As Arthur Morel grows up, he becomes a handsome and vivacious young man. He is extremely popular but avoids work and loves having fun. He also has a bad temper and his mother finds him tiresome and overly energetic. Arthur used to get on well with his father, but as Mr. Morel grows older, he becomes bitter and antagonistic, and irritates his family by being deliberately crass and bad-mannered. Arthur grows so sick of his father’s behavior that, when the chance arises, he transfers to a boarding school and moves out of the house. Annie has already left, and has a job as a teacher, so Mrs. Morel finds that she relies even more on Paul. She tells him her worries and thoughts when he gets home in the evening.
Arthur demonstrates that he is an active person because, rather than stay at home where he dislikes his father, he changes his circumstances and leaves. Mr. Morel feels that he is not appreciated or respected by his family and behaves petulantly in response to try and get their attention. Mrs. Morel and Paul grow closer as the other children leave home and develop their own lives separate from her.
William is engaged to Miss Louisa Lily Denys Western and spends a great deal of money on her. He has bought her an engagement ring – something Mrs. Morel resentfully recalls that she did not receive from her husband – and takes her out often to the theatre and to dances, like they are “swells.” He brings her home for Christmas and, this time, does not bring any presents home with him. When the pair arrive at William’s home, Louisa complains that she has lost her gloves and seems slightly amused by William’s family. Annie is so intimidated by Louisa that she acts like “the maid” and offers to help her with her case.
Mrs. Morel is jealous of Louisa because she has William’s affections. She believes that William has grown full of himself and thinks that he tries to conceal his working-class roots. The lack of presents at Christmas symbolizes that William has transferred his affection for the family onto Louisa. Louisa is from an upper-class background and cannot relate to William’s family. She feels that she is superior because they are poorer and less educated.
The family are very deferential towards Louisa and she is uncomfortable and does not quite know how to act with them. Although she is polite, she cannot “realize” them as people, and instead sees them as “creatures.” Mrs. Morel has put out all the best things in the house, but Louisa finds the house cold and the atmosphere frosty. Louisa goes to bed early, at William’s suggestion, and the rest of the family follow. William stays up then to talk with his mother.
The class system in Britain was very entrenched and, although social mobility improved during this time, it was often uncomfortable for people to socialize outside of their own class. Louisa feels that the Morel family are like “creatures” because they are poorer and, she thinks, less civilized than upper-class people.
Mrs. Morel feels pained and slightly embarrassed on her son’s behalf. William asks his mother if she likes Louisa and Mrs. Morel says she does. William complains that Louisa is affected and “puts on airs,” but, he insists, it is not her fault because she has had a bad family life. Mrs. Morel graciously suggests that Louisa is just shy because his family are so different from hers. William seems unconvinced; he laments that Louisa is not a thoughtful woman, like his mother, and that she cannot take things seriously.
Mrs. Morel is embarrassed for her son because Louisa has treated his family like servants. She feels that William must be ashamed of this. Although William is repulsed by Louisa’s behavior, he feels sorry for her and does not hold her responsible for her actions. This suggests that William has a patronizing attitude to Louisa. He does not see her as an intellectual equal, the way he sees his mother.
The next morning, Louisa sleeps in very late, to the amazement of Mr. Morel, who is always up early. When she finally does come down, William is annoyed that she treats Annie like a servant and that she is haughty and “glib” with his family. Louisa is only a secretary in London, but she acts like a grand lady. Paul, however, is very struck by her, much to the annoyance of Mrs. Morel. When the group go out for a walk, Louisa tries to send Annie back for her muff, which she has forgotten, but William defends Annie and tells Louisa to get it herself.
Mr. Morel has never interacted with an upper-class person and is surprised by Louisa’s lazy habits; he is always up early because he works most days. Although Louisa has relatively low paid work, the circumstances of her birth determine her attitude and she does not view herself as lower-class. Mrs. Morel is possessive over both Paul and William and resents Paul’s attraction to Louisa.
That evening, William and Louisa stay up late together, and Mrs. Morel waits up in a separate room and insists that she will not go to bed until they do. William eventually sends Louisa upstairs to the room she shares with Annie. He asks his mother irritably if she does not trust them and Mrs. Morel confirms that she does not.
Mrs. Morel does not want William and Louisa to go to bed together because they are not married. This is in keeping with British notions of propriety, which deemed it inappropriate and socially unacceptable for unmarried couples to have sex.
William comes home again for his Easter break but this time he does not bring Louisa. While he is there, he complains to Mrs. Morel that he does not really like Louisa when he is not with her, but that he changes his mind when they are alone together and, besides, she is an orphan. He still spends most of his money on her and has very little left to give to the family. Paul gets a pay rise at Christmas, however, which helps the family somewhat.
