When Arthur Morel leaves school, he gets a job at the “electrical plant” at one of the mines. Arthur is a boisterous, energetic young man who is always getting into scrapes. Mrs. Morel finds him tiring and worrisome. One day, a letter arrives from Arthur which tells his mother that he has joined the army on a whim and now regrets his decision. The letter asks Mrs. Morel if she will come to Derby and speak to his commanding officer to see if she can have him unenrolled.
Arthur is irresponsible and does not think about the consequences of his actions. Although joining the army is a significant commitment, Arthur does it on a whim and believes he can immediately take it back with no repercussions.
Paul is vaguely amused and thinks that this is not so bad for Arthur; it will teach him discipline. Mrs. Morel, however, is furious; Arthur has lost a good job, just as he was starting to “get on” in the world. She complains that being a soldier is a “common” profession and tells Mr. Morel that she must go to Derby immediately. Mr. Morel is ashamed of his son and says that he may never come home again. Mrs. Morel hushes her husband and sets off that evening.
Although mining is also a working-class profession, Mr. Morel is embarrassed that Arthur has become a common soldier because this is also a profession that is looked down upon.
When Mrs. Morel returns home, she tells Paul that she cannot help Arthur out of the army but, although he is sad to be there, the army doctor told her that Arthur is perfectly suited to life as a soldier. That Autumn, Paul wins two prizes for his paintings in a Nottingham exhibition. Mrs. Morel is immensely proud of him and feels that her hopes for her children and herself will be fulfilled through Paul. Her life of hardship will not have been lived in vain.
Arthur is strong, physical, and energetic, and therefore will get on well in the army. Mrs. Morel gives up on Arthur, however, because he has taken such a low position, and no longer expects him to be professionally successful in a way that will make her proud. Instead, she turns all these hopes entirely onto Paul.
One day, when he is walking up to the exhibition, Paul runs into Miriam and a friend of hers, Clara Dawes. Miriam introduces them and Paul thinks Clara is attractive despite her shabby dress and her sullen, slightly contemptuous manner. Paul knows something of Clara because she used to work at Jordan’s. Her husband, Baxter Dawes, also works there, but he and Clara are separated, and Paul knows that she dislikes men. Miriam likes to spend time with Clara; it lets her feel close to Paul because of this connection with the factory.
Women usually left their jobs once they were married and this has likely been the case with Clara. Divorce was extremely uncommon and unconventional in this period and was considered especially shameful for women. Clara has not officially divorced Baxter but has left him. Miriam is clearly very much in love with Paul and essentially uses her friendship with Clara to spy on him.
Paul dislikes Baxter Dawes. He met him on his first day at Jordan’s and found him coarse and unpleasant. Baxter tried to threaten Paul when he saw him staring, but Mr. Pappleworth defended him. Ever since then, Dawes has hated Paul and Paul equally despises him. Clara has left Baxter and gone to live with her mother. Meanwhile Baxter is now seeing one of the factory girls at Jordan.
Baxter hates Paul because Paul has embarrassed him; he is ashamed that Mr. Pappleworth shouted at him for being rude to Paul.
When Paul goes to see Miriam next, he asks her about Clara. He wonders why Clara married Baxter Dawes if she was only going to leave him, but Miriam replies sarcastically. Paul suggests that Miriam does not like Clara, or that she likes her because Clara hates men, and Miriam seems sad and confused. Paul has been irritable lately and she hates to see the scowl on his face. It seems to imply a distance between them.
Despite his rivalry with Baxter, Paul automatically takes his side—seemingly just because he’s a man—and implies that Clara has been indecisive and disloyal by marrying and then leaving him. Miriam feels that this is ridiculous and implies that Clara had good reason to leave Baxter. Paul suggests that Miriam hates men and implicitly suggests that she is frigid. However, because he has never expressed his physical attraction to her, Miriam is confused and does not know that he lashes out because he feels rejected.
Paul tries to playfully put berries in her hair, but Miriam pulls away. Paul complains that she never laughs at him and that, even when she laughs, he feels somber and tearful when he is with her. Miriam miserably thinks that this is not her fault. Paul, however, feels bitter because he always needs to be “spiritual” with Miriam. He longs to kiss her but cannot kiss her in a pure way and he resents that she does not appreciate his “maleness.”
Paul will not break things off with Miriam, but he will not accept her as she is and seems to want to change her. Paul feels wronged because Miriam does not try to seduce him, but Miriam does not know that this is what he wants—because he does not tell her.
