The Rocking horse by D.H Lawrence unfolds the history of American Literature. Here, this article deals with the background and setting of the story in order to contextualize its time and themes.
Text and Context; A Study of Lawrence’s The Rocking Horse Winner
This research paper attempts to contextualize the Lawrence’s The Rocking Horse Winner with the first Twentieth Century Period, 1901- 1939. The researcher claims that the narrator of this story (The Rocking Horse Winner) wants to show the ups and downs of the English people of that period because the characters of this story have also experienced the same things as the then people experienced. The then people felt poverty, urbanization, the suffragette movement, horse race, world war first, cultural changes and the like and these things are also painted out in this story through its characters like Paul, Hester, Paul’s father, Bassett, OscarCreswell and others as well. To justify this claim, the researcher draws one of the historical cites forwarded by a historian, historical editor, as well as Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Leicester namely; PaulPoplawski.
This story The Rocking Horse Winner has stored so many events of that period which make it a treasure of, events of 1901- 1939. In the very beginning, as stated in the story, Paul’s family lives in style but the house is haunted by an unspoken phrase that there must be more money. One day, Hester, Paul’s mother, tells him that they don’t have money due to the bad luck of his father. Then, Paul starts riding his wooden horse and gets the luck as he believes. Later, Uncle Oscar visits the house in his car and discovers that Paul and the ex-batman of him and the present gardener of Paul, Bassett, have been wagering money on horse racing and that Paul has been able to predict winning horses. Then after, Uncle Oscar becomes their partner and they all earn money from it. For his mother’s birthday, Paul anonymously gives her five thousand pounds. As the time of the Derby comes nearby, he begins to ride the rocking-horse at a mad and frightening pace. On her return from a party in town, his mother discovers him thrashing about on the rocking-horse. He knows the winning horse of Derby but becomes ill. Uncle Oscar and Bassett bet on Malabar in the Derby as Paul predicts it and make money for all of them. Paul briefly regains consciousness and explains to his mother that he is lucky. He dies later that night and Uncle Oscar bewails on his death. In this way, this story starts and ends with the events of the then period: from poverty to the horse race and the condition of its people through these characters.
Now, the researcher is going to mention some critics’ reviews on the same story, The Rocking Horse Winner. Firstly, W. R. Martin says:
The rocking horse Winner is seven times referred to simply as the “horse,” and this unobtrusively establishes an ironic tension between real life and the unliving imitation… I cannot agree with Hough that the story is a product of “fancynot imagination,” or share Leavis’ exasperation that it is “so widelyregarded (especially in America, it would seem).” Both Hough and Leavissay that the story is not representative of Lawrence, but it seems to me to beabout, and to dramatize most forcefully, one of his central concerns: thenature and nemesis of unlived lives.(65)
Martin, in his “Fancy or Imagination? The Rocking Horse Winner, says it is neither fancy nor imagination rather it is the depiction of writer’s own central concerns. And for him, it is all about the impact and characters of those lives which are not lived due to poverty or some other reasons.
Secondly, Charlotte Goodman in his “Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, and the Victimized Child” explains the pressure of parents on children and how it destroys the lives of children. He says,
“The harmful effects of materialism on family life, as they did in “The Pupil” and “The Rocking-horse Winner,” James and Lawrence both clearly dramatized the damage to the child that could result from such family tensions. In these tales the victimized children stand at the very center of their respective visions”(50).
Here, he exposes the reason for the fall of Paul: his family tensions. Thirdly, about this story, Michael. Cummings says,
“Since the publication of “The Rocking-Horse Winner” in 1926 … Paul’s frantic rides on his rocking horse are manifestations of an Oedipus Complex” (7).
In his “The Rocking Horse Winner: a Study Guide”, he interprets this story from the Freudian perspective and says thatPaul does the rocking-horse ridings in order to fulfill his desire to sex his mother.
These critics like Martin, Goodman, and Cummings have explained the reasons for writing this story, victimization of child and Oedipal nature of Paul respectively. But the researcher wants to expose the historicity of then period in this story which is not done by them. Especially, he is explaining this issue on the basis of social, economic, psychological, political, religious aspects of that period by using individually Paul Poplawski’s historical perspective- “The TwentiethCentury, 1901-1939”. Here, the researcher wants to find out some points; how this work of art captures the period of it’s published, what issues were there and how it includes them and the like.
