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A careful reading of the text shows that there are two clear themes running side-by-side in this story. We will discuss both in this paper. The major and more predominant theme is that of greed and desire for material wealth in the contemporary society of England with the exclusion of any moral values or parental responsibilities. The other is the oedipal structure of the plot. The protagonist in this story is Paul, a young and high strung boy, who is the eldest amongst three siblings of a middle class British family. Paul is his mother's confidant and is troubled by the fact that his mother is dissatisfied by the lack of money in the family and that she believes his father to be unlucky because he couldn't make more money. Paul tries his best to placate his mother and comfort her by earning more money and being more "lucky" than his father. He strains himself in trying to find a way out of this predicament. He feels compelled to prove to his mother that he is lucky...luckier than his father. In his attempt to earn money he is helped by their gardener Bassett who teaches him the rudiments of betting on horses. Paul is fascinated and to his surprise finds that he is actually able to make money by "guessing" the name of the winning horse. He keeps this fact a secret and Bassett helps him in his venture.
After sometime Paul's uncle Oscar joins the team and it is with his help that Paul is able to make a gift of five thousand pounds, anonymously, to his mother for Christmas. To substantiate the theme we find that Paul's mother is not happy with the initial terms of the gift that she would receive a thousand pounds for Christmas each year for five years. In his passionate attempt to see her happy he alters the terms of the gift and gives her the entire sum at one go. The mother is able to do as she pleases for a while but as he keeps winning more money the "voices" in the house grow more incessant and goad him to ride his rocking horse in a frenzy of nervous energy. Paul is desperate to make enough money to make the house stop whispering so after a spate of disappointments he is determined to make good by guessing the name of the winner at the Derby. He rides his wooden rocking horse deliriously and finally is able to divine the name of the winner. But in doing so he so irreparably damages his equanimity that he faints and falls off his horse. Before his mother could come to his help he lapses into an unconscious stupor but only after he had mentioned the name of the winner. Bassett alone was able to understand what "Malabar" meant and he betted on the horse on behalf of Paul, who was too ill to do anything by himself. Paul remains stricken for two days and gains consciousness briefly only to try and reassure his mother that he was lucky. However, Paul dies on the same day as Malabar wins the race and leaves a legacy of eighty thousand pounds for his mother. The irony of the situation is that even though Paul gave up his life to hear one word of love and encouragement from his mother, none came to soothe his fevered and delirious heart. His mother did not till the end concur with him and agree that he indeed was very lucky for the family.
The selfishness and irresponsibility of Paul's parents, especially his mother, is demonstrated by the fact that despite having an uneasy feeling about the young boy's well being they go off to the party and return home in the small hours of the morning, to find that Paul was still awake and rocking madly away on his horse, trying to prophecy and foretell the name of the winner. Hester, Paul's mother, appears to be cold and heartless as she does not pacify his agitation by once telling him that she loved him and that he was indeed lucky. She was grasping and dissatisfied and did not even care to understand what was ailing her son. To her material wealth was more important than teaching her children good values and nurturing them with unselfish love.
Freudian interpretation of the theme throws light on Paul's oedipal fixation of proving to his mother that he was luckier than his father because he was able to make large sums of money and affording her the opportunity to splurge as much as she pleased. The act of rocking on the wooden horse, which Paul had outgrown, has sexual connotations. Lawrence has juxtaposed the man-boy image with that of the knight in shining armor galloping to save his fairy princess, except that in Paul's case the horse is merely a wooden hobby horse and his fairy princess, his mother, does not feel grateful for all his bounty.
Paul, the young protagonist of this story, is a child who takes on the burden of elevating the social and material standard of his family. He takes upon his young shoulders the responsibilities that rightfully should have been executed by his parents. He is fascinated by horse racing and soon realizes that he had a special knack for divining the names of the winners if he rode long enough on his own hobby horse. He tries his best to make his mother happy and to make the house stop whispering. As mentioned previously he sacrifices his own life in a frenzied attempt to make his mother fret less about money. In this story we see the stark difference in the natures of Paul and Hester. His mother is on the one hand completely selfish and irresponsible while on the other Paul is totally selfless and generous. He does not demand anything for himself and is happy let his mother have all the money in an attempt to make her happy.
Hester, Paul's cold and unfeeling mother, had "at the centre of her heart was a hard little place that could not feel love" (Lawrence, 9). She was a shallow woman who was both irresponsible and selfish. She did not love her children, though she spent inordinate amounts of money for buying unnecessary household objects. Status was synonymous with power and she off loaded her unsatisfied yearning for more money onto her young son, who took it upon himself to try and make up for his father's shortcomings. It was her continually growing demands for money that drove Paul to a paroxysm of wanting to prove himself to her. In the end it was she who drove Paul to his untimely grave.
Oscar, Paul's more affluent yet completely callous Uncle is just as mercenary and shallow as his sister. He takes full advantage of Paul's unusual gift to divine the names of the winners and makes a pretty pile of money for himself. He is selfish and irresponsible as is borne out by the fact that having confirmed knowledge that his young nephew was indulging in betting and gambling, he did not once warn his sister of the danger Paul was in, nor did he try to explain things to Paul and teach him some good values. He has a cold heartless streak in him similar to Hester and in the end when Paul dies all he thinks of is how much money Paul had left his sister. There is no remorse, no sadness and no sympathy for anyone.
Bassett, the gardener, was the only friend and well wisher Paul had. It was Bassett who had introduced Paul to betting and gambling. But he was the one who cared for Paul and did not defraud him of any of his profits even though he had ample opportunity to do so. He was the only person in the family who gave Paul the respect and attention that was due to him. So, even though Bassett is a gardener, a mere servant, he shows more concern and caring for Paul than his own parents and relatives do.
The use of the wooden rocking horse in this story is very significant. It symbolizes the frenzy Paul experiences in his quest for more money. The rocking motion of the ride has sexual connotations as well, which is a bit disconcerting because Paul is portrayed to be a very young boy. As mentioned elsewhere one of the themes of the story revolves round Oedipus complex, manifested in this story in Paul trying to take his father's place by earning more money for the family and satisfying his mother. The fact that the hobby horse is wooden and has no name also represents the fact that insatiable greed is counterproductive and can take one nowhere just as the wooden horse was not able to travel and take Paul anywhere at all (Wilson, 235). And finally the rocking horse represents death and unhappiness as it causes Paul to die and his mother to be more dissatisfied and unhappy.