Paul is a quiet child who looks like his mother. As a small boy, he is very close to his older sister, Annie, and follows her around, joining in her games. Annie’s favorite toy is a doll with a china face, which Paul accidentally breaks one day when he lands on it after jumping off the sofa. Annie is heartbroken, but she agrees when Paul suggests they burn the doll as a “sacrifice.” Although Annie does not know why, she is slightly “disturbed” by this, and feels that Paul seems to hate the doll because he had destroyed it.
Paul’s reaction to the broken doll mirrors his father’s treatment of his mother. When Mr. Morel abuses Mrs. Morel, he cannot face the shame and guilt he feels and, instead, blames Mrs. Morel and places the responsibility for his behavior onto her. This in turn reflects broader, misogynistic attitudes towards women. Annie, as a young girl, unconsciously perceives this although she does not understand it.
Although none of the children are close to their father, Paul particularly dislikes Mr. Morel and always sides with his mother. He remembers coming home from school one day and finding his mother with a bruised eye and his father and William about to fight. Mr. Morel tried to taunt William into a brawl and only stopped when Mrs. Morel finally intervened.
Paul’s early memories of his father’s violence turn him against Mr. Morel. William tries to fight Mr. Morel to protect Mrs. Morel from his father’s violence.
When William was a child, the family moved to a new house, and so Paul grows up in a house which overlooks the valley and has an old tree outside. He has an enduring memory of lying in bed in this house, listening to his mother and father fight downstairs and the noise of the wind in the tree branches outside. He was always terrified when the argument fell silent because he wondered what his father had done to his mother and what he would see the next morning. These memories stay with him into adulthood and always torment him.
Paul is afraid that his father will accidentally kill Mrs. Morel because he cannot control his temper. He is afraid of the silence because he thinks that Mrs. Morel may be dead, and he worries that they will find her body the next morning. These early experiences have a lasting impact on Paul’s life.
As a child, Paul prays for his father’s death and hopes Mr. Morel will be killed in a mining accident. If Mr. Morel does not come home on time, however, the evenings in the house are unbearably tense because Mrs. Morel worries, and the children pick up on her anxiety. Usually Mr. Morel comes in late, very drunk and angry, and upsets the atmosphere of the home even more. When Paul wins a prize for his painting, Mrs. Morel encourages him to tell his father, but Paul finds it impossible to connect with Mr. Morel and struggles to hold even a simple conversation with him.
Mining was an extremely dangerous profession and the risk of accident or injury was high. Paul’s wish shows the strength of his hatred for his father. Although Paul prays that his father will die so he can no longer torment his mother, this is complicated by the fact that he wants his mother to be happy. Mrs. Morel will not be happy if Mr. Morel dies because the family is financially reliant on him.
The only time that the children feel comfortable and happy with their father is when he fixes or builds something in the house; he lets them help and tells them stories about the pit and the other miners, which they love. One winter, Paul is ill for several weeks with bronchitis. Although his father tries to soothe him, he is aggravated by Mr. Morel’s presence and will only be comforted by his mother, who often sleeps in the same bed with him. Mrs. Morel feels guilty during Paul’s illness, as she never expected him to live when he was young and didn’t want him when he was a baby.
The children naturally want to connect with their father but find it difficult because he is so violent and distant. He is a very practical man and is only relaxed when he is engaged in some physical task because this is what he excels at and feels comfortable with. When Mrs. Morel shares the bed with her son rather than her husband, this signifies the transference of affection from her husband to her children.
When the family is short on money, the children love to help by foraging berries for their mother. Paul walks miles to find these berries so that he will not let Mrs. Morel down, because he cannot stand to disappoint her. The children find it very satisfying to find what they need in nature and to use nature to provide for themselves.
Once William and Annie have both found jobs, it becomes Paul’s responsibility to go to the public house and collect Mr. Morel’s wages. Paul hates to do this and feels mortified as he waits for his name to be called, amid the wives, children, and miners who are also squashed in to wait for their pay. When he finally makes it up to the counter, he is too embarrassed to count the money he is given and the “buttys” and the other miners tease him about his education at the “Board school.” He does not feel like himself again until he is on the walk home.
The miners’ wages are divided up out of the collective earnings and portioned out to the workers at the end of each week. Paul goes to collect the money on his father’s behalf, but he is extremely self-conscious and hates to be singled out. The miners look down on and tease him about his education because it makes them feel inferior and inadequate, since they themselves are not educated.
When Paul gets home, he complains to his mother about this and tells her that he will not collect the money anymore; he hates to be among “common” people. Mrs. Morel gently placates her son, but she is surprised by his anger because Paul is generally placid. Paul counts the money for her at home and, through this, Mrs. Morel can see if her husband is keeping money back or not.
Paul feels rejected and out of place among the miners, because he is more educated than them, and, in response, lashes out and calls them “common.” This makes him seem like a snob. Mrs. Morel does not trust her husband to be honest about his pay and, instead, gives this responsibility to Paul.
On Friday nights, Annie and Arthur go out with their friends, but Paul prefers to stay in and wait for Mrs. Morel to return from the market and show him what she has bought. In the winter, when it gets dark early, the Morel children play with the neighbor’s children under the lamp post at the end of the street, which overlooks the dark valley. Paul likes to see the moon rise and, one night, when he has fought with the other boys, he remembers a Bible story about the moon “turned to blood.”
Paul is so close to Mrs. Morel that he prefers to spend time with her than to make friends his own age. Paul feels very connected to the natural world and feels that the moon reflects his own emotions. This is an example of pathetic fallacy, in which the natural environment symbolizes the internal state of the character.
In the summer months, the mines often close early and the miners are sent home to their wives, who grumble about the closure. Mrs. Morel is frustrated to have Mr. Morel under her feet all day. William, who is away in London, begins to write regularly to his mother and Mrs. Morel delights in these letters. He tells her that he is coming home for Christmas and the family go into a frenzy of preparation as the holiday approaches.
The wives are annoyed about the early closures because it means they will have less money to live on. Their husbands will also be restless at home and will keep them from their chores.
On Christmas Eve, the children walk down to the station to meet William from the train. Mrs. Morel waits at home, excited but tense in case something should prevent William from coming. The trains are late because of the season but, finally, William arrives, with armfuls of presents, to the delight of his siblings. Mrs. Morel is amazed when she sees that William has turned into “such a fine gentleman.” The holiday is a wonderful success, and everyone is heartbroken when William must return to the city.
William uses his success to provide for his family. Mrs. Morel is delighted that he is generous in this way and feels proud that he is moving up in the world. This reflects increased social mobility during this period, in which people were no longer tied to the class into which they were born but could progress through the social ranks with education and hard work.
However, William stays in touch with his family and continues to write to his mother. He has the chance to go on a cruise around the Mediterranean during his two weeks break later that year, but, much to Mrs. Morel’s relief, William returns home for the holiday instead.
Mrs. Morel feels that William’s allegiance is still to her and the family because he turns down the cruise.