This researcher is going to use particularly historical writing of Paul Poplawski’sEnglish history between 1901- 1939 to show its events in this story. His writing is a combination of interdisciplinary inquiries on economic condition, political situation, cultural beliefs, religious faith, tradition, and so on. At that period, the rapid advance in science, industry, and technology along with the development of transportation did material as well as social change in the society. But the Great War created great economic depression and had taken the lives of nearly nine million English people. At that time, Britain somehow suffered from political instability. In the same period, Anglo- Irish treaty gets southern Ireland as Iris Free State. There were war and excessive economic depression and after some relief from them, people started to be carefree, frivolous, and even anarchic due to the influence of American jazz culture. Its literature criticized conventional values, attitudes and thinking especially of Victorianism and war was the major subject of writing. Literature moved from the darker corner of the 19th century to the dawn of the 20thcentury. Within the period, females went to the roads for their rights. Here, the ultimate goal of using this historical writing is to uncover and expose the underlying tensions of the then England within this story- The Rocking Horse Winner.
“There was a brief economic boom in British immediately following the war… the boom was quickly followed by one of the worst-ever economic collapses in British history….” (541).
To support it, in a story- The Rocking Horse Winner, a narrator narrates, “And so the house came to be haunted by the unspoken phrase: There must be more money! There must be more money!” (319).Here, it is really that there was an economic depression in that period and it is also captured in the story. In the story, the family of Paul faces the problem of money which is not normal because the adjectives like “haunted”, “unspoken” and verb: “must” show its nature. The demand for more money is due to the great economic depression in order to fulfill even the basic needs of the family. So, in the story, the issue of economic depression, as well as its effect, is shown very lively.
“… the fatal protest of Emily Davison who died after throwing herself in front of the King’s horse race at the Derby of 1913” (534-535).
With the help of this line, the researcher wants to show the event of the horserace. In the story, whenHester, mother of Paul, asks Oscar Cresswell- her brother about Malabar he says;
“It’s one of the horses running for the Derby” (329).
Here, the main point of concern is to show the event of the horse race in England. As Davison died due to the racehorse in the horse race, Paul also dies due to his rocking- horse in order to find out the winner of the horse race at the Derby. So, this story also has mirrored the horserace of England.
Poplawski says, “The popular image of the 1920s as a carefree, frivolous, even anarchic ‘jazz age’….” (542). For supporting it, in the story, a narrator narrates,
“Two nights before the Derby, she was at a big party in town… it was about one o’clock when Paul’s mother and father drove up to their house… she heard her husband downstairs, mixing a whiskey and soda” (328-329).
The careless, slight, chaotic nature of the then people are depicted in this story too. Paul’s parents go to a party in town at night and come back late and after returning, drink alcohol at home without caring for their children. These all show the lives of carefree, frivolous, and anarchic people of that period.
“The war went on for more than four years, claiming over 9 million lives, with around 2.5 million British casualties….” (537).
The narrator narrates;
“Bassett, the young gardener, who had been wounded in the left foot in the war and had got his present job through Oscar Cresswell, whose batman he had been…. ” (322).
Both statements try to show the dark image of the war. In real history, due to the Great War, many people lost their lives and many were injured. As in the real phenomena, in the story-
The Rocking Horse Winner, as well Bassett was injured in the war when he was a military servant to an army officer- Oscar Cresswell and now, who is a gardener.
Overall, this researcher has gone through both the story and the history of England: 1901-1939. For this, he uses particularly Paul Poplawski’s historical writing: “ Century, 1901-1939”. He comes with the belief that the narrator of this story shows so much evidence of that period, for instance, war-related experience, economic depression, changed cultural concept and trend of the horse race. To support his claim, he brings some critics’ critical analyses like Martin, Charlotte, and Cummings. From these all explanations with suitable details and evidence, it can be inferred that this story: The Rocking Horse Winner has very satisfactorily textualized the history of England between 1901- 1939.
Cummings, Michael J. “The Rocking-Horse Winner: a Study Guide.” Free Study Guides for Shakespeare and other authors. 2008. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
Goodman, Charlotte. “Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, and the Victimized Child.” Modern Language Studies, vol. 1, 1979, pp.43-51. www.jstor.org/stable/3194621.
Kirszner, Laurie G. and Stephen R. Mandell. Literature: Reading, Reacting and Writing. 4thed. Boston: Earl McPeek, 2000. Print.
Martin, W. R. “Fancy or Imagination? ‘The RockingHorse Winner’” College English, vol. 24, no. 1, 1962, pp. 64-65. www.jstor.org/stable/373851.
Poplawski, Paul, ed. English Literature in Context.Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.