At first, it looks like this book is going to be William Morel this, William Morel that. But hey, the guy drops dead pretty early in the plot, which leaves us with the question of who's going to step up and be our main character. Enter Paul Morel, the quiet and artistic second son of Gertrude (Mrs. Morel).
Just after William dies, Paul actually gets really sick himself. Nursing Paul back to health distracts Mrs. Morel from the loss of William, and an intense bond forms between Mrs. Morel and her son Paul: "The two knitted together in perfect intimacy" (6.486).
And in case this bit of narration isn't straightforward enough, the narrator adds that "Mrs. Morel's life now rooted itself in Paul" (6.486). In other words, Mrs. Morel completely uses Paul as a replacement for her favorite son, William. And, as Lawrence hints, this is not a good way to forge a healthy mother-son relationship.
Freud would agree.
So that's pretty much our starting point for Paul; he becomes the new canvas for all the hopes and joys Mrs. Morel originally poured all over William. Throughout the rest of the story, Paul has to struggle against his mother's attempts to control his life—especially his love life.
Whenever he hangs out with a nice girl named Miriam Leivers, he knows that "his mother want[s] to upbraid him […] [and] There [is] a tense silence" (8.556). He feels terribly guilty whenever he mentions Miriam to his mother, because he knows his mother wants him to stay away from girls and focus on doing something great with his life.
In the end, Paul feels good about rejecting Miriam because "in his soul [is] a feeling of the satisfaction of self-sacrifice because he [is] faithful" to his mother (9.100). Clearly, Paul has been raised to believe that getting romantically involved with a woman is a betrayal to his mother. Scary. Stuff.
To say that Paul is a commitment-phobe would be an extreme understatement. In his relationship with Miriam, Paul always has trouble actually getting over the hump and allowing himself to truly love her. The novel offers several reasons for why this might be the case.
Even though he knows he does love Miriam, Paul feels like he is "stupid like a child" (9.93) about the whole thing. He resists being with Miriam for reasons he can't totally explain to himself. He even wonders if he's "deficient in something" (9.87), though he doesn't know what exactly he's lacking.
Sometimes, Paul thinks that "it [is] only a sort of overstrong virginity in her and him which neither could break through" (11.1). But toward the end of the book, he tells Miriam that she loves him too much and that he would "die there smothered" (15.122) if he ever committed himself to her.
Um. We guess he's worried that if he gives too much of himself to his relationship with Miriam, he'll stop being his own person. As readers, we have the benefit of knowing that he's totally absorbed this perspective from his mother, who doesn't want any woman to distract Paul from becoming famous and (hopefully) rich.
Of course, Mrs. Morel feels this way because her own ambitions were ruined by a bad relationship. But, like, why doesn't she realize that she's the one preventing Paul from becoming his own person? Jeez.
Oh, and things are complicated in Paul's love life for other reasons, too. See, Miriam isn't Paul's only love interest in this story. Paul seems to think that Miriam's too much of a goody-goody for him, so he runs into the arms of the more "experienced" Clara Dawes—a married woman who has separated from her husband.
Compared to the long descriptions of Paul's thoughts when he's with Miriam, the narrator talks only about physical things when Paul's with Clara. You can see this in the way the narrator focuses on Paul taking Clara's hand, which is "large and firm; it [fills] his grasp" (12.30).
Let's face it: Paul is a young man who's pretty interested in sex, and talking to Miriam about religion all the time can be a turnoff. That's why he runs to Clara to fulfill the more physical part of his desires. But Clara doesn't, er, stimulate Paul in the same way that Miriam does.
In the end, Paul decides not to be with either Clara or Miriam. With Clara, he knows he'll never be able to give himself to her because she's only interested in the physical side of him, "not the real him that [is] in trouble" (14.9). The real Paul Morel is conflicted and anxious, but Clara doesn't appreciate this.
Miriam, on the other hand, does appreciate the deeper part of him. But Paul's scared to give himself to her because he feels he could only "give life to her by denying his own" (15.136), meaning that he's afraid of losing himself in their relationship. Even though he seems totally cool with that when it comes to Mrs. Morel.
Have you ever had a friend who totally changed once they got into a relationship? Well Paul's basically worried that Miriam wants to own him completely, and that if he marries her, he'll never achieve anything as an individual (like becoming a famous painter). Because she'll demand every ounce of his energy and attention, or something.
He's kind of a lone wolf. An arrogant one, at that.
So that's basically the he and the she of it. Paul wants someone to love him to his very core, but he's simultaneously unwilling to give this core to someone else. So he's basically caught in a Catch-22.
And D.H. Lawrence being D.H. Lawrence, we never really see Paul resolve this conflict.
Readers often spend so much time worrying about Paul's mommy and girlfriend issues that they overlook Paul's anxiety over his personal greatness. By the time Paul meets Clara Dawes, the book has firmly established his desire to paint landscapes for a living.
At the very beginning of Chapter 10, Paul wins a huge sum of money for a painting he entered into a contest. After the win, the narrator tells us that Paul "was beginning to grow ambitious" about his abilities as a painter (10.1). From this point on, becoming an artist is a big part of Paul's life.
Paul tries to get Clara to compliment his paintings, but she often "shrug[s] her shoulders in scorn of his work" (10.185). Her dismissiveness toward his painting cuts him to the core. Tortured artist type, much?
Deep down, Paul wants to establish himself as a great individual, and he wants to do this through his painting. But here's the problem with distinguishing yourself as an individual: life can get pretty lonely.
The irony of the story lies in the fact that Paul's mother is the one who's taught him to "distinguish himself" (8.98), but it's her who prevents him from becoming a full-fledged adult. It's Mrs. Morel's inability to see the contradiction in her approach to Paul, and Paul's inability to overcome the contradiction, that makes it impossible for him to truly love another woman.
So, at the conclusion of the novel, Paul ends up in a similar place to where he started. Except now his mommy is dead, so we're left to wonder whether he's ever able to make something of himself. What do you think?