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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1163

Walter Morel, a coal miner, was a handsome, dashing young man when Gertrude married him. After a few years of marriage, however, he proves to be an irresponsible breadwinner and a drunkard, and his wife hates him for what he once meant to her and for what he is now....

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Walter Morel, a coal miner, was a handsome, dashing young man when Gertrude married him. After a few years of marriage, however, he proves to be an irresponsible breadwinner and a drunkard, and his wife hates him for what he once meant to her and for what he is now. Her only solace lies in her children—William, Annie, Paul, and Arthur—for she leans heavily upon them for companionship and lives in their happiness. She is a good parent, and her children love her. The oldest son, William, is successful in his work, but he longs to go to London, where he has promise of a better job. After he leaves, Mrs. Morel turns to Paul for the companionship and love she found in William.

Paul, who likes to paint, is more sensitive than his brothers and sister and is closer to Mrs. Morel than any of the others. William brings a young woman named Lily home to visit, but it is apparent that she is not the right kind of woman for him; she is too shallow and self-centered. Before long, William becomes aware of that fact, but he resigns himself to keeping the promise he made to his fiancé.

When William becomes ill, Mrs. Morel goes to London to nurse her son and is with him there when he dies. Home once more after burying her first son, Mrs. Morel cannot bring herself out of her sorrow. Not until Paul becomes sick does she realize that her duty lies with the living rather than with the dead. After this realization, she centers all of her attention upon Paul. The two other children are capable of carrying on their affairs without the constant attention that Paul demands.

At sixteen years of age, Paul goes to visit some friends of Mrs. Morel. The Leiverses are a warmhearted family, and Paul easily gains the friendship of the Leivers children. Fifteen-year-old Miriam Leivers is a strange girl, but her inner charm attracts Paul. Mrs. Morel, like many others, does not care for Miriam. Paul goes to work at a stocking mill, where he is successful in his social relationships and in his work. He continues to draw. Miriam watches over his work and, with quiet understanding, offers judgment concerning his success or failure. Mrs. Morel senses that someday her son will become famous for his art.

By the time Miriam and Paul grow into their twenties, Paul realizes that Miriam loves him deeply and that he loves her; for some reason, however, he cannot bring himself to touch her. Through Miriam, he meets Clara Dawes. For a long while, Mrs. Morel was urging him to give up Miriam, and Paul tries to tell Miriam that it is over between them. He does not want to marry her, but he feels that he does belong to her. He cannot make up his mind.

Clara is separated from her husband, Baxter Dawes. Although she is five years Paul’s senior, Clara is a beautiful woman whose loveliness charms him. Although she becomes his mistress, she refuses to divorce her husband and marry Paul. Sometimes Paul wonders whether he could bring himself to marry Clara if she were free. She is not what he wants. His mother is the only woman to whom he can turn for complete understanding and love, for Miriam tries to possess him and Clara maintains a barrier against him. Paul continues to devote much of his time and attention to making his mother happy. Annie marries and goes to live with her husband near the Morel home, and Arthur marries a childhood friend; the couple has a son six months after their wedding.

Baxter resents Paul’s relationship with his wife. Once he accosts Paul in a tavern and threatens him. Paul knows that he cannot fight with Baxter, but he continues to see Clara.

Paul enters pictures in local exhibits and wins four prizes. With encouragement from Mrs. Morel, he continues to paint. He wants to go abroad, but he cannot leave his mother. He begins to see Miriam again. When she yields herself to him, his passion is ruthless and savage. Their relationship, however, is still unsatisfactory, and he turns again to Clara.

Miriam knows about his love affair with Clara, but Miriam feels that Paul will tire of his mistress and come back to her. Paul stays with Clara, however, because he finds in her an outlet for his unknown desires. His life is in great conflict. Meanwhile, Paul is earning enough money to give his mother the material possessions her husband failed to provide. Mr. Morel stays on with his wife and son, but he is no longer accepted as a father or a husband.

One day, it is revealed that Mrs. Morel has cancer and is beyond any help except that of morphine and then death. During the following months, Mrs. Morel declines rapidly. Paul is tortured by his mother’s pain. Annie and Paul marvel at her resistance to death and wish that it would come, to end her suffering. Paul dreads such a catastrophe in his life, although he knows it must come eventually. He turns to Clara for comfort, but she fails to make him forget his misery. While visiting his mother at the hospital, Paul finds Baxter recovering from an attack of typhoid fever. For a long time, Paul sensed that Clara wants to return to Dawes, and now, out of pity for Baxter, he brings about a reconciliation between the husband and wife.

When Mrs. Morel’s suffering mounts to a torturing degree, Annie and Paul decide that anything would be better than to let her live in agony. One night, Paul gives her an overdose of morphine, and Mrs. Morel dies the next day.

Left alone, Paul is lost. He feels that his own life ended with the death of his mother. Clara, to whom he turned before, returned to Dawes. Because they cannot bear to stay in the house without Mrs. Morel, Paul and his father part and each takes different lodgings.

For a while, Paul wanders helplessly, trying to find some purpose in his life. Then he thinks of Miriam, to whom he once belonged. He returns to her, but with the renewed association, he realizes more than ever that she is not what he wants. Once he thought of going abroad; now he wants to join his mother in death. Leaving Miriam for the last time, he feels trapped and lost in his own indecision, but he also feels that he is free from Miriam after many years of passion and regret.

His mother’s death is too great a sorrow for Paul to cast off immediately. After a lengthy inner struggle, he is able to see that she will always be with him and that he does not need to die to join her. With his newfound courage, he sets out to make his own life anew.

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