While Paul is in Sheffield with Mrs. Morel, he hears that Baxter Dawes is in a hospital nearby. The doctor tells him that Baxter has no visitors and, though he is no longer ill, he seems very depressed. Paul says he will go and see him and travels to the hospital. He feels somehow connected to Baxter, especially since their fight, as though they have a close, unconscious bond.
Paul feels sorry for Baxter and feels that he owes him something because the two men have fought. Fighting is its own kind of intimacy, and creates a physical connection between people.
Baxter is sulky when Paul arrives, but he gradually softens up as the pair discuss Mrs. Morel’s illness. Baxter has had typhoid but is almost fully recovered. He does not want to go back to work because he doesn’t know anybody and is miserable with the world. Paul tells him that he will get Leonard to pop in and give him some newspapers and tries to cheer Baxter up a bit.
Baxter feels that he has ruined his own life and cut himself off from all his connections. Paul tries to build Baxter’s confidence and find people to visit him.
Paul rarely sees Clara now and the next time he does, he tells her about Baxter. Clara is frightened when she hears that Baxter is ill and condemns herself for not being kind to him. She says that Paul is right and that she treated Baxter badly. She goes to visit him soon after this and, although they are not friendly towards each other, she gives Baxter some money and flowers and wishes, in some sacrificial way, to make amends. She also likes that she feels such distance from him at their meeting, and even feels glad that she seems to scare him a bit.
Clara still cares about Baxter even though they are separated. She is willing to set her pride aside and acknowledge that, even if it is not completely her fault as Paul suggests, she played some part in the breakdown of the relationship. She shows Baxter this when she brings him money. She is pleased that he is afraid of her, though, because this suggests that he knows he has done something wrong.
Although Paul and Baxter are still rivals, Paul goes to visit him often and feels a close connection with the man. Mrs. Morel’s health, meanwhile, steadily declines. Paul cares for her tenderly but they are timid with each other because they both know that she is going to die but dare not say it. They are afraid of this new, strained intimacy between them and feel that curtains are being pulled away from their eyes.
Sometimes, Mrs. Morel grows bitter and talks about her marriage. She despises her husband and cannot forgive him for the past. Paul hates to listen to this and feels as though his life is being dismantled. He cries often and cannot concentrate on his work. He sometimes goes to see Clara, but there is a great distance between them. In November, Clara reminds Paul that it is her birthday and the pair arrange a trip to the seaside.
Paul begins to realize that his mother has not had a happy life and regrets her marriage to his father. Paul hates to hear this because his mother is the most important person in his life, and he wants to be the most important person in hers. However, he is part of her pain and regret because she wishes she had not been married. This is also devastating to him because it forces him to confront the fact that he never really knew his mother.
Paul is distant and unhappy on this trip and he talks often of his mother’s death. He is horrified by the idea that she does not want to die, and that she is determined to live, even while in so much pain. This thought frightens Clara. Paul cannot bear to see his mother in pain and admits to Clara that he wishes “she would die.”
Paul and Clara are terrified by the reality of death. Paul hoped that his mother would be relieved to die because she is in so much pain, and because her life is complete. The fact that she will not die suggests that she has had an unsatisfying life, which is painful for Paul to accept. It also suggests that death is truly horrifying and that there is no afterlife, because Mrs. Morel would rather be in pain than die.
Back in Nottingham, Paul goes to see Baxter and tells him about his trip away with Clara. Baxter says that Paul may “do as he likes,” but Paul explains that Clara is sick of him. He tells Baxter that he will go abroad after his mother’s death. Baxter mentions the scar on Paul’s face while the two men play draughts together. Paul says it happened when he fell off his bike. Baxter says that he attacked Paul because Paul laughed at him when he walked past with Clara, but Paul tells Baxter that he didn’t laugh at him.
Paul acknowledges to Baxter that he sees no future with Clara and will go abroad. This suggests that, if Baxter wishes to get back together with Clara, Paul will not stand in his way. Paul lies to Baxter about his scar to show that he does not hold a grudge about the fight and that it is forgotten. Paul wants Baxter to know that he respects him and did not laugh at him that day with Clara.
As he walks home that night in the dark, Paul feels that he is walking away from earth and towards death but that this path only ever ends in “the sick room.” As he approaches his house, he sees the firelight in the window of Mrs. Morel’s room and thinks bleakly that when she passes away, the fire will go out. He goes up to see her and finds her awake and fretful. He does his best to soothe her until she falls asleep.
