Not long after his night out with Clara, Paul goes to the “Punch Bowl” for a drink and runs into Baxter Dawes, Clara’s husband. Paul is talking about the possibility of war in Europe with his companions. He is not very popular in the pub; he annoys the older men because he is too cocky and quick to give his opinion. Paul know Baxter hates him and he hates Baxter is return, but he also feels strangely bonded to the man because they are enemies. He offers Baxter a drink, but Baxter sullenly refuses.
The novel was completed in 1913, the year before WW1 broke out in Europe. This scene in the pub captures something of the political climate of this decade. Paul finds that the line between love and hate is blurry in his interactions with Baxter, something he has also found with Miriam and Clara.
Paul goes back to his conversation and Baxter makes a spiteful comment about him getting his knowledge from the theatre. Paul tries to ignore Baxter, but the other men begin to join in and tease Paul about going to a play. Baxter hints that he knows the woman Paul spent the night with and the other men hassle Paul to name her. Baxter makes a comment which angers Paul and Paul throws his beer in Baxter’s face. Baxter rushes at Paul but another man intervenes and throws Baxter out of the pub.
Baxter makes it clear that he knows Paul has been out with his wife. The other men secretly dislike Paul because he is artistic and intellectual, and they think that he looks down on them.
Paul does not tell Mrs. Morel about this altercation. He is frustrated because he keeps no secrets from his mother and the only thing that he does not tell her about is his sex life. At times, he feels smothered by her and that his love for her has nowhere to go. He feels it is like a circle where the love she has for him flows back into herself. He and Clara continue to get on well, but Clara is upset when she hears about his feud with Baxter.
Paul is trapped by his relationship with his mother; instead of gradually moving on from her and finding a relationship with a woman his own age, Paul feels that he must remain with her even though she cannot fulfil his adult desires. His loyalty to her prevents him from forging real bonds with women who can.
Paul suggests that Baxter could have been a good man. Clara thinks that Paul blames her for the way Baxter has turned out and insists that Paul does not know Baxter and that he shouldn’t be quick to get into a fight with the man. Paul says that he is not a natural fighter and Clara says that he should carry a weapon. Paul brushes off her fears, although Clara insists that Baxter is dangerous.
Clara insists that Baxter is a dangerous and brutal man. Paul feels that she is overreacting and that she exaggerates Baxter’s brutality because Baxter hurt her feelings.
A few days later, at work, Paul bumps into Baxter on the stairs. Paul apologizes and goes on with his work, but Baxter lingers in the door, shouting things and threatening Paul. Paul insolently ignores him. He tries to get past Baxter in the doorway to go about some business, and Baxter grabs Paul’s arm. Mr. Jordan comes out of his office to see what the commotion is about and tries to physically remove Baxter, who is a known troublemaker, from the building.
Paul is not afraid of Baxter. Baxter is clearly troubled and has been in fights at work before.
Baxter shakes Mr. Jordan off and the manager falls and bruises himself. He fires Baxter immediately and has him arrested for assault; Paul must give evidence at the trial. Baxter is dismissed with a warning and Paul worries a little about what will come next. He has had to tell the magistrate about his and Baxter’s fight over Clara, and Clara is furious that she has been publicly dragged into the dispute.
Paul sees how far Baxter is prepared to go and begins to worry that he may have underestimated the man. Clara feels that her reputation has been damaged because now everyone knows that she is with a man who is not her husband. People would likely side with Baxter over Clara in this situation in this era.
Although he and Clara still get on, Paul feels a sense of coldness or indifference for her creep in. He agonizes over this to Mrs. Morel and complains that, although he cares about Miriam and Clara, he feels that he cannot really care about them and that, sometimes, he is cruel to them. He thinks he cannot love another woman while his mother is alive. Mrs. Morel listens quietly and broods over this. Clara is disappointed by Paul’s offhand manner with her at work. She is very attracted to him and wants to show him this, but he is often cold and businesslike.
Paul begins to realize that the problem is with him and not with his lovers. He is emotionally distant and cannot connect with women because it makes him feel guilty and disloyal to his mother. Mrs. Morel is disappointed that Paul feels this way and feels that something is wrong with her son. Paul is now cruel to Clara the same way that he is cruel to Miriam, and suddenly loses interest in her when she begins to love him.
Paul and Clara often spend the evenings together and then they are like lovers and get on very well. One night, however, Paul seems frustrated and tense and Clara asks him what is wrong. He tells her that he is restless and that he wants to go abroad and make something of himself as an artist. He cannot go yet, he says, because he will not leave his mother. Clara asks what he will do if he becomes successful and he tells her that he will buy a nice house for him and his mother to live in.
Paul makes it clear that he does not plan for a future with Clara and only stays in the country for the sake of his mother and not for her. The future he plans is for himself and Mrs. Morel.
Although Clara is hurt by his words, she can tell he is suffering. Paul begs her not to plan for the future, but, instead, to live in the moment. He is hurt and she comforts him as they sit together in the dark and look out over the canal. They listen to the birds and the sounds of nature all around them and, as Paul looks into Clara’s eyes, he feels the immensity of life and of the darkness all around them. He thinks this must have been how Adam and Eve felt, lost in the wilderness.
