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“Paul’s Case”: An Analysis

Willa Cather’s short story “Paul’s Case” is a poignant, tragic account of a boy misunderstood and mishandled who ultimately hurtles his way into an untimely and needless death. Paul is a gangly, tense young man of seventeen, with a secret yearning for the “good life”. His aesthetic senses are highly developed and living amidst who he perceives as obtuse and inartistic to the extreme, is unbearably claustrophobic to him.

In a bid to escape from the monotone of his school and home life, both presided over by adults who do not understand him and who do not even seek to understand him, Paul leaves for New York where after a blissful week, the law catches up with him and Paul foolishly ends up killing himself. This bare skeleton of the plot however does no justice to the story which is rich with imagery, lyrical in its use of language and heart-rending in profound and subtle ways. A closer textual analysis of the story does not detract from its beauty or merit, instead adding further layers of meaning to it and enriching its value as a piece of art.

This paper seeks a close analysis of the short story in three ways: of the characterization, the settings and the symbolism deployed by Cather to further intensify the emotional tension of the storyline. The characters involved are deftly sketched with subtle yet profound clues that are given to the reader at crucial intervals. For instance, the teachers are not cardboard cutouts. They are not all irrational and vindictive, nor do they seem to hold a baseless, personal grudge against Paul.

In fact, once the “inquisition” ended, we are told by the omniscient narrator that the teachers felt remorseful for their vitriolic attack against the boy: His teachers left the building dissatisfied and unhappy; humiliated to have felt so vindictive toward a mere boy, to have uttered this feeling in cutting terms, and to have set each other on, as it were, in the gruesome game of intemperate reproach. Some of them remembered having seen a miserable street cat set at bay by a ring of tormentors (Paul’s Case 10). But with this exception, figures of authority almost everywhere else, are treated with contempt in the story.

Paul’s father, for instance, is sketched rather uncharitably. The narrator tells us, “[…] his father, on principle, did not like to hear requests for money, whether much or little” (Paul’s Case 26). Even his father’s expectation of his son, Paul, to earn for himself is depicted in a condemnatory manner. The narrator is, as becomes apparent, not exactly very neutral. The school and the “burghers” where Paul lives are described with epithets like “bare floors,” “naked walls,” “prosy men,” the women in “dull gowns” with “shrill voices” and teaching with “pitiful seriousness (Fleming).

Cather’s characterization then, makes Paul the sympathetic character; the one that the reader should identify with and forgive. The father, teachers and other adult figures of authority are repeatedly shown as brutish, insensitive and quite at sea when dealing with a problem child. Paul’s father and his teachers simply do not know how to tackle, what they perceive to be, his insolence. The narrator however makes it very apparent whose side her loyalties lie on. The adults with even their good intentions are quite ineffective in dealing with the real problem. As proved by the fatal consequences for Paul.

Let us look at the characterization of Paul himself, then. Critics like Rob Saari have suggested Paul had what is now popularly known as a “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” or NPD. Saari suggests that Paul is an exceptional case indeed; matching all nine characteristics that Freud initially came up with to define this condition. Paul’s attire and mannerisms call out for attention, a close analogy with the infamous vanity of the mythical Narcissus. Paul also has a rich and imaginative dream life which often blurs lines of reality and fantasy: another trait of those suffering from NPD.

Preoccupation with fantasies, an inflated and grandiose conception of the self, a need for excessive admiration, a certain affected manner that is arrogant also: are all traits that one can see in Paul, even with Cather’s empathetic characterization of the boy. “Was he not, after all, one of those fortunate beings born to the purple, was he not still himself and in his own place? ” (Paul’s Case 58), is a revealing glimpse into the mind of the protagonist that the omniscient narrator provides the readers.

It is quite evident that Paul does have a feeling of belonging to royalty, reinforced by the image of the purple color, or somehow being special. His compulsive need to be “theatrical” adds to his habit of blurring reality. This is evidenced by lines like: Had he ever known a place called Cordelia Street, […] Ah, that belonged to another time and country; had he not always been thus, had he not sat here night after night, from as far back as he could remember, looking pensively over just such shimmering textures and slowly twirling the stem of a glass like this one between his thumb and middle finger?

He rather thought he had (Paul’s Case 51). Paul is clearly not free from twisting the truth to suit his purposes or from accusations of being egoistic. Saari rightly concludes in suggesting that this NPD is what Paul’s real problem is and that his “case” may have been solved or at least been mitigated if the parents or teachers had been slightly more aware of this possibility. The narrator need not have included these lucid entries into Paul’s inner thoughts or even made the teachers’ remorse known. But they only serve to make these characters more realistic and well-rounded.

