten thousand pounds on a bet. When Uncle Oscar asks him what he plans to do with all of the money, Paul responds with the quoted lines. He explains that he started accumulating money for his mother. She said that she was unlucky and her husband was unlucky, so Paul wanted to be lucky in order to "stop the whispering."

What Paul is referring to is the felt anxiety and pressure for money in his home, caused by his mother's greed and materialistic obsessions. We can note that when Uncle Oscar asks what is whispering, Paul responds with "Our house. I hate our house for whispering." When Paul tells his Uncle that the house always needs more money, Oscar simply agrees, and ultimately confirms Paul's idea that winning can stop the whispering. Thus Oscar's own greed also fuels Paul's anxious need to keep winning more and more money for his family.

Oscar then helps Paul arrange to deliver his winnings to Hester. We can also note that Paul doesn't want his mother to know (yet) that he is lucky, or that the money is coming from him. The relationship is based on the strange belief that he needs to give her money to quiet the house, but not share with her the fact that he is winning and is basing his entire reality on the notion of luck that she instilled in him. Thus Paul is seemingly acting out of love for his mother, but also is afraid of any real honesty and intimacy between himself and Hester.

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! Oh-h-h! There must be more money! Oh, now, now-w! now-w-w—there must be more money!—more than ever! More than ever!”

Related Characters: Paul
Page Number: 280
Explanation and Analysis:

Though Paul has given his mother a large sum of money, the whispering hasn't stopped. Rather than using it to ease the financial pressures on the household, Hester spends the money and attempts to improve the family's lifestyle even more, investing in a tutor and a new school for Paul, as well as other luxuries like flowers in winter. By continuing in her materialistic pattern, Hester only increases the family's financial strain and anxiety.

Thus the voices in the house, behind all of the glamor purchased with Paul's winnings, become more excited than ever. Rather than whispering, the gentle push for money has turned into "trills" and "screams," saying that now, more than ever, there must be more money. There is urgency in the voice, and the amount of money required seems to have skyrocketed.

Here, Lawrence demonstrates how greed is insatiable, and how materialism and spending just begets more spending and debt without bringing any lasting happiness. The more money Hester has, the more she wants. The greed is constant, and Paul's influx of cash seems only to take his mother to the next level of desire and spending.

He became wild-eyed and strange, as if something were going to explode in him.

Related Characters: Paul
Related Symbols: Eyes
Page Number: 280
Explanation and Analysis:

The expression of the house's voices frightens Paul, fueling his anxiety. He studies with his tutor, but he devotes almost all of his energy to races with Basset. A few big races have gone by without him knowing who will win. In this state of anxiety and ceaseless desire for luck, Paul becomes "wild-eyed and strange, as if something were going to explode in him." These lines illustrate the tension building in him and the weird behavior he begins to exhibit. The mania is most apparent in his "wild eyes," which communicate emotions within the closed-off family where the spoken voice cannot. The growing greed and necessity for money is driving Paul towards insanity and illness, and his inhumane eyes symbolize this path and potentially communicate it to his family (though they don't seem to notice or care).

He hardly heard what was spoken to him, he was very frail, and his eyes were really uncanny. His mother had sudden strange seizures of uneasiness about him. Sometimes, for half an hour, she would feel a sudden anxiety about him that was almost anguish. She wanted to rush to him at once, and know he was safe.

Related Characters: Paul, Hester
Related Symbols: Eyes
Page Number: 282
Explanation and Analysis:

The Derby is approaching, and Paul still doesn't know who will win the race. He has reached a state of exhaustion, mania, and illness. The lines here say that he doesn't respond to what's spoken to him, showing that he is isolated and cut off from reality, focusing instead on his inward drive towards luck and money. His eyes are now "uncanny," and his mother, too, has become anxious.

