The Rocking-Horse Winner by D.H. Lawrence, 1926
The magic trick:
Using a sequence in the middle of the story to refocus the reader on the roots of the mother’s depression
We’ve seen this before in several stories on the blog, stories that establish their themes and conflicts immediately in the very first paragraph. “The Rocking-Horse Winner” does just that, setting up the mother’s disappointments and the children’s ensuing angst in winning her love.
And those aren’t lies. That absolutely winds up being what the story is about. But there’s more. There is a great sequence midway through the story. The son has won money for his mother and is excited to see her reaction when she opens the anonymous birthday gift.
Just before this scene, though, we get an aside explaining that the mother has tried to make a living doing fashion illustrations but found only more disappointment in her attempt. It’s telling that we get this information just before she receives her birthday present, because it explains her angry response to the gift. She wants money, yes, but her happiness depends on self-worth. Gifted money is nothing but a slap in the face.
The story no longer is simply about the son’s fight to win his mother’s heart. It’s about the mother’s depression, and our understanding of that depression makes the boy’s desperate need to make her happy all the more tragic and futile. And that’s quite a trick on Lawrence’s part.
When there were no visitors, Paul now took his meals with his parents, as he was beyond the nursery control. His mother went into town nearly every day. She had discovered that she had an odd knack of sketching furs and dress materials, so she worked secretly in the studio of a friend who was the chief ‘artist’ for the leading drapers. She drew the figures of ladies in furs and ladies in silk and sequins for the newspaper advertisements. This young woman artist earned several thousand pounds a year, but Paul’s mother only made several hundreds, and she was again dissatisfied. She so wanted to be first in something, and she did not succeed, even in making sketches for drapery advertisements.
She was down to breakfast on the morning of her birthday. Paul watched her face as she read her letters. He knew the lawyer’s letter. As his mother read it, her face hardened and became more expressionless. Then a cold, determined look came on her mouth. She hid the letter under the pile of others, and said not a word about it.
“Didn’t you have anything nice in the post for your birthday, mother?” said Paul.
“Quite moderately nice,” she said, her voice cold and hard and absent.
She went away to town without saying more.
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