Clara understands that Paul does not want her to plan the future because he cannot progress in his relationship with her. Paul feels lost and in the dark because he does not understand himself and feels cut off from God and all other forms of emotional guidance, just as Adam and Eve were cut off from God after they were cast out of Eden.
The next morning, Clara feels desperately in love with Paul and knows she wants something “permanent.” Paul, however, wakes feeling satisfied and content and feels that, although he has learned something with Clara, it does not have anything to do with her. For a while, Clara cannot keep away from him at work. She always wants to kiss and touch him and follows him around. Eventually, Paul gets annoyed and is frosty with her. He tells her to be more professional and that there isn’t time for love at work. Clara is deliberately distant with him after this.
Paul is satisfied with Clara because they have had sex, and this is everything he wants from her. She has helped him understand himself and, therefore, he feels he has got what he needs from her and does not care that she is now in love with him. He now cruelly dismisses her and does not consider her feelings.
The next spring, Paul and Clara rent a cottage at the seaside and stay there together for some time. They often go down to the shore in the mornings and Clara swims in the sea while Paul watches the sun rise. He sees Clara’s form in the water, a long way off, and thinks about how small and insignificant she looks from this distance. He wonders why she holds his interest and feels confused and almost afraid of her as she emerges from the water and dries herself.
Paul’s spiritual and complex temperament is symbolized by nature in the novel. He looks down on Clara and sees her as insignificant because, compared with his inner life, she seems small. This is very selfish and arrogant of Paul, of course. He is frightened of her because he knows he will hurt her and feel ashamed.
That afternoon, Clara and her mother go into town and Paul goes out to draw. Clara can sense that he is pulling away from her and Paul finds that, during the day when he is alone, he feels oppressed by the thought of her. Clara only feels that he is really with her at night, and she asks him about this sensation. Paul says that he does not want love during the days but insists that he wants to marry Clara.
Paul only wants Clara at night, in the dark, because at night and during sex he can lose himself—he does not have to face his emotional fears and can gratify himself with her. In the day, he knows, she wants something more from him; he resents this because he only wants to take from her and not give her anything of himself, which belongs to his mother. He denies this to himself, though, and leads Clara on.
Pressed by him, Clara admits that she does not want to divorce Baxter because she feels like he “belongs to her.” Paul says that Clara treated Baxter badly because she believed he was something he was not and would not accept what he was. Clara replies sarcastically. Paul complains that women always make him feel trapped and that he should be able to do as he likes. Clara says that, if this is the case, his woman should be able to do as she likes, but Paul says that he wants the woman he loves to want to be with him. Clara feels that she hates Paul for a moment.
Paul projects his own feelings onto Baxter. Paul unconsciously wants Clara to accept him as he is (so that he can use her to fulfil his own desires and give her nothing in return) but feels too ashamed to ask this of her. Paul is hypocritical because he wants total freedom but expects fidelity from his wife. Clara is disgusted by this double standard.
Overall, though, Clara feels fulfilled by the relationship. She feels satisfied with the passion between her and Paul and has gained back her confidence and self-assurance through the liaison. They are destined to part, however, even if they stay together, because Paul cannot be tied to her.
Clara has gained confidence through her relationship with Paul, and this helps her accept that it will not work between them.
One night, when they are walking through the fields near Clara’s home (she and her mother have moved from the town), they pass a man on the road who reminds Paul of Baxter. Paul makes a joke to Clara as the man passes. Paul wonders who the man is, and Clara tells him it is Baxter. Clara calls Baxter “common” and Paul asks her if she hates him. Clara says no and gets angry with Paul. She hates that he accuses her of being cruel to Baxter when he has no idea how cruel men can be to women.
Paul still fails to understand that Clara does not hate Baxter but is disappointed in him; she believed he was a good man and he has let her down. She feels that Paul always takes men’s side against women and does not consider women’s feelings.
Paul is taken aback, but Clara continues and says that, although Baxter would not let her know him, she feels that Paul knows nothing about her. She sometimes feels that he does not care about her but only about the act of sex. Paul is confused but wonders if this is true. When he has sex, he feels as though he becomes one with everything in the world and everything is swept away in his own pleasure. She does not enjoy the sex as much as he does, and they begin to feel embarrassed with each other afterwards. Paul even begins to dislike Clara afterwards, as if it is her fault.
Clara feels that Baxter has withdrawn from her because he is afraid of being rejected, but Paul seems to care nothing about her. Baxter, on the other hand, withdraws from Clara because he cares too much about her and feels that he isn’t good enough for her. Paul, she thinks, feels too good for her. He only uses her for his own sexual gratification, and Clara senses this and becomes uncomfortable. Paul blames her for this.