William is physically attracted to Louisa and they have a passionate relationship when they are alone. William does not connect to her as an individual, however, and only stays with her because he pities her. Paul’s income replaces William’s financial contribution to the family and suggests that William’s loyalties lie elsewhere.
Although Paul likes his job, his health is poor because of the long hours spent indoors. In May he gets a half day off and he and Mrs. Morel decide to walk over to Mr. Leivers’s farm to visit his wife, Mrs. Leivers. Paul asks about the family, as he does not remember them, and Mrs. Morel tells him that Mrs. Leivers is a kind woman but rather proud and “soulful.” Mrs. Morel complains that, rather than embrace her poverty and manage with what she has, Mrs. Leivers wears shabby clothes and will not try to make herself look decent. Mrs. Morel concedes that Mrs. Leivers has a hard life, however, because she is a frail woman. Her husband, in contrast, is very handsome and robust.
Mrs. Morel is very different from Mrs. Leivers and cannot understand her. Mrs. Morel feels that Mrs. Leivers is proud because she refuses to disguise her poverty, but it is Mrs. Morel’s pride which encourages her to always look smart and make the best of her situation. Mrs. Leivers, in contrast, does not think that physical appearance is important. Instead, she is only interested in spiritual and “soulful” ideas.
Mrs. Morel fusses with the housework before they set out until Paul teasingly drives her from the kitchen so that she can get ready. She returns wearing a new shirt and Paul flatters and compliments her about how she looks, while she pretends to be cynical about his praise. The pair set out together and Paul feels very proud of how they look. From the top of a hill, they stop and look down at one of the mines and the trucks and wagons going in and out of it. Although these are machines, Paul thinks they look like men because they are controlled by “men’s hands.”
Paul and his mother have a teasing, flirtatious relationship, almost as though they are lovers. Paul clearly admires his mother and is very proud to be seen out with her. Although the coalmines are industrial, Paul views them almost as part of nature because coal is a natural resource extracted from the ground by men, in contrast to synthetic or man-made materials which are manufactured in factories.
It is a long walk through beautiful countryside and the pair are not sure of the way. Paul picks flowers for Mrs. Morel and helps her to climb over stiles. When they arrive at the farm, the first person they encounter is a young girl of around fourteen, who is rather sullen and does not greet them but rushes off instead. Mrs. Leivers comes out then and is pleased to see Mrs. Morel, although she seems a little sad.
Paul gives his mother flowers the way that a lover might give a sweetheart a bouquet. Mrs. Leivers seems unhappy with her life on the farm because she is very spiritual in nature and dislikes the hard, physical lifestyle of a farmer’s wife.
Paul waits outside while his mother and Mrs. Leivers catch up and he sees the young girl again, who is called Miriam. He asks her what kind of roses are growing on a bush nearby and she answers him uncertainly. She tells him that they have not been on the farm long, and Paul thinks she has a haughty manner about her as she withdraws again into the house. When his mother and Mrs. Leivers reappear, Mrs. Leivers takes them on a tour of the farm.
Roses become a symbolic flower between Paul and Miriam and represent their blossoming romantic relationship.
When they return to the house, Mr. Leivers is there with his son Edgar, who helps on the farm. Not long after, the younger boys, Geoffrey and Maurice, arrive home from school and Paul chats with them about his job at Jordan’s. The group go outside, and the lads let Paul feed grain to the chickens, who peck the food roughly from his hand. Miriam comes outside and her brothers tease her because she is afraid to feed the chickens. Paul tries to encourage her to try and tells her that it doesn’t hurt, but her brothers tease her and tell Paul that she thinks she is too good to help with farm work.
Miriam is extremely afraid of physical sensation and avoids anything that she fears may hurt or overwhelm her. Her brothers misinterpret this as pride but, although Miriam does resent her life on the farm, her aversion to the physical world is because of her inability to cope with it easily rather than her deliberate rejection of it.
Miriam is embarrassed and storms inside and Paul follows the boys into the orchard. They climb trees and swing from the branches together, but Paul senses that the boys dislike him and are more interested in each other. He soon returns to the house. When he enters the yard, he sees that Miriam is crouched in the chicken coup and is reaching out to feed the chicken from her hand. She is startled and ashamed when she sees Paul, but he presses her to try to feed the hen.
Although Miriam has been embarrassed in front of Paul by her brothers’ teasing, she demonstrates that she wants to try something new, even though she is afraid. Paul encourages Miriam to move outside of her comfort zone. This foreshadows the dynamic which occurs in their sexual relationship, in which Paul pressures Miriam to have sex even though she dislikes it.