Hester has changed from a cold, uncaring mother to an anxious, worried mother. Paul's strange behavior and eerie look in his eyes give her "strange seizures of uneasiness about him." She is plagued by sudden rushes of anxiety, seeming to share in her son's internal struggle. In the moments leading up to the end of the story (and Paul's life) Hester becomes invested in his wellbeing and obsessed with him instead of with money, but the effort seems to be too little, too late.

There was a strange, heavy, and yet not loud noise. Her heart stood still. It was a soundless noise, yet rushing and powerful. Something huge, in violent, hushed motion. What was it? What in God’s Name was it? She ought to know. She felt that she knew the noise. She knew what it was.

Related Characters: Hester
Related Symbols: The Rocking-Horse
Page Number: 283
Explanation and Analysis:

While at a party two nights before the Derby, Hester becomes overwhelmed by anxiety and the idea that her son is in danger. When she returns home, she goes to check on him, and outside of his door she hears a noise, here described. The noise is strange, causing her heart to stand still. Lawrence describes it with the paradoxical "it was a soundless noise." It is at once violent and hushed, rushing and still. She feels like she knows what it is, she must know it, but she cannot figure out what the noise is.

When she enters the room, she witnesses Paul "madly surging on the rocking-horse." This scene is often read as the climactic moment in the story's Freudian reading, in which Paul's actions are sexual or masturbatory. The uncanny nature of the sound mirrors Paul's strange behavior and uncanny eyes, making Hester's discovery extremely tense and dramatic.

His eyes blazed at her for one strange and senseless second, as he ceased urging his wooden horse. Then he fell with a crash to the ground, and she, all her tormented motherhood flooding upon her, rushed to gather him up.

Related Characters: Paul, Hester
Related Symbols: The Rocking-Horse, Eyes
Page Number: 283
Explanation and Analysis:

Hester has just walked in and discovered Paul "madly surging on the rocking-horse." She asks what he's doing, and he screams in a strange voice, "It's Malabar!" naming the horse that will win the Derby. After this prediction, his "eyes blazed" at his mother, and he stops urging the horse. The blazing moment of strange eye-contact could represent the only moment of true communication in this scene, as eyes are indicative of emotional states and communicate when voices fail.

Paul then falls off the horse, crashing into the ground, and his mother, feeling her own climax of motherhood and fear for her son, rushes towards him to help him. This scene at once shows the terrifying discovery, the physical manifestation of anxiety and greed in Paul, and the intimate, maternal desire of Hester to help her boy in a moment of crisis. This is also the moment that Paul's secret is discovered: until now no one knew that he used the rocking-horse to make his discoveries and predict the races.

“I never told you, mother, that if I can ride my horse, and get there, then I’m absolutely sure—oh, absolutely! Mother, did I ever tell you? I am lucky!”

Related Characters: Paul, Hester
Related Symbols: The Rocking-Horse
Page Number: 284
Explanation and Analysis:

Paul's condition has worsened; on his deathbed, Basset informs him (and Hester) that Malabar indeed won the Derby, and that Paul has won over eighty thousand pounds. The lines excerpted here are Paul's last words. He finally tells his mother what he has been hiding for so long. He tries to explain about the rocking-horse, how if he rides and "gets there," he can become absolutely sure of the race's winner. He then reveals to her the true source of his anxiety, desire, and self worth. He tells her what he has asked Oscar and Bassett to hide from her: "Mother, did I ever tell you? I am lucky!"

Hester responds with, "No, you never did." At his deathbed, she seems finally to have reached a state of proper love and care for her son. She says nothing about the announcement of the prize winnings. But her dull response seems to deny Paul the satisfaction of her finally knowing about his luck, and the line following her response is, "But the boy died in the night." His mother's efforts are too late. The cold tragedy is presented with absolute brevity. Hester's greed and materialism, along with her methods as a parent (instilling young Paul with a twisted worldview revolving around luck), caused great anxiety and anguish in a house that whispered for money. Obsessed with luck, winning, and "getting there," Paul drove himself towards insanity, illness, exhaustion, and a tragic early death.