Paul feels lost and friendless. Clara is gone, and he and his father part ways and leave the family home. Mr. Morel lodges with a family and Paul takes a room in Nottingham. He tries to lose himself in his work and spends a lot of time in pubs, but he is haunted and miserable. He cannot see the point in life or feel the “reality” of anything around him. The only thing that feels real is the darkness at night. One night, when he gets home late and eats no dinner, he wonders what he is doing with himself and a voice from his unconscious tells him that he longs to destroy himself.
Paul cannot stand to be alone with himself now that he has lost his mother, as she was the only person who understood him and made him feel like a whole person. He tries to distract himself from his loneliness, but he becomes self-destructive and only feels good when he is in a situation where he can forget about his life and himself. He is finally forced to understand his own emotional state and he realizes that he is suicidal—and indeed, he has always been self-destructive.
Paul is determined not to die, but he cannot get in touch with life. He feels, since Mrs. Morel’s death, that he is nothing and that he has no future and nothing to live for. He no longer cares about painting and he does not want to get married. He struggles to find a reason not to kill himself. He is extremely restless and becomes frustrated when he tries to paint. He drinks and flirts with barmaids, but these interactions mean nothing to him. In his grief, Paul remembers Miriam and wonders if he can go back to her.
All of Paul’s hopes for the future revolved around his mother, and so he feels like his future has been snatched away. Everything that previously had meaning in his life is now meaningless to him. In his desperation, he thinks of Miriam because she is a person who understood him and made him feel real and loved.
He runs into Miriam one evening at Church and, as he watches her sing the psalms, he thinks she looks like a saint. Paul approaches her after the service, and she is very surprised to see him. She tells him that she is staying with a relative but will go home the next day. Paul asks her if she must go and she says no. He invites her to dinner at his house with him and she agrees.
Miriam is very spiritual and abstract, and is happiest when she is in church or lost in intellectual thought. She cannot hide her emotions and pretend that she has not missed Paul, and immediately goes to his house when he invites her.
Paul goes to fetch them coffee and Miriam looks around his room. She finds it grim and “comfortless” and feels sorry for him. When Paul returns, Miriam tells him that she has been accepted into college and that she is going to be a teacher once she is trained. Paul is surprised that Miriam did not tell him and is slightly disappointed with the news. Miriam is indignant; she is very excited about her success and proud of her prospects.
Miriam now has a bright and fulfilling future ahead of her and will be an educated and employable woman. This reflects the changes in women’s social position which took place throughout the twentieth century. Miriam is upset that Paul cannot be happy for her, but he only wants Miriam to do what’s best for him, not for herself.
Paul thinks that it is a waste for her to work. He tells her that while a man can commit himself fully to his work, a woman only uses a small, insignificant part of herself when she takes a job. Miriam is offended and replies sarcastically. Paul thinks that she looks old and he is internally critical of her. Suddenly, Miriam begins to laugh in a cold, cheerless way. She asks Paul if he is still with Clara and Paul tells her he is not. Miriam says that she thinks they should get married. Paul brushes her off again with his usual protests; she would smother him, and he would not be able to bear it. He tells her he will travel abroad.
Paul still sees women in simplistic and idealized terms. He believes that all women will be fulfilled by marriage and domesticity, but for Miriam, this is obviously not the case. Paul’s view is old-fashioned and misogynistic, and Miriam sees this. Miriam still loves Paul, though, and feels that he needs her to take care of him.
Miriam sinks to her knees on the rug, crushed by despair. She suddenly knows, inside herself, that if she stood up and drew him to her and told him that he “belonged to her” that he would stay, and they would be married. She is too afraid to move, however; afraid that she will unleash something unknown and that she cannot handle in him if she does so. She remains kneeling there and, eventually, Paul takes her in his arms and comforts her.
Miriam is heartbroken because Paul has decided to leave once again. However, she knows that she can persuade him to stay and chooses not to. Deep down she knows that he is emotionally unstable and that she will not be able to make him love her in a healthy or consistent way.
Paul feels that Miriam is not strong enough to support and contain him. She is willing to sacrifice herself for him, but he does not want this. She asks him if he wants to marry her and he says no. If they are not married, Miriam says, there can be nothing between them. Paul sits back in his chair and thinks about his mother. Miriam can see that he does not care about her and that he is set on ruining himself. She decides to leave him to it, but she feels sour that he will not accept her sacrifice.
Miriam will not tell Paul that she loves him, but will allow him to claim her as his partner if he wants to. She will not force him to stay for her sake, however. She still loves Paul, and wishes that he loved her enough to willingly stay with her. Again she thinks of love in religious and dramatic terms, as if she is a martyr for Paul’s sake.
Miriam admires the flowers on Paul’s table, and he gives them to her. He accompanies her back to her cousin’s house, and she broods resentfully and thinks that, when he is tired, he will return to her. After he has said goodbye to her, he takes a car out into the country. He feels as though he is emanating empty space from his body and that he is becoming part of the night.
Miriam still cannot give up on Paul and believes that he cannot cope without her. She dislikes him, however, because he is too weak to admit that he cannot manage on his own. Paul feels as though he has no reason to live and that he is already dead.
Paul leans against a stile and feels himself surrounded by the night. He feels that time has ceased to exist and that, as he is part of the night and the universe, his mother is still with him even though she is dead. He calls out for her in the dark and knows that he wants to join her. Determined not to give in, however, after a short time resting in the dark, he turns and walks doggedly back towards the lights of the town.
Paul wants to die to be close to his mother. He refuses to kill himself, however, and the image of Paul walking back towards the light suggests the possibility that he will reject death and try to find new meaning in life separate from his mother—or else just keep pushing on in his isolation and pain.