Mr. Morel is careless and accident prone and Mrs. Morel is never shocked when he is sent home from work with some minor injury. One day, however, a young boy arrives at the house and tells Mrs. Morel that her husband has been taken to the hospital because he has smashed his leg. Mrs. Morel catches the train to the city, where her husband is being nursed, and returns to the children that evening. She assures them that their father won’t die – although Mr. Morel believes he will die from the pain – and, although she feels deeply sorry for him in his pain, she still cannot muster any real love for him in her heart.
Mining was very dangerous, and miners were often injured or killed in cave-ins, tunnel collapses, and explosions from the poisonous gases which collected underground. Mr. Morel is a very physical and vigorous man and is not afraid of using his body or being physically hurt; this makes him prone to accidents.
While her husband is in the hospital, Mrs. Morel travels back and forth on the train to visit him and Paul helps her with the housework at home. Paul takes pride in being the man of the house and is almost sorry that his father will come home again. Paul realizes that, soon, he must find a job, but he does not know what he wants to be. He is not suited to physical work and enjoys painting, but he cannot rely on art to make money and so he is resigned to take any position where he can make a living.
Paul takes Mr. Morel’s place while he is in the hospital; he almost acts as though he is Mrs. Morel’s husband and takes an equal share in the running of the house. He wishes to replace his father, and this supports the idea that Paul harbors Oedipal desires towards his mother. Freud’s Oedipus complex is the theory that male children secretly desire their mother and wish to usurp their father’s position.
William still writes to his mother, but the tone of his letters has changed, and she begins to worry about him again. He has been very successful in the city, has a job in a law firm, and is constantly socializing. However, Mrs. Morel notices that he never sends any money and, on top of all the socializing, he must manage his studies so that he can advance his career. He has met a beautiful woman, who he claims is highly sought after by other men, and he parades her around the town. Mrs. Morel fears William has been seduced by the lavish London lifestyle, but tries to comfort herself with the thought that she has always been a worrier.
Mrs. Morel worries that William overworks himself and that he wastes money on shallow things rather than using his time and his earnings sensibly. He seems to care more about pursuing pleasure than helping his family. He has chosen his girlfriend because she is popular with other men in order to show off and make himself look impressive. This makes Mrs. Morel worry that he has become shallow and is not living a principled life.
After he has sent out a few applications, Paul is offered a job in a factory which makes elastic stockings and wooden legs. He accepts this, even though the thought of a business “run on wooden legs” is faintly disgusting to him. Mrs. Morel goes with him to Nottingham to meet Mr. Jordan, the factory owner, and Paul is pleased to have his mother with him and thinks of her almost like “a sweetheart” with whom he is having “an adventure.”
Manufacturing and the production of consumer goods became a huge business during the Industrial Revolution and provided a great deal of work in factories. Paul, who has grown up surrounded by nature, is put off by the thought of industrialism and the idea of profiting from people’s misfortune by selling wooden legs.
When they arrive, the pair explore the town together and Paul grows nervous about his interview, afraid he will be rejected. It takes them a while to find “Jordan and Sons,” which is hidden beyond an ugly, dingy courtyard. Once inside, however, the factory appears pleasant and clean and Paul and Mrs. Morel are invited to talk with Mr. Jordan, the curt, snappish manager of the place. He asks Paul to translate some letters for him from French and, when Paul – greatly embarrassed – does so more or less correctly, Mr. Jordan offers him the job.
Although Paul dislikes the idea of the factory, he is pleasantly surprised when he arrives and hopes to get the job.
Mrs. Morel is delighted, but on their way out, Paul complains about how “common” Mr. Jordan seems. Mrs. Morel assures him that he will likely not see much of the manager, and the pair go out for dinner to celebrate. They eat in an expensive restaurant and wait a long time to be served part of their meal. Although the waitress can see them, she ignores their table and flirts with the wealthy patrons. Mrs. Morel is not used to eating in nice places, and is not spending much, so she feels too uncomfortable to complain. Eventually, she insists their food be brought out and the waitress contemptuously serves them.
Paul and Mrs. Morel are snobbish about Mr. Jordan. It was common in this period for people to look down on business owners, especially those who had come from the lower classes and become wealthy. It was considered vulgar to make one’s fortune in this way. Paul and Mrs. Morel are then subject to snobbery themselves when the waitress ignores them because she knows they are poor.
After they have eaten, Paul and Mrs. Morel take a leisurely walk around the shops. Mrs. Morel is delighted by the front piece of a florist’s shop and finds a beautiful flower that she would love to take home. She and Paul joke, however, that the delicate plant would die in their dingy kitchen. They return home on the evening train and Paul feels he has had a “perfect” day “with his mother.”
The flower symbolizes Mrs. Morel’s femininity and sexual passion, which has withered in the dingy and unsatisfying life she leads with her husband. Although this passion is partially restored through her interaction with her son, they cannot experience the true, healthy passion of lovers.
Paul buys a “season ticket” for the train the next day, so that he can travel back and forth to Nottingham. It is expensive, and Mrs. Morel complains that William never sends her any money. Paul gripes that William spends a fortune on his own pleasure and Mrs. Morel agrees that he spends it all on his girlfriend, for whom he has recently bought a “gold bangle.” Paul thinks if the woman is wealthy, she should spend her own money, and he is irritated when his mother has to break into her savings to pay for his ticket.
Paul judges William because he feels that William has been disloyal to the family, and to Mrs. Morel, and that he cares more about his girlfriend than about them. Paul feels guilty because his mother must spend money on him.