Paul has no hope for the future because his mother is dying. He feels that life is futile because it inevitably ends in death, and he has found no real fulfillment in his relationships with people other than his mother. The fire symbolizes Mrs. Morel’s waning life force.
Paul has a letter from Miriam and goes to see her. Miriam tries to comfort him when she hears about his mother’s illness, but Paul finds her touch a torment and pulls away. Annie lives at home with him to care for Mrs. Morel, and in the evenings they often have friends come around, and are very fun and lively to relieve the stress of their days. Mrs. Morel is relieved to hear them laughing but she is in a great deal of pain all the time.
Paul does not want to face his feelings and resents Miriam for trying to bring them to the surface. Annie and Paul laugh with their friends to relieve the tension of caring for their mother.
Paul does his best to comfort his mother, but she remains determined not to die. Sometimes, he looks into her eyes and feels as though he is making an agreement that, if she dies, he will die too. However, Mrs. Morel will not die; her pulse grows weak and she cannot eat or drink, but she endures. As Christmas approaches and Mrs. Morel grows ever weaker, Paul and Annie feel that they cannot cope and that they will “go mad” with the strain. Annie fears that Mrs. Morel will live through Christmas and Paul says that he will give her all the “morphia” that the doctor has sent him if this seems likely to happen.
Paul thinks he would like to die with his mother, but this will not make Mrs. Morel happy. Although she is the reason that Paul is unfulfilled in life, she feels she cannot die because he is unfulfilled, and she wants to stay alive to support him. The pair are thus caught in an unhealthy cycle of dependence. Paul is willing to poison his mother to spare her any further pain—but also to ease his own suffering.
A few nights later, Paul crushes the remaining morphia tablets into a glass of milk. Annie giggles hysterically when she sees this, and they take the drink to their mother. Mrs. Morel complains that it is bitter but drinks it down. Annie and Paul sit with her and comfort her. She is very small and fragile, like a child. Finally, she falls asleep and her breath begins to come as a long, low rattle. She keeps on like this with difficulty all night while Paul and Annie take turns to sit up with her.
Annie laughs because she is hysterical with grief and stress and is relieved that it will soon be over. This is a tragic and painful but also very human scene.
The next morning, she is still the same and Paul sends Mr. Morel to work as usual. Paul is horrified as he watches his mother die and sits with her all day, terrified by the awful sound of her breath. At last, late that morning, Mrs. Morel dies. When Mr. Morel comes home, he does not notice that the blind is pulled down in her window. Paul tells him that she has died, and Morel is shocked for a moment, then eats his lunch in silence.
Mr. Morel takes his wife’s death calmly because there was very little love between them. They lived like strangers with each other and, though he is sad she is gone, the impact on him is nothing compared to the impact of her death on Paul.
The undertaker is called, and Paul goes into his mother’s room to wait. He weeps over the sight of her body – she looks young again and peaceful in death – and he feels that he cannot let her go. When the undertaker arrives, Paul and Annie watch over their mother and see that she is treated gently. Paul goes out that night to spend time at a friend’s house. When he gets home, Mr. Morel is still up. Paul registers, with a shock, that his father has been afraid to go to sleep with his dead wife in the house.
Paul struggles to cope with the reality of his mother’s death, which the sight of her body brings home to him. Although Mr. Morel did not love his wife, her death has affected him deeply as well.
Paul goes to Nottingham to see Clara and Clara is pleased to find that Paul is, externally, stoic and resigned to his mother’s death. The funeral is held during a rainstorm and Mrs. Morel is buried with William. After the funeral, Mr. Morel frets and cries to Mrs. Morel’s family that he always “did his best by her.” His behavior infuriates Paul because he feels that his father dismisses his mother. A few nights after this, Paul finds Mr. Morel sitting up by himself, very white and scared looking. He says he has dreamed about his wife. Paul says that he has very pleasant dreams about his mother. Mr. Morel does not answer and stares into the fire.
Clara knows how close Paul was to his mother, and is worried that her death will drastically affect him. Paul feels that his father is not being honest; he did not do his best for Mrs. Morel and she often had to manage alone on very little money. Mr. Morel will not face his responsibility for this, and Mrs. Morel is now dead and cannot remind him of it. Paul thus feels that his father is getting away with it. Mr. Morel has a nightmare about his wife, though, which suggests that he feels guilty for how he treated her.
