When it comes to standard tragedy, this book gives us a total fake-out in its Anticipation Stage. The narration makes us think that William Morel is going to be the book's main character. And we expect William to go out into the world and make a lot of money for his oppressed mother.
But instead, William dies. And his sensitive younger brother Paul has to take on the role of fulfilling all of his mother's unfulfilled dreams of greatness.
When he's fourteen, Paul gets himself a good job at a manufacturing company and starts finding quite a bit of success in his painting. His mother is very proud of him (and proud of herself by extension). Trouble starts a-brewing, though, when Paul meets and sort of falls in love with a young girl named Miriam Leivers.
He loves spending time with Miriam, but his mother isn't all that happy about the relationship. She's afraid Miriam will take up all of Paul's energy and trick him into becoming an average person. She's kind of overbearing, in case you hadn't noticed.
Yes, no, maybe so? As time passes, Paul realizes that he will never be able to marry Miriam, but at the same time, he isn't able to let her go, either. In order to pry himself away from her, he starts a relationship with one of Miriam's friends named Clara Dawes.
The only problem is that Clara is married, and her estranged husband Baxter (who doesn't like Paul to begin with) becomes a sort of shadow figure in the story. He always seems to be hovering around Paul, and on one occasion, he attacks Paul and almost beats the life out of him.
During this time, Paul realizes that he can't really give himself to any woman, except his mommy. He worries that he's destined to be alone.
This stage basically begins when Paul finds out that his mother has a massive tumor growing in her belly. He feels guilty for not noticing the tumor earlier, but he's been distracted by his relationship with Clara Dawes. And his nuttiness with Miriam. He's all up in so many girls' businesses.
His mother does a brave job clinging to life. Too good of a job, actually. Her cancer takes so long to kill her that Paul starts looking forward to the moment of her death. He even hatches a plan to kill her with an overdose of morphine, though it's unclear if he ever actually gives her the stuff.
Eventually, Mrs. Morel does die, and Paul loses his sense of direction without her.
Destruction or Death Wish Stage
Without his mom around to tell him what to do, Paul starts drinking his life away. You can tell he's entered the Death Wish stage of Tragedy because… well… dude wants to die. He specifically wants to die so he can be with his mother again.
In a last-ditch effort to provide his life with some structure, he asks his old flame Miriam to hang out. They kind of, sort of talk about getting married. But both Paul and Miriam are still unwilling to take the lead, so their great reunion flops.
In the book's final moments, Paul thinks again about killing himself. But he decides against it… at least for the time being.