When Paul makes to leave the farm that evening, he notices that his bike has a puncture and Miriam watches him fix it. While he works and while his back is turned, she yearns to embrace him. When he is finished, she reaches out and holds his sides, but Paul feels that she is not really seeing him and that he might be “an object.” The brakes on his bike are broken and Miriam tries to persuade him to ride home slowly. Paul rides home deliberately fast and thinks that, if Miriam will not “value” him, then he may “destroy himself” as “revenge.”
This suggests that Miriam is physically attracted to Paul, just as he is attracted to her. Paul feels objectified by Miriam because he senses that she is only interested in his mind and not his body; therefore, his body is like an unimportant object to her which she will use to get close to him. Paul is childish and spiteful, but he is also unhappy because he is not satisfied with Miriam and yearns unconsciously to destroy himself.
For a while, before their father rents a family pew, Miriam and Edgar attend church with Paul and Mrs. Morel and sit in their pew during the service. Mrs. Morel is silently resentful of Miriam because she feels that the girl wants to claim Paul’s soul. Mrs. Morel frets that Miriam will not leave any part of Paul for her and that she will keep him all to herself. As the spring approaches, however, Miriam worries that Paul will hurt her because he spends a lot of time with Edgar. The two boys debate endlessly about religion and seem to trample on Miriam’s dearly held beliefs.
Families could pay for a bench in church which could be reserved for them. Mrs. Morel senses that Miriam is only interested in Paul’s intellect and not the whole of him. Mrs. Morel is intent on keeping Paul all to herself, although she does not consciously recognize this. Miriam is possessive of Paul too and worries when he spends time with people who think differently from her; she feels that they will corrupt him.
Paul still goes out for his evening walks with Miriam, but his mood is ruined because he knows his mother hates the girl and that she sits at home and is miserable without him. This, in turn, makes Paul feel like he hates Miriam, but then he feels guilty for this because he does not know why Mrs. Morel rejects her; he feels torn between them both. Spring affects his mood wildly, and he is often cruel and changeable with Miriam, although he still feels irresistibly drawn to her.
Mrs. Morel makes Paul feel guilty for neglecting her, and Paul, who cannot stand up to his mother, blames Miriam for his guilt. Paul also knows this is not Miriam’s fault and feels that the two women fight over him. Paul is very in tune with nature and the seasons and is emotionally affected by them.
One night, when Miriam and Paul are talking, he tells her that he feels “disembodied” with her, as though she wants his soul and his body is “discarded.” Miriam grows upset, but Paul complains that he wants to be “normal,” whereas Miriam does not. He feels she only wants the things he can tell and teach her, and not him. When Miriam is invited to a party at the Morels’ house, Paul tells her that he will not walk out to meet her because his family are jealous of their relationship. Although Miriam is hurt, she pities and resents Paul because, she thinks, he cannot think for himself.
Paul feels that Miriam is using him. Miriam loves the things Paul can teach her because, as an uneducated woman, she has little opportunity for this kind of intellectual fulfillment. Miriam wishes that Paul would stand up to his family for her sake, but she understands that he does not do this because he is weak.
At work, Paul is successful and well liked; he is promoted when Mr. Pappleworth leaves. Annie has moved back home and is engaged. On Friday nights, the miners divide up the earnings for the week at Mr. Morel’s house. Paul watches his father wash as he gets ready for this and thinks that his father must have been a strong handsome man once.
Paul is not as physical as his father and, although his father is growing old, Paul is fascinated by his father’s manly figure and the graceful, effortless way he uses his body.
The miners divide up their money and Mr. Morel slinks out with them when they are finished. Mrs. Morel takes the housekeeping money, which Mr. Morel has left on the table and, grumbling that it is less than she expects, heads out to the market. Paul is left in charge of the bread she has put in the oven to bake. While his mother is out Miriam arrives. Paul shows her a cloth that he has decorated with his own design; it is part of his new interest in “conventionalizing things.” Miriam is impressed but thinks the cloth feels “cruel” in some way, and Paul tells her he plans to sell it and give the money to his mother.
Mr. Morel sneaks out before Mrs. Morel can notice that he has left her less than her share of the money. Mrs. Morel complains but is evidently used to this. Paul’s interest in “conventionalizing” things refers to his desire to bring art into the lives of everyday people; they will not necessarily buy a painting, but they can buy a tablecloth with a well-drawn, artistic design. This is in keeping with the trend for decorative consumer products that boomed in this period.