Baxter Dawes, meanwhile, has recovered in a hospital in Skegness. Paul goes out to visit him at Christmas. He and Baxter have become close friends and Paul hardly ever sees Clara now. A couple of days before he leaves, Paul tells Baxter that Clara is coming the next day and that he has told the landlady that Baxter’s wife will be arriving. Baxter seems a little shaken by this but does not protest. Paul says that Baxter is almost better, and Baxter agrees and says that Leonard thinks he will be able to “get him on in Sheffield.”
Paul arranges things so that Baxter and Clara will be left alone together, and the landlady will not question them if they share a room together. He wants them to reunite and Baxter does not object. Paul has helped Baxter find work with his brother-in-law Leonard, who is Annie’s husband.
Paul admits that he feels more lost than Baxter. Baxter assures Paul that he will be alright, and the two men awkwardly discuss Clara. Baxter says that he does not know if he wants her back, but Paul insists that she wants him. He tells Baxter that Clara never really “belonged to him” and that was why she would not get a divorce. Baxter admits that he has been foolish, and Paul says that he will leave the next day. Nonetheless, he feels a sense of rivalry return between him and Baxter and they spend the rest of the evening in silence.
Although Baxter has lost everything, he now stands to gain it back. Paul has lost his mother, however, and now feels utterly alone in the world. Paul is still attracted to Clara, although he knows he does not love her. As soon as Baxter feels that he can win her back, he becomes jealous of Paul and possessive of Clara as though she were his wife again.
The next morning, Paul walks on the beach and feels that he is “cutting himself off from life.” He takes a bitter kind of pleasure in this. He goes to the station with Baxter to meet Clara from the train. She is rather aloof with the two men and sits and looks demurely out of the window when they get to the house. Baxter explains to her that Paul will leave them that night but that they have the house for another day. He tells her that he has a job and a house in Sheffield, and Clara listens thoughtfully.
Paul wants to die in the wake of his mother’s death and takes a self-destructive pleasure in dismantling his other relationships so that there will be nothing for him to stay alive for. Clara accepts the strange situation and waits to see how the men behave with her.
From time to time, Clara glances at Paul, but she thinks, looking at him beside her husband, that there is something meagre and small about him. She finds him unmanly and thinks that he lacks conviction, unlike Baxter who can at least commit to something. She feels that Paul is fickle and unstable, and that Baxter appears dignified by comparison. She feels that she has a better understanding of men now and thinks that she will not miss Paul when he leaves.
Although Baxter has made mistakes, Clara feels that he, at least, committed to her. She feels that Paul is cowardly because he will not commit to anything. She likes Baxter better now in comparison to Paul.
The trio have dinner together and Clara feels irritated with Paul because she feels that he is deliberately absenting himself from the circle and leaving her for her husband. Paul feels forlorn and at a loss without his mother. She has been his support and his true companion and, now that she is dead, he feels as though he yearns for death himself. He does not fear death and feels that Clara cannot support him. He can see that Baxter does fear death and, although he has been careless with his life, he admits now that he was wrong and that he wants to live, and this makes him seem noble.
Clara resents Paul because she feels that he has used her and now has had enough and wants to give her back to her husband. Paul is too grief-stricken to notice, however. He never loved Clara and has now lost the love of his life, his mother, and is suicidal over this loss. Whereas Paul now appreciates nothing in life, Baxter, who nearly died from typhoid, has gained a new appreciation for it and is willing to change.
Paul leaves Clara and Baxter after dinner and goes to catch his train. When he has gone, Clara pours Baxter some tea and Baxter asks her uncertainly if she will leave that night; he says she shouldn’t travel in the rain. Clara asks if he wants her to stay and Baxter admits that he does. They hold each other and Clara joyfully pleads with Baxter to take her back. He tearfully asks her if she wants him.
Baxter and Clara behave like a married couple again. Baxter wants her to stay but does not say so outright in case she rejects him. Baxter and Clara have learned to appreciate each other and, now, instead of taking each other for granted, they feel that they would each be lucky if the other one would have them. Their renewed relationship is a marked contrast to the now totally isolated Paul.