Gertrude (soon to be Mrs. Morel), an intelligent young woman from a middle-class English family, meets a young miner, Mr. Morel, at a country dance. Although Gertrude has a religious and ascetic temperament, she is attracted to Walter Morel’s vigorous nature and thinks he is very handsome when she sees him dance at the party. The pair are married a few months later and soon Mrs. Morel becomes pregnant. The first few months of their marriage are happy, but Mrs. Morel finds that she cannot really talk to her husband and that, despite their initial attraction, the couple have little in common. She discovers that Walter is not as wealthy as she believed and that they do not own the house they live in, but rather rent it from Walter’s mother. She dislikes life in the mining community and does not get along with the other women, who find her haughty and superior. Mrs. Morel gives birth to a son, who she names William, and she adores him immensely. Although she and Mr. Morel are still friendly with each other, she has lost interest in him and the rift between them widens after the birth of the child. One morning, when William is a toddler, Mrs. Morel comes downstairs and finds that Mr. Morel has cut all the boy’s hair off. Mrs. Morel is horrified, and this action drives a wedge between her and her husband. She focuses all her love on her son and delights in planning for his future and watching him grow up.
Mrs. Morel has a second child, Annie, and then gets pregnant with a third. One day, not long before her due date, a fair comes to town and Mrs. Morel reluctantly goes along to please William, who cannot enjoy the fair without her. While she is there, Mrs. Morel sees that Mr. Morel, who has taken to drinking frequently, is in the beer tent and she is not surprised when he returns home drunk that evening. A few weeks later, there is a public holiday and Mr. Morel uses this time to go out drinking with his friend Jerry Purdy, whom Mrs. Morel cannot stand and who is a misogynist. When Mr. Morel comes back that night, he is very drunk and the couple fight. Mr. Morel locks Mrs. Morel out of the house and she calms herself down by looking at the moon and the flowers in her garden. When she returns, Mr. Morel lets her back in but goes to bed without talking to her.
Mrs. Morel gives birth to another boy. One night, shortly after the birth, when she has taken the children out of the house to avoid Mr. Morel’s temper, she sits and watches the sunset on a nearby hill and decides to name the baby Paul. As she looks down at the little infant, she is overcome with guilt and sadness. She thinks that the baby looks sad because she did not want him while she was pregnant. Paul grows into a serious and thoughtful child. William, meanwhile, is very active and charming. Mrs. Morel gives birth to a third son, Arthur, whom Mr. Morel is instantly fond of. When William is old enough, he gets a job as a clerk and is very successful and well-liked. He is offered a position in London and gleefully accepts. Although Mrs. Morel is proud of William, she is devastated to see him leave home. At first, William visits home a lot and sends money to his family. However, as time goes on, he begins to get caught up in city life and spends his money on his fiancée, Louisa Lily Denys Western. William brings the young woman home to meet his family and they are disappointed to find that she acts superior to them and treats them like her servants. As their relationship goes on, William comes to despise his fiancée, but he will not end the engagement. Mrs. Morel is shocked and depressed when, during another visit, William is openly cruel to Louisa. Not long after this, William contracts pneumonia and dies, leaving Mrs. Morel heartbroken.
Paul, meanwhile, grows into an intelligent young man and takes a job as a clerk in Nottingham. He enjoys the work and gets along well with his colleagues, but the long hours take a toll on his health. Mrs. Morel continues to grieve for William, and Paul, who is also very close to his mother, is desperate to bring her out of herself and to win her attention back. When Paul is struck down with pneumonia, Mrs. Morel realizes, to her horror, that she has neglected him. She does everything in her power to nurse him back to health. Paul recovers well and from then on, Mrs. Morel is committed to him and pins all her hopes for the future on him. During his time off work after his illness, Paul begins to visit a nearby farm owned by Mr. Leivers. He strikes up an unusual friendship with the Leivers’ daughter, Miriam, who is very timid, religious, and intellectual. Mrs. Morel dislikes her and feels that she is bad for Paul. Although Paul and Miriam get along well, there is a physical awkwardness between them. They are both immature and neither understands that they are attracted to each other. Mrs. Morel watches their relationship closely and wishes that Paul would break things off; she is jealous of the time he spends with Miriam. Paul returns to his job at the factory after a while, but his hours are shorter and he has more time to work on his painting, which is his real interest. During this time, Miriam realizes that she is in love with Paul, but she feels ashamed of this physical attraction because it clashes with her religious views. Miriam does not tell Paul about her feelings. The family goes on holiday to the seaside and Miriam goes with them. Paul spends most of his time with Mrs. Morel, however, and only sees Miriam in the evenings.
