As the spring comes around again, Paul feels himself once more drawn towards Miriam. He wishes that he wanted to marry her, but he feels as though he is fighting his own sense of purity and his own aversion to sex, even though he is attracted to her. He knows many other young men his own age who have the same problem; they have rough, loutish fathers who hurt their mothers and they cannot bear to hurt women who remind them of their mothers. They would rather reject physical intimacy entirely than hurt women.
Although Paul thinks Miriam is too pure, he also struggles to conceive of sex as something that is not sinful or shameful. Paul’s closest bond is with his mother and it’s implied that, because he cannot have sex with her, he is disgusted by sex in general. Since he is disgusted by sex, it makes sense that his closest relationship is with a woman he cannot have sex with. Paul is so afraid of hurting women that he hurts them unintentionally by leading them on and then failing to commit.
One afternoon, as Paul watches Miriam sing while Annie plays the piano, he feels that she looks like a saint singing to God and he is horrified by his need for “the other thing” from her. He feels that it will destroy her and that this is not fair because she has the quality of an eternal maiden. Mrs. Morel is shocked that he seems to have gone back to Miriam and their relationship sours a little as Mrs. Morel watches Paul brood and dither over the girl. She worries because his behavior reminds her of William.
Paul feels guilty because he thinks that Miriam is pure and that he should be satisfied with this. He is disgusted by his need for a physical relationship and ignores the possibility that Miriam might want one too—Paul simply makes this decision for Miriam. He does not give her the opportunity to explore her sexuality with him.
During an evening at Willey Farm, Paul tells Miriam that he hopes to get married when he turns twenty-five. Although he says he cannot marry her right away because he has no money, Paul suggests that he and Miriam belong to each other and know each other well enough to marry. He complains that they have been too pure with each other and that this degree of pureness might itself be sinful.
Paul suggests that, contrary to Miriam’s religious beliefs, God is in the physical world as well as the spiritual one; to reject the physical world in favor of the spiritual world might be offensive to God.
Miriam is shocked by his words. She dislikes physical contact, but she goes to him nonetheless, willing to make a sacrifice. Paul begins to kiss her, but, when he sees the look in her eyes, his desire is quenched. They walk back to Paul’s house together and, in the dark, Paul kisses her and feels his passion grow once more. Miriam, however, pulls away with a cry of horror and cannot explain what frightens her and makes her sad. She is determined, however, that Paul shall have her, and he hears her call after him in the dark as he jumps the stile and races home.
Miriam does not agree with Paul, but she is willing to go against her religious beliefs for him, even if this means she is damned. Although sex itself was not considered sinful, sex outside of marriage was taboo in this period. Paul cannot bring himself to impose his desire on her. He can only be honest with himself in the dark because he cannot face his sexuality in a conscious and open way. Miriam, too, is afraid of her physical desire for Paul.
Miriam broods all summer and struggles with the thought of accepting Paul’s proposal, even though she loves him. Paul acts like a lover to Miriam and tries his best to keep his passion for her alight. He is dismayed, however, because she always wants to look into his eyes, while he would rather lose himself with her. He wants to push her away and tell her to “leave him alone.”
Paul does not want to emotionally connect with Miriam if she is going to be his physical lover. He cannot join the two sides of his desire (the desire for sexual fulfilment and emotional connection), and rejects Miriam when she tries to make him do this.
One evening, at Willey Farm, Paul climbs into the cherry tree at sunset and watches the sky change color as the branches rock and sway in the wind. Miriam comes out from the house and Paul teasingly throws cherries at her. He stays in the tree until the sun sets and then he and Miriam walk into the woods nearby in the gathering dusk. He leans against a tree and kisses her, and she gives herself to him despite her terror.
Paul feels very at home in the tree because he can lose himself in nature. Paul finds it easier to be sexual with Miriam in a natural setting and in the dark because he does not feel like himself here, and can give into desire that he does not like to admit consciously.
Afterwards, they lie together under the trees, and Paul feels very forlorn. He knows that Miriam has been separate from him “all the time.” He feels, lying there, as though he is extremely still and that he understands death—as though it reaches out to him. He wants to lose himself in it. He tells Miriam this and she is startled and does not understand.
Although Paul wants to separate emotional and physical connection, when he achieves this with Miriam it leaves him unfulfilled. Paul is drawn to places where he can lose himself; he does not really like himself and subconsciously wants to destroy himself or die.
That summer, Miriam’s grandmother is ill, and Miriam goes to look after her. When her grandmother recovers, she goes to visit her daughter and Miriam stays behind in the cottage for a few days. Paul cycles over to see her, and the pair make dinner together. After dinner, they go to bed and Paul is excited by Miriam’s beauty. However, when he looks into her eyes, he feels that she does not want him and that she is “immolating” herself; this causes his desire to die off. Again, as he rides home, he thinks about death and how comforting it would be to die.