While they are talking, a young woman called Beatrice arrives. She is a friend of the family and is very familiar with Paul. She teases him and makes snide comments to Miriam about the state of her shoes, which are covered in mud. While she and Paul smoke and giggle together, the bread burns in the oven. Beatrice manages to salvage some of it and, half joking, insinuates that Mrs. Morel will blame Miriam if the loaves are ruined. Annie arrives home with her fiancé Leonard, who is kind to Miriam and does not join in with the others when they tease her.
Beatrice obviously knows Miriam and has heard the jokes Paul’s family make about her. They think that Miriam is a daydreamer and neglects her dress and appearance. Beatrice knows that Mrs. Morel hates Miriam, and Beatrice teases Miriam about this. This shows that Beatrice is on Mrs. Morel’s side and thinks Miriam brings it on herself.
Annie, Leonard, and Beatrice leave together, and Paul gives Miriam a French lesson. Every week, Miriam writes a journal entry in French and shows it to Paul. These entries are all about her love for him and Paul pointedly ignores this as he corrects her grammar and spelling. He resents her love for him, because he feels she is better than him. He is glad that he teased her with Beatrice. He looks into her eyes and sees her “naked love” for him and immediately jumps up to check the bread in the oven.
Miriam is very open with her emotions, but Paul is reserved and feels uncomfortable with Miriam’s confessions of love. He resents her for making him feel uncomfortable, although she does not mean to, and tries to avoid seeing how much she loves him.
Paul walks Miriam home and does not get home until after eleven. His mother sits silently in the living room and Paul ignores her and assumes she is angry with him. Annie, however, tells Paul that his mother is ill. Annie found Mrs. Morel sitting in her chair, very pale and exhausted, after carrying home the shopping. Annie accuses Paul of being careless and staying out too late with Miriam. Mrs. Morel then joins in and laments that Paul only cares about Miriam and cares nothing for anybody else. Annie goes to bed, still very angry with Paul.
Annie takes Mrs. Morel’s side against Miriam and resents Paul for spending time with her. Mrs. Morel is very unfair to Paul, considering that he is very kind and attentive to her and that he gives her a share of his wages. Although Mrs. Morel complains about Miriam, she does not want Paul to share his affection with anyone but her.
Paul sits up with his mother and it is very tense in the room. He is worried about her because she is ill and angry with her for turning on Miriam. Mrs. Morel grows upset and tells Paul that it is not sensible to walk so far at night; she worries he will tire himself out for Miriam’s sake. Paul assures his mother that he does not love Miriam, but Mrs. Morel is not convinced. Paul insists that there are things he can talk to Miriam about that do not interest Mrs. Morel because she is older than them, but Mrs. Morel is deeply hurt by this.
Mrs. Morel is convinced that Paul’s time with Miriam will harm him in some way. She does not realize that she causes harm by preventing Paul from exploring adult relationships. Paul tries to defend himself and his relationship with Miriam, but Mrs. Morel makes him feel guilty. It is more like she is a jealous lover than a parent in this situation.
Paul pleads with her to believe him and moves over to her chair to kiss and caress her. Mr. Morel comes in at that moment and is enraged by the sight of the mother and son. He helps himself to a pie Mrs. Morel has bought for Paul and she fires up against him. In a drunken fury, Mr. Morel tries to fight, Paul but dodges away before he hits the boy. Mrs. Morel falls into a swoon and Paul cries out to his father to stop the fight.
Mr. Morel’s reaction suggests that there is something inappropriate about the contact between Mrs. Morel and Paul and that they behave more like lovers than mother and child. Although Mr. Morel threatens to hit Paul, he cannot bring himself to really do it. This scene mirrors the fight that Paul witnessed between his father and William.
Mr. Morel falls into a chair and Paul kneels beside Mrs. Morel and brings her back to herself. She wakes up gradually but is faint and unwell. Mr. Morel watches sullenly as Paul begs his mother not to be ill. Finally, he slinks off to bed. Paul sits up with Mrs. Morel until she has recovered. When they go to bed, Paul tries to persuade his mother to sleep in his bed rather than with his father, but Mrs. Morel refuses. Paul is comforted by the fact that he still loves his mother more than anyone else.
Paul cares more about Mrs. Morel’s wellbeing than her husband does. Just as Miriam and Mrs. Morel compete for Paul’s affections, Paul competes with his father for Mrs. Morel’s.