“Malabar! Malabar! Did I say Malabar, mother? Did I say Malabar? Do you think I’m lucky, mother? I knew Malabar, didn’t I? Over eighty thousand pounds! I call that luck, don’t you, mother? Over eight thousand pounds! I knew, didn’t I know I knew? Malabar came in al right. If I ride my horse till I’m sure, then I tell you, Bassett, you can go as high as you like. Di you go for all you were worth, Bassett?” – D. H. Lawrence, “The Rocking Horse Winner”
There’s actually synchronicity behind this post. A couple days ago, I got in to a Facebook conversation about English teachers in high school. I happened to say that my sophomore English teacher was most memorable, and that this particular story was one that still stood out in my mind, even after 34 years. I didn’t write that I couldn’t say what was so disturbing about it; only that it troubled me even more than Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or “The Monkey’s Paw”, even Lord of the Flies, also dark stories I read that year.
Yesterday, I went to help my wife move her office, as well as rescue some books from her shelves. Sitting there in the midst of N. T. Wright and The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary was my ragged copy of The Norton Introduction to Literature, Shorter Third Edition. I’d bought this book my first semester in college, autumn 1983, for a class called “Writing About Literature”. I was flipping through the contents, and there it was, the very story that had troubled me so long ago without me being able to say why. Last afternoon, I sat and read it and realized both why it had troubled me so, and why I hadn’t been able to say why.
This story is one, long Oedipal, Freudian nightmare.
We’re introduced, first, to the mother. We are told she has reached a point in her life where she is incapable of love. She married for love, but that love is gone. She had three children, but she does not, cannot, love them. At the heart of her discontent is disgust at her husband, of whom we read is unlucky. Indeed, it is “luck” that is the motivating factor, rooted in the desire for money, for all the action in this story. A conversation between Paul, the oldest child, and his mother, establishes the role of luck. It is also an uneasy conversation, with undertones of Oedipal desire that suddenly become trumpet blasts.
“Because we’re the poor members of the family,” said the mother.
“But why are we, mother?”
“Well – I suppose,” she said slowly and bitterly, “it’s because your father has no luck.”
The boy was silent for some time.
“Is luck money, mother?” he asked, rather timidly.
“No, Paul. Not quite. It’s what causes you to have money.”
“Oh!” said Paul vaguely. “I thought when Uncle Oscar said filthy lucker, it meant money.”
“Filthy lucre does mean money,” said the mother. “But it’s lucre, not luck.” . . .
. . . “And is father not lucky?”
“Very unlucky, I should say,” she said bitterly.
The boy watched her with unsure eyes.
“Why?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Nobody ever knows why one person is lucky and another unlucky.”
“Don’t they? Nobody at all? Does nobody know?”
“Perhaps God. But He never tells.”
“He ought to, then. And aren’t you lucky either, mother?”
“I can’t be, if I married an unlucky husband.” . . .
“Well, anyhow,” [Paul] said stoutly, “I’m a lucky person.”
“Why?” said his mother with a sudden laugh.
He stared at her. He didn’t even know why he had said it.
“God told me,” he asserted, brazening it out.
“I hope He did, dear!” she said, again with a laugh, but rather bitter.
“He did, mother!”
“Excellent!” said the mother, using one of her husband’s exclamations.
The boy saw she did not believe him; or rather, that she paid no attention to his assertion. This angered him somewhat, and made him want to compel her attention.
From the bitter description of the father/husband (who we never see in the story), through the boy’s assertion that he has what his father does not, to the desire on Paul’s part to “compel” his mother’s attention, what had been a conversation about a theme of the story takes a swerve in to uncomfortable territory. What had been round-about takes a more direct step forward almost immediately.
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. Wildly the horse careered, the waving dark hair of the boy tossed, his eyes had a strange glare in them. The little girls dared not speak to him.
When he had ridden to the end of his mad little journey, he climbed down and stood in front of his rocking-horse, staring fixedly into its lowered face. Its red mouth was slightly open, its big eye was wide and glassy-bright.
“Now!” he would silently command the snorting steed. “Now, take me to where there is luck! Now take me!”
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. He knew he could get there.
This is clearly a substitute for masturbation in a boy too young to quite understand what he’s doing, even though he knows it is supposed to bring pleasure. Or, in this case, luck.
After his first big win, the voices in the house that prompted Paul’s journey – a constant whisper of “We need more money!” – were not silenced, as Paul hoped. On the contrary, the voices became louder, more insistent. Paul had achieved luck, which only created more desire.
There is a long interval in which we see evidence of Paul’s ability to pick winners at various horse races, amassing what was, for any age, a small fortune of 20,000 pounds in no time. Through his Uncle, he arranges an annuity for his mother, to be distributed each Christmas. Paul’s mother, however, is not satisfied with just once a year, claiming high bills and a need for immediate payment in full. She wants it all now, from this anonymous benefactor, who is actually her son, and will not be satisfied to wait for once-a-year gifts.
As the denouement approaches, the mother, about whom we’ve already been told is incapable of love, even for her children, nevertheless feels something is wrong with her son. In a darkened hallway, she approaches the boy’s room, hearing strange sounds from behind the closed door.
And then, because of the strange anxiety at her heart, she stole upstairs to her son’s room. Noiselessly she went along the upper corridor. Was there a faint noise? What was it?
She stood, with arrested muscles, outside his door, listening. 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.
Yet she could not place it. She couldn’t say what it was. And on and on it went, like a madness.
Softly, frozen with anxiety and fear, she turned the door-handle.
The room was dark. Yet in the space near the window, she heard and saw something plunging to and fro. She gazed in fear and amazement.
Then suddenly she switched on the light, and saw her son, in his green pajamas, madly surging on the rocking horse. The blaze of light suddenly lit him up, as he urged the wooden horse, and lit her up, as she stood, blonde, in her dress of pale green and crystal, in the doorway.
If ever there was a passage describing a mother catching her son masturbating, using a substitute instead of just his hand, this is it. If ever there was a passage describing a wife catching her husband in flagrante with another woman, this is it. That both are mixed together in this Oedipal horror-show adds to the shock of the moment. Lawrence’s description of the clothes each is wearing – both in green, the color of envy – is too perfect to be off-hand.
Paul soon dies, his last words serving as the epigraph to this post. He has finally achieved the luck that would make his mother notice him. I hope I don’t need to spell that out too much further.
There is no way I could have identified what was so uncomfortable about this story when I was fifteen. There is no way the mounting sexual tension, the mounting desire, of the boy for his mother, of the mother for the gifts she received from an anonymous person who pleased her more than her unlucky husband, would have made any kind of sense to me at fifteen. Now, having read the story for only the second time, with 34 years having passed, I now know why this story was so disturbing to my adolescent self.
Sexual confusion is part of the heart of adolescence. That Freud identified part of that confusion resting in an infantile desire to kill one’s father and marry one’s mother is well known. While I don’t believe our sexual confusion is explained this simply or clearly, nor do I believe most boys and young men have such desires, nevertheless the story captures the horror that accompanies sexual discovery, and what can happen when that sexual discovery turns dark. Whether or not one is a Freudian, there are few things most teenage boys fear more than getting caught in private, in particular by their mother. Perhaps most disturbing at all is the thought that something other than love, something horrible, can bind people together in ways that can only lead to tragedy and death.
So, still disturbing. Perhaps even more so, now. But, all the same, I’m glad I found it, read it, and had a chance to figure it out.