One night, when Paul leaves Clara’s and has to rush to catch his train, he is ambushed by Baxter, who waits for him in the dark by a stile which is on the way to the station. The two men fight and, even though Paul has never been in a fight before, he almost strangles Baxter with his scarf. He lets go as he realizes what he is doing and Baxter struggles to his feet and begins to kick Paul. Just then, the train goes past in the distance and Baxter sees the lights and thinks that someone is coming. He hurries away and leaves Paul lying on the ground.
Paul is unconsciously very angry, and this aggression is unleashed in the fight. The two men fight to deal with their emotions, which they cannot understand or cope with any other way. This is why the fight takes place in the dark and ends when a light is shone on them.
Paul lies still for a short while, dazed and bruised after the fight. Eventually, he drags himself up and limps home. His mother is horrified when she sees him and faints with shock. Paul has dislocated his shoulder and comes down with bronchitis the next day. Mrs. Morel nurses him and Miriam and Clara come to visit, but he does not care to see either of them.
Mrs. Morel’s health is fragile, and the shock causes her to become unwell. Paul loses interest in both Clara and Miriam while his mother nurses him.
When Paul is healed, he begins to avoid Clara and to spend more time with his male friends. Clara is frustrated and pained by the way he treats her, and Paul begins to hate her. Mrs. Morel’s health gets worse and Paul worries about her constantly. She has problems with her stomach and her heart. For his next holiday, Paul goes to Blackpool with a friend and sends Mrs. Morel to Sheffield to have a holiday at Annie’s.
Paul senses that there is something very wrong with Mrs. Morel and begins to focus all his attention on her and reject his lovers.
At the end of his time in Blackpool, Paul travels to Sheffield to join Annie and Mrs. Morel. He is in good spirits and looks forward to seeing them. When he arrives, however, Annie looks grim and greets him somberly. Mrs. Morel has been taken ill and is in bed. Paul rushes upstairs to see her and breaks down in tears when he sees how ill she looks. She tells him not to fret, but she has a tumor.
Paul is devastated by his mother’s illness. He cannot imagine life (or even a sense of identity) without her.
Paul hopes that the tumor can be cured but, later, when he has dinner with Annie, she tells him that Mrs. Morel has a huge lump on her side. Annie discovered it when Mrs. Morel fell ill the day before and, when she asked her mother about the lump, Mrs. Morel said it had been there for several months. Paul is shocked; Mrs. Morel has never mentioned this to him and has been often to see the doctor. Annie laments that if she had been at home, she would have noticed the tumor.
Annie dashes Paul’s hopes that the disease is not advanced and implies that Paul has neglected his mother. Indeed, though Paul is incredibly close to his mother, he is still self-absorbed in his relationship with her just as he is with his lovers.
Paul goes to speak to the doctor himself. The doctor tells him that the lump may be cancer, but he must do an examination to be sure. When Paul arrives back at Annie’s, he carries Mrs. Morel downstairs and feeds her brandy. He is horrified and weeps over how thin and weak she seems, and because she is in so much pain. Paul arranges a consultation with another doctor for Mrs. Morel before he leaves, and then travels home to check in with his father.
Paul hates to see his mother in pain, and it profoundly affects him.
Paul finds his father well but thinks that he looks very old and sad as he putters about the little house alone. Mr. Morel asks timidly about his wife and is sorry to hear she is so ill. He hopes she can be brought home soon, but Paul insists that if she cannot travel, Mr. Morel must come up to visit her. Mr. Morel worries about the train fare and the doctor’s fee, but Paul says that he will cover these things. He returns to Sheffield that evening to help Annie care for Mrs. Morel.
Paul is again reminded that his parents are aging and that his father is almost an old man now. There is no love between Mr. and Mrs. Morel now, although Mr. Morel is sorry to hear that she is in pain. Paul’s reaction is closer to the reaction of a husband or lover than Mr. Morel’s is, and Paul takes responsibility for Mrs. Morel’s care.
The next day, Paul must return to Nottingham for work and Mrs. Morel implores him not to worry about her. He tries his best to forget and goes for a walk with Clara to distract himself, but he cries on and off all day. Mr. Morel comes to visit Mrs. Morel at the end of the week, but he is awkward and unhappy in the presence of his wife’s illness and Mrs. Morel does not like to have him in the room.
Paul’s whole life is affected by his mother’s illness because there is nothing in his life that he cares about or that supports him as much as her. Mr. Morel does not provide comfort to his wife because they are more like strangers than a married couple.
After staying for two months at Annie’s, Mrs. Morel travels home. Her health has not improved and has, instead, grown worse, and the family accompany her home in a rented motorcar because she is too sick to catch the train. On the way home, Mrs. Morel is bright and lively, though her body is weak. When the car drives into their street, all the neighbors come out to see her pass and know, from her face, that she will soon die. Still, she is happy to be home and pleased to see her sunflowers growing in the yard.
Cars were very much a luxury in this period and most people did not own or ever travel by cars themselves. Communities outside of the city tended to be very close-knit, and everybody knew each other’s business. The neighbors have all heard of Mrs. Morel’s illness and come to see her to show their support—and also out of curiosity.