Around this time, Paul wins a prize for his painting in a Nottingham exhibition. One night, he meets Miriam at the exhibition along with a young woman called Clara Dawes. Clara is married to a man named Baxter, who works in the same factory as Paul, but the pair have separated. Paul thinks Clara is snooty and believes she is a “man hater” because she is involved with the suffragettes. He also dislikes Baxter, who was rude to him on his first day at the factory. Miriam and Paul continue their platonic relationship, but it puts a strain on them, as they both wish to become a couple but do not know how to do so. Paul resents Miriam because he feels she is too spiritual and that this hampers him from behaving physically, or being “ordinary,” with her. Miriam is hurt and confused, but she continues to maintain that she is good for Paul and that he “belongs to her.” One night, when Paul is out with Miriam, Mrs. Morel is taken ill. When Paul returns, Annie berates him for neglecting his mother. Paul tries to break things off with Miriam, but he still visits the farm often because he is friends with her brother, Edgar. One afternoon, Paul is invited to Miriam’s house to have tea with Clara Dawes. Although Paul still dislikes Clara, he finds her impressive and attractive.
Not long after this, Paul delivers a parcel to Clara’s house, which is near the factory where he works. He learns that she lives with her mother, Mrs. Radford, and that she is desperately unhappy. Paul gets Clara a job in the factory, but still finds her haughty and reserved at work. Her presence irritates him and he goes out of his way to annoy her. During the summer, Paul and Miriam get engaged, but Paul breaks off the engagement several weeks later. He strikes up a relationship with Clara but continues to see Miriam often. Baxter Dawes finds out about Paul and Clara, and Baxter and Paul get into a fight in a pub. Baxter later attacks Paul in the dark, while he is walking back from Clara’s house. Paul is not seriously hurt and feels a strange bond with Baxter after this incident.
During this period, Mrs. Morel’s health begins to decline. While she is on holiday in Sheffield, staying with Annie, she falls ill and is diagnosed with cancer. Paul is horrified at the thought that his mother may die. He stays in Sheffield to nurse her and, while he is there, learns that Baxter is in the hospital nearby, recovering from typhoid. Paul goes to visit him, and the two men become friends. After a few weeks, Mrs. Morel is able to travel home, but it is understood by everyone that she will not live very long. Although Paul is still in contact with both Miriam and Clara, he finds that he no longer cares for them and he dedicates all his time to caring for his mother. Mrs. Morel dies gradually and painfully; Annie and Paul, who care for her, can hardly bear the strain. Finally, after Mrs. Morel has grown unbearably ill, Paul poisons her with the painkillers he has been given by the doctor. She is buried alongside William, and Mr. Morel can no longer bear to live in the house that he shared with his wife. He and Paul move out and take separate lodgings in Nottingham.
Not long after Mrs. Morel’s death, Paul goes on a trip to the seaside with Baxter and invites Clara to join them. He has lost all interest in her, and in life generally since his mother’s death, and he is suicidal with grief. He believes that Clara wishes to reconcile with Baxter and arranges things so that he leaves them together in the cottage. Clara is angry with Paul for manipulating her, but she does forgive Baxter and agrees to return to him as his wife. For a long time after this, Paul wishes to die and feels he has no connection with life. One night, he sees Miriam outside church and invites her back to his house. Miriam is sad to see that he has deteriorated and suggests that they get married. Paul rejects her, and Miriam decides that she will never see him again. After she has gone, Paul catches a car out into the country and walks across the fields in the dark. He calls out to his mother and wishes to end his life so he can be with her. He is determined not to die, however, and knows he cannot kill himself. Miserable yet resolute, Paul walks back across the dark fields, in the direction of the town.