|Antique Rocking Horse, photo by Thomas Quine|
I first read The Rocking-Horse Winner as a class assignment over twenty years ago. I remember my teacher smartly lecturing the class with erudite lucidity about its theme, which she then asked us to write about in essay responses.
Sadly, her lecture was completely lost on me, and I received the following note on my completed essay: "You clearly do not understand the theme of this story. Reread." No amount of reading could have clarified the story for me at that time, though. At that age, I simply had no basis for comparative response and no experience with distant mothers or superior class pursuits.
Years have gone by, however, and I've learned not only to recognize these, but to name and learn from them. Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for the world, Lawrence's theme is still relevant today. Therefore, it is with bittersweet redemption I assert my thesis: In D.H. Lawrence's short story The Rocking-Horse Winner, the author uses irony to warn readers against living lives of conspicuous consumption.
Although not directly used within the text of the story, the phrase "conspicuous consumption" was first used by Thorsten Veblen in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899, thirty-four years before the publication of D.H. Lawrence's short story. As simplified by Professor Jim Reid in the first paragraph of a Web page dedicated to its definition, the phrase refers to "the act of purchasing and using certain goods and services, not in order to survive, but rather to identify oneself to others as having superior wealth and social standing" (2008). Several references to this theory can be found throughout the story.
Sense of Belonging
In the first paragraph of the story, the narrator tells us the mother feels no love for her family and that her children are aware of her lack of love for them. We are told her love for her husband has "turned to dust" and that her three children react to her "coldly" (Lawrence, 1933, pg. 291). However, in an ironic juxtaposition of images that follow throughout the story, there are echoes of conspicuous consumption. For example, in the second paragraph the images turn from dust and hard-heartedness to "a pleasant house," "a garden," the idea of superiority, and a sense that the family is fighting to belong to an upper social class. These not only follow, but supersede the lack of love in the household. "There must be more money!" the house whispers several times, echoing the mother's ultimate desire. The mother's heart, we come to understand, belongs not to her family, but for her desire to belong with a superior society.
Further irony in the story is fueled by Paul's mistaken use of "filthy lucker" for the phrase "filthy lucre" (pg. 293). Defined originally as simply "money," it is used idiomatically to suggest money that has been earned dishonestly or at the expense of health or decency (filthy lucre, n.d.). Paul's misuse of the phrase and timid attempt to talk to his mother about the family's financial situation brings about an even more damaging mistaken use of words. When Paul asks his mother for the meaning of "lucky," she uses "lucky" as a noun, defining it for Paul as those who "'will always get more money'" (pg. 293). Therefore, in an attempt to be his mother's definition of "lucky," Paul sets about earning "filthy lucre" by riding his magical rocking horse until he knows the names of the racetrack winners, then betting on horses with the help of his uncle and the gardener. The three dishonestly keep these actions a secret from the rest of the family, and gambling on horses is a habit we later find out has lead to "damage" in the family (pg. 300). Paul becomes, indeed, a "filthy lucker," feeding into his mother's conspicuous consumption by caring more for money than for his health or decency.
Change of Heart
Furthermore, Lawrence ends the story with an inevitable ironic twist that drives home the lesson that conspicuous consumption is a way of life to be avoided. Just as the mother has a change of heart and begins to care for her son - stepping away from a social event to do so - the truth is revealed and Paul is lost. Her change of heart comes too late to save her son. His last words, which are indicative of his mother's misuse of the word lucky, are full of bitter irony. "'Mother, did I ever tell you? I'm lucky,'" he says (pg. 302). His mother's and his own materialistic pursuits are quite literally the death of him.
The ironic use of words and twisted intentions in The Rocking-Horse Winner are the techniques through which Lawrence delivers his still-relevant lesson. We must beware conspicuous consumption or be willing to suffer the consequences.
- filthy lucre. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. Retrieved July 02, 2011, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/filthy lucre
- Lawrence, D. H. (1933). The Rocking-Horse Winner. In Perrine, L. & Arp, T. R. (Eds.), Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. (6th ed.), (pp. 291 - 303). Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace & Company.
- Reid, J. H. (2008). Conspicuous Consumption. Retrieved from http://lilt.ilstu.edu/jhreid/foi/conspicuous_consumption.htm
Need More Help Writing about Literature?
- Writing about "A Rose for Emily"
- Writing about "Love in L.A."
- The Shoe as Image in the Poetry of Amy Lowell and Charles Simic
Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.