William sends Mrs. Morel a photograph of Louisa Lily Denys Western, the woman he is having a relationship with, but Mrs. Morel dislikes the picture and thinks the girl looks “indecent” because she has bare shoulders in it. William then sends her another picture of Louisa in evening dress, but Mrs. Morel is dismissive of this one even though she supposes she “ought to be impressed.”
Mrs. Morel is jealous of William’s relationship with Louisa; she wants to be the most important woman in William’s life. Mrs. Morel will not admit that Louisa is attractive because her jealousy prejudices her against the girl.
The day for Paul to start his new job arrives, and he sets off for the train station on a beautiful, sunny morning. On his walk there, he thinks that he would rather be out in the countryside. Mrs. Morel watches him set out and feels proud that she has sent two young men out into the workforce; she feels that her own life is being lived through them. Paul arrives at his office early and is greeted by a clerk, who shows him to his department in “Spiral” and sends him to “fetch the letters.” When Paul has done this, his boss, Mr. Pappleworth, arrives.
Paul resents having to swap his free time in the countryside for a job in the city. Although Mrs. Morel is proud of her sons, it is sad that the pinnacle of her achievement is the success of her sons rather than any type of fulfilment or satisfaction in her own life. This reflects the limitations placed on women in this period. “Spiral” refers to “spiral” sewing machines which are used in the factory.
Mr. Pappleworth is a youngish man who is older than Paul and quite friendly. He gives Paul the job of copying out the letters, which contain orders for stockings and other items, but finds that Paul works slowly and holds up the factory girls. Mr. Pappleworth takes over from Paul and then shows him how to make up the orders. He then takes Paul through into the factory, where the girls work. They are greeted by the receptionist, Polly, who is irate about the orders coming in late, and they move into the sewing room where there are several “spiral sewing machines.”
Mr. Pappleworth is friendly with Paul on his first day and tries to help him understand the job and show him how to get on. Factory work was a common job for working-class men and women in this period. Women often took jobs that involved sewing and embroidery, as these were considered women’s work.
In the “spiral” room, the factory girls stand together talking. Mr. Pappleworth is curt with the girls and tells them to start work on the orders. He takes Paul back to the office and gives him paperwork to do for the rest of the day. Mr. Jordan, the manager, appears briefly and complains about Paul’s writing speed, but Paul thinks that the man’s terseness is all for show. He discerns that Mr. Jordan is not a gentleman and, therefore, feels like he must make a show of authority to remind people that he is in charge of the factory.
Mr. Jordan is aware that people may not respect him because he is working-class. Although he has been successful as a businessman, working-class people were still looked down upon in this period and earned wealth was not considered as respectable as wealth that was inherited through family connections.
Later on, a girl brings Mr. Pappleworth and Paul a heap of newly made garments and, after examining them, Mr. Pappleworth gathers them up and leads Paul into another sewing room where there is another set of girls. Mr. Pappleworth snaps at the girls because they are singing and takes the garments to a hunchbacked woman, called Fanny, to be redone. Fanny is upset and, although she agrees to mend the things, she hints that Mr. Pappleworth is making a fuss to show Paul that he is in charge. Mr. Pappleworth introduces Paul to the women and tells them not to “make a softy of him.” Fanny seems amused by this and says it is not them who makes a “softy” of the office lads.
Fanny insinuates that Mr. Pappleworth is the one who makes the office boys soft because, although he pretends to be strict and authoritative, he is generous underneath. He tries to blame this on the women so as not to lose face in front of Paul.
Paul finds the rest of the workday long but not unpleasant. Mr. Pappleworth goes home for lunch and, when he returns, he chats pleasantly with Paul. The workers have dinner at the factory at five and work through into the evening, although the morning is the busiest time. Paul catches a train at twenty past eight and arrives home after nine. He stays at Jordan’s and enjoys it, but the long days spent indoors and the tiring workload take a toll on him, and his health declines.
Mr. Pappleworth reveals his true, generous nature and treats Paul like an equal. It was normal for factory workers to work extremely long hours, although there were several social movements during this period which campaigned for improved working conditions. Conditions in cities, where most factories were based, were often unsanitary and bad for people’s health because of industrial pollution and cramped working spaces.
Paul grows to like Mr. Pappleworth and gets on well with the women who work on the machines. He eats lunch and dinner with Polly every day; he knows all the women personally and enjoys talking with them. After his lunch, before Mr. Pappleworth comes back, he often goes and sits with Fanny, the hunchback, who adores him. She is very sensitive and has suffered a lot in life. Paul and the other girls like to hear her sing because she has a beautiful voice, but she often believes they are laughing at her.
The women at the factory mother Paul and like him because he is friendly and because he takes an interest in them. Fanny expects to be ostracized by the other girls because of her disability and, even though they are kind to her, she struggles to believe that they are genuine.
When the other girls learn that Paul is an artist, they suggest that he should draw Fanny because she has such lovely long hair. Fanny is quick to take offense and Paul often listens to her troubles and reassures her that she is liked by the others. He enjoys working at the factory and likes the people there. He even enjoys the commute and the long walk home in the dark; he likes looking at the lights from the surrounding villages, shining in the dark landscape. Each night, when he gets in, he recounts the day’s events for his mother, and she loves this time between them and loves hearing about his life. Mrs. Morel feels almost as if the things he tells her also happen to herself.
Fanny confides in Paul and trusts that he is genuine in his kindness towards her. Again, Paul usurps his father’s position in the home; he comes home in the evening and discusses his day with his mother as if he is her husband rather than Mr. Morel, who rarely speaks to his wife. Mrs. Morel lives through Paul because she is uninterested in her own life and gets pleasure from hearing about his.