Gingerly, Miriam reaches forward and lets the bird peck food from her hand. Miriam is startled and shrieks a little with fear, but, once she is used to it, she seems relieved and pleased with herself. She takes Paul back inside, but she is self-conscious and irritated by the thought that Paul may think she is a “common girl” and not an important woman like “The Lady of the Lake.” Mrs. Morel is ready to leave, and they walk back across the fields in the dusk. Paul is extremely happy to walk with his mother and Mrs. Morel laments that, if she had a farm and a husband like Mr. Leivers, she would gladly share the work with him, unlike Mrs. Leivers.
Miriam is happy to have gone outside of her comfort zone and gains a feeling of independence and pride from this. “The Lady of the Lake” is a popular romance legend about King Arthur and his interaction with a beautiful nymph. Miriam is clearly very imaginative and thinks about life in romantic, rather than practical, terms. She feels she is better than life on the farm because she is not suited to it and is innately averse to anything physical. Mrs. Morel almost seems jealous of Mrs. Leivers because she would enjoy the work of the farm.
William has another holiday from work and brings Louisa home again. Paul notices that William does not talk to her much and only tells her things about himself and his childhood. One day Paul goes out for a walk with the couple and Louisa lets him wind flowers through her hair. When William sees this, Paul notices that a strange look of pain comes into his brother’s face as he admires his fiancée’s beauty.
William is very self-centered and does not care about Louisa’s opinions. Paul puts flowers in Louisa’s hair, symbolizing his sexual attraction to her. William is pained because he finds Louisa so beautiful—he dislikes her personality but feels that he is trapped because he is so physically attracted to her and cannot bring himself to end the relationship. In this way, William, like his father, makes Louisa responsible for his own failings.
Although the young couple are “tender” with each other, William, at times, despises Louisa and often snaps at her. He finds that she still treats his family like her servants (one day, she asks Annie to wash her clothes for her, even though she has plenty of spares) and he is irritated by her carelessness (she loses another pair of gloves, which he bought her.) One night, when Mrs. Morel offers Louisa a book to read, William snaps that Louisa has never read a book in her life and that she does not know how to learn or remember information.
William is openly cruel to Louisa and demeans her in front of his family. This suggests that he has no respect for her and that he has learned this abusive and disrespectful behavior from his father. However, he also looks down on Louisa and judges her because she does not live up to the idealized image he has of his mother.
Louisa listens miserably and Mrs. Morel tries to defend her. William feels that he hates Louisa because he is used to running his ideas and opinions by his mother but finds that Louisa is not interested in talking to him like this. The next time Mrs. Morel sees Louisa trying to read, she notices that the girl dislikes the activity and gives up after a page.
William is very dependent on Mrs. Morel and relies on her to judge and weigh his ideas. This suggests that, although a grown man, William is not emotionally independent but relies on his mother for validation; he cannot think for himself. He expects the same from Louisa although he, selfishly, takes no interest in her perspective on things.
In private, William complains bitterly to his mother. He says that Louisa is stupid and relies on him for everything. Mrs. Morel encourages him to break off the engagement but William protests that he cannot leave Louisa to fend for herself. Mrs. Morel feels wounded by this conversation and feels that her hopes are being dashed. Although she has been unhappy with her husband, nothing has made her as miserable as William’s unhappiness now.
Although William is emotionally dependent on his mother, he cannot stand Louisa being dependent on him. In this period, however, it was considered quite normal for women to rely financially on men. This suggests that William does not wish to take on his part in an adult relationship, as a partner who can be relied upon, but childishly expects Louisa to play the part of his mother and coach him through life. Mrs. Morel lives through her sons and so feels William’s failure as if it is her own.
William continues to be unkind to Louisa throughout the rest of their stay. He claims that she has “been confirmed three times,” which Louisa tearfully denies, and says that she does everything for attention and to “show herself off.” Louisa begins to cry, and Mrs. Morel berates William for his cruelty. William protests that Louisa does not know how to love and that she has the emotional range of a fly, and Mrs. Morel is angry and ashamed of him because of his heartless outburst.
William suggests that Louisa is flighty and unreliable by saying that she has been made a member of the church (confirmed) three times; this implies that she cannot make up her mind whether to be religious or not. He also suggests that she changes her mind so that she can keep repeating the ceremony and be the center of attention. Mrs. Morel feels sorry for Louisa and is disappointed in her son because he treats his girlfriend so cruelly.
Mrs. Morel walks to the train station with William and Louisa on the day they leave. On the way, William complains to his mother that Louisa (who is beside them and hears all) is too shallow to love. Mrs. Morel protests but William announces bitterly that, if he died, Louisa would move on almost immediately. Mrs. Morel is horrified to hear him speak like this. When she gets home, she tells Paul that, although she feels sorry for Louisa, she wishes that the girl would die “rather than marry” William.