Paul and Miriam play at being married. However, they are not married, and so Miriam cannot enjoy sex with him; to her, it is very sinful. Paul is aware that the relationship doesn’t work but, instead of facing this, he wishes that he would simply die so that he would not have to deal with it.
The pair spend the rest of the week together, but their relationship grows strained. At the end of the week, Paul presses her to tell him why she never wants passion between them, and Miriam says that her mother always told her that marriage is wonderful, except for one thing which one must put up with. Miriam insists that this is not how she thinks but that she cannot enjoy sex or have children with Paul until they are married. When Paul suggests they do this, Miriam shrinks from the idea and says they are too young. Things are “a failure between them.”
Miriam does not know what to expect from sex and has always been told that it is an unpleasant and frightening experience. This reflects many British attitudes, which believed that women did not enjoy sex but that they must have sex to please their husbands and to have children. Lawrence demonstrates that this belief is damaging and untrue. Miriam uses the expectations of social propriety to avoid having sex with Paul.
Paul returns home and tells Mrs. Morel that he will not see Miriam much anymore. Mrs. Morel does not ask questions, but she is concerned to see how bleak and unhappy Paul looks, and it reminds her of his sad expression when he was a baby. Although Paul tries to love Miriam, he never gets back his strong feelings for her. He has not seen much of Clara all summer, since he has been with Miriam, but sometimes, at work, he draws her hands and arms while she is sewing.
Mrs. Morel feels responsible for Paul’s suffering, just as she did when he was a baby. Paul is obsessed with Clara’s body, as demonstrated when he draws her repeatedly.
Paul does not break things off with Miriam entirely, however, and they remain together another year, although he is sick of her and she makes him feel guilty. One night, when he is sitting up with Mrs. Morel, he is drawn outside by the smell of the lilies drifting in on the breeze. Paul goes outside and looks at the moon. He finds a patch of irises growing beneath the lilies and is startled by the strength of their smell.
Miriam makes Paul feel guilty because he knows that he treats her badly; he does not want her, but he will not let her go. The moon symbolizes motherhood and the flowers symbolize love and desire. Paul is drawn to his mother and this is the real, hidden desire which underpins and destroys his relationships with other women.
When Paul goes back inside, he tells his mother that he is going to end things with Miriam. Mrs. Morel thinks this is probably for the best. On Sunday, he goes to tell Miriam and meets her after church. Miriam is shocked and hurt when Paul ends the engagement; he tells her that he cannot marry her because he never wants to get married. Miriam complains that he has often asked her to marry him and it is she who has refused. Paul feels guilty about this and it makes him hostile towards Miriam.
Miriam feels cheated by Paul because he has pressured her for marriage and now, when she has finally agreed, he changes his mind. Paul knows that he has been unfair to Miriam but cannot face this, and takes it out on her as a result.
Eventually Miriam accepts that he is serious and believes that he is, unconsciously, under the influence of Clara. She complains that this has been their whole relationship, him fighting against her, and Paul feels bitter and furious that she has known all along something he has only just discovered in himself. Miriam pointedly asks him when he will tell Clara, and Paul tells her that he will do so soon. He tells her that their engagement has failed because she does not have faith in him, and Miriam is bitterly amused by this.
Miriam understands that Paul has always resisted falling in love with her. Paul, however, does not know this because he does not examine his own emotions. Instead, he blames her for the failure of the relationship. He feels as though Miriam has kept something from him, but if he could really think for himself, he would have realized this on his own. Miriam knows that Paul blames her and knows that he is too weak to admit fault.
Miriam leaves and Paul watches her go. He feels that a large part of his life has been made meaningless. Paul wanders home and, on the way, stops in at a pub for a drink. He flirts with some women who feed him chocolates and then returns home to his mother. Mrs. Morel listens to his story about the pub, but she is aware that he is putting on a brave face and that he is horrified by what has occurred with Miriam.
Paul has gained insight into himself, through Miriam, which has deeply disturbed him. He has learned that Miriam thinks he is incapable of love, when all the time he thought she was the one who could not love him.
Over dinner, Paul tells Mrs. Morel that Miriam has not been disappointed because she never thought that it would work out. He worries that she will not let the relationship go, however, and will wait for him to come back. Mrs. Morel warns him to stay away from Miriam and Miriam is left alone, wondering if Paul will return to her.
Paul is bitter about Miriam but knows that she still has power over him because she knows him so well.