The Rocking-Horse Winner

The Rocking-Horse Winner An Academic Debate on the Merits on "The Rocking-Horse Winner"

In an article titled "Fancy or Imagination? 'The Rocking-Horse Winner'" (1962), Professor W.R. Martin engages F.R. Leavis ("D. H. Lawrence: Novelist" [1955]) and Graham Hough ("The Dark Sun: A Study of D.H. Lawrence" [1956]) in a debate over the merits of D.H. Lawrence's unusual short story. Leavis and Hough criticize the story as unrepresentative of Lawrence and more the product of fancy than creative imagination. In response, Martin presents several key scenes or symbols in the story which he believes demonstrates its technical excellence. He notes, for example, how the wooden rocking-horse represents a contrast between the simulation of something and the real thing itself, and then goes on further to say that this dichotomy provides the impetus for the story: Paul and his family are split between living a life that seems real and a life that is real. For Lawrence, argues Martin, the raw and formless world of emotions, like the uncanny liveliness of the wooden rocking-horse, is the reality which underlies appearances. The rocking-horse, by rocking back and forth without getting anywhere, also represents the repetition of the everyday life of appearances, in which satisfying one's desires by getting more money only ends up rocking one back upon a greater desire. Martin concludes his article by writing that this contrast between the apparent and the real in "The Rocking-Horse Winner" is also the central dynamic in Lawrence's fiction, and so claims that the story is not only skillfully written in itself but an exemplar of Lawrence's work.

William D. Burroughs finds a third position between Martin and Leavis-Hough in his article "No Defense for 'The Rocking-Horse Winner'" (1963), also criticizing Lawrence but for reasons entirely different from those of Leavis and Hough. He expresses agreement with Martin over the issue of Lawrence's technical brilliance, accepting that the symbolism of the rocking-horse and others effectively illustrated the apparent-real dichotomy in Lawrence's work. However, he finds fault with this dichotomy itself. His grievances may be summarized in two points: that Lawrence is too didactic and demanding of his readers in the way he presents such a dichotomy (in which social life is false and emotional life is true), and that such a dichotomy works in a story but does not relate well to the dynamics of real life. According to Burroughs, a work of true imagination would require just such a meaningful connection to the reader and to real life, rather than being a self-enclosed technical masterpiece.

This short exchange on an exceptional but not particularly lengthy short story may serve as a practical introduction to some of the key issues in literary criticism. Under discussion are questions of how symbols and motifs can be read together to ascertain an author's worldview, how worldviews as presented in fiction can relate to worldviews held by people in life outside fiction, and the most general and perhaps ambiguous question, namely how to judge whether a work is successful or not. Regardless of which side one comes down on, it makes for a useful intellectual exercise to see how several literary critics brought big literary questions to bear on a single story.