William shows no respect for Louisa and talks about her as if she is not there. William’s announcement foreshadows his early death from pneumonia. Mrs. Morel feels that William and Louisa’s relationship is doomed and hopes that Louisa will die so that William will not have to break up with her, which she knows he is not strong enough to do.
Mrs. Morel worries about William all summer; she fears that he is about to ruin his own life. Paul tries to reassure her, but Mrs. Morel will not be comforted. William continues to write regularly to her, but his letters frighten her because they are so wild and “exaggeratedly jolly.” He comes home for a visit in October and Mrs. Morel is devastated to find that he looks sickly and that he has been ill. William insists that he is better, but he works much longer hours to save up for his wedding. He leaves again on Sunday and seems a little healthier after a couple of days away from the city.
Mrs. Morel feels that William is not content and only pretends to be happy in his letters so that she will not worry. William’s life in the city runs him down, but a short spell in the country seems to revive him. This reinforces the novel’s view that the city is an unhealthy and stressful place to live, whereas the country is healthy and relaxing.
A few days later, Mrs. Morel receives word from London that William is sick. She travels up to visit him and finds herself in William’s dingy London flat where he lies deathly ill. A doctor confirms that he has pneumonia, and William dies later that night while his mother watches over him. Heartbroken, Mrs. Morel remains in London to register the death and make the funeral arrangements. She telegrams home and asks Mr. Morel to join her in London.
William has been living in poor, unsanitary conditions in the city and has become ill as a result. This was very common in cities in this period, in which the air was very polluted and living spaces were damp and overcrowded.
Paul goes to fetch Mr. Morel from the mine. Paul cannot comprehend that fact that William is dead and sits, stunned, while he waits for his father to emerge from the pit. The miner seems afraid when he hears the news and timidly makes his way to London to join his wife. The couple return a few days later and Mrs. Morel, who will hardly speak or acknowledge her other children, tells them that William’s body is to be brought to the house in his coffin.
Paul is disorientated by grief and cannot believe that his brother is dead. Mrs. Morel is profoundly affected by her grief and can barely bring herself to speak or notice the world around her because she is so heartbroken. She was living through William, and so his death is almost like her own.
Paul and Mr. Morel arrange the furniture so that there will be space for the coffin and William is brought in, carried by Mr. Morel and several of the miners that he works with. Paul is shocked by the size and weight of his brother’s corpse. After William’s funeral, Mrs. Morel can barely be roused and loses all interest in life. She wishes that she had died instead of her son.
Paul notices the physical details of William’s death (the weight and size of the coffin) which emphasizes the reality of his brother’s loss. Lawrence focuses on the practical preparations to suggest that death is a physical as well as a spiritual concern.
Paul desperately tries to bring his mother back to herself. Every night, while she sits silently by the hearth, he tells her about his day and tries to persuade her to respond. She ignores him every night, lost in her grief for William, and Paul feels hurt and rejected by this. His life becomes dreary without his mother’s company. One night, just before Christmas, Paul comes home from work feeling ill. Mrs. Morel is shocked by his appearance and immediately knows that he is sick.
Paul is jealous because his mother’s attention is still on William, even though William is dead. Paul’s relationship with his mother is the closest one in his life and, therefore, her withdrawal deeply affects him. Mr. Morel has not realized how self-destructive she has become; she has stopped living because of William’s death and, in her grief, has forgotten Paul.
The doctor explains that Paul has pneumonia and Mrs. Morel is furious with herself and wishes she had kept Paul at home and not let him find work in the city. Mrs. Morel tends him ceaselessly through his illness and, one night, when Paul believes he will die, her presence startles him back to himself and brings him out of a dangerously feverish state. His aunt claims that his illness has “saved” Mrs. Morel.
Mrs. Morel blames herself for Paul’s illness because she feels responsible for the course of his life. Although Mrs. Morel saves Paul, Paul’s illness also saves Mrs. Morel. Without her need to care for Paul, Mrs. Morel would probably have let herself die because of her grief over William.
Although he is ill for a long time, Paul begins to recover. His mother stays with him through his recovery and, when she sees him getting better, she begins to feel hope for the future again. She hears from Louisa for a while but, just as William predicted, the girl moves on with her life and forgets him and the family. Mr. and Mrs. Morel are kind to each other for a period after William’s death and, although Mr. Morel eventually goes back to his old habits, he never walks through the cemetery where William is buried.
Mrs. Morel lives through her sons and all her future hopes are bound up with their lives. William’s death makes her lose hope for the future, but this hope is restored when Paul survives pneumonia. From then on, Mrs. Morel is totally invested in Paul’s future, rather than her own. Mr. Morel was not close with William, but seems to have his own deep and private grief for his son.