Revealing their foibles without demeaning them, Cather manages to empathetically characterize each of the major players in the story; she is not entirely biased in favor of Paul. This is a fact that would not have emerged without a close reading of individual characterization. Another interesting facet to the story that is revealed through a closer study of characterization was suggested by Michael N. Salda. Salda takes Paul’s preoccupation with the dream world to an extreme by suggesting that the entire conclusion is perhaps imagined by Paul.

Paul had either never experienced the grandiose, unrestrained fun at New York except in his imagination or his ambiguous suicide bid is actually a way of the narrator telling us that his imaginative journey has finally come to and end and he falls “back into the immense design of things” (Paul’s Case 66). Salda concludes by claiming that the entire thing may also have been Paul’s “defense” in his case against his unfeeling father. A boy with the powers of elocution and imagination like Paul may have been telling us his story from this perspective.

Apart from characterization, Willa Cather also uses the settings to heighten the dichotomy of reality and fantasy: a theme that is dominant in this story. The school as opposed to the theatre, then the neighborhood as opposed to the hotel in New York: these contrasting, alternating scenes not only enhance the balance of the plot, they also intensify the pathos that comes to later define Paul’s character. That the boy should grow up in the dismal surroundings of his neighborhood with its stark greys and blues, and his school with its “bare floors” and “naked walls” is depicted very effectively as quite horrific.

Even to someone who does not have Paul’s sensitive aesthetic perception cannot help but feel a little stifled by these descriptions of his surroundings. These are then contrasted with the opulence of the theatre and the New York hotel. For instance: Here and there on the corners were stands, with whole flower gardens blooming under glass cases, against the sides of which the snowflakes stuck and melted; violets, roses, carnations, lilies of the valley–somehow vastly more lovely and alluring that they blossomed thus unnaturally in the snow.

The Park itself was a wonderful stage winterpiece (Paul’s Case 47). Even this short description of what Paul sees on his way to Fifth Avenue reveals how the narrator deliberately exoticizes this space. Words like “unnaturally” and “winterpiece” suggest an object of fantasy; as do the ideas of “gardens blooming under glass” and how everything was “somehow vastly more lovely” in this city. The world of luxury acquires a whole new tinge altogether because of Cather’s effective description of setting.

The same happens when the theater is described: “It would be difficult to put it strongly enough how convincingly the stage entrance of that theater was for Paul the actual portal of Romance” (Paul’s Case 31). The reader is automatically given subtle indicators that the real and the unreal for Paul are not very distinct and that he perceives things on an intense, almost fictionalized level. The gloom of the neighborhood in Pittsburgh is as exaggerated in his memory as the beauty he finds in New York. Cather’s use of symbols also enhances the reading of this story.

Throughout the story she builds up a system of images that prefigure certain things, reiterate others. The carnation, for instance, which appears first as an act of defiance against his teachers and becomes representative of their attitude in general towards him: one of complete incomprehension: “His bow was but a repetition of the scandalous red carnation” (Paul’s Case 7). The carnation in his button-hole stays with Paul through his misadventures, till their final, dismal conclusion: “The carnations in his coat were drooping with the cold, he noticed, their red glory all over (64).

The carnation becomes symbolic again of Paul himself: a brilliant red flower that does not quite fit against the dreary, grey backdrop of the “burghers. ” Sherry Crabtree summarizes it in her essay on “Paul’s Case” as: “Paul uses the red carnation as a visible symbol of his alienation from the world of Cordelia Street” (206). Symbols also prefigure Paul’s death at the end. His adventures seem to always border on the dangerous, and certain images keep reinforcing this idea till of course, it finally does end with Paul dying.

For instance, the narrator tells us how Paul’s father nearly shot him once when he tried sneaking into his house. Every static moment that Paul experiences where his sensory experiences are as delightfully satisfying as he would like them to be, there is a tinge of darkness: “He burnt like a faggot in a tempest” (Paul’s Case 48). There is a sense of transience, the sense that none of this will last for too long: “He spent more than an hour in dressing, watching every stage of his toilet carefully in the mirror” (46).

These symbols of time ending or danger lurking are embedded in the story and act as “prolepsis” when they prefigure the final, brutal end of the young boy. We see therefore that a closer analysis of just the characterization, setting and symbols alone can yield alternative conclusions, insights into the psychological profiles of the characters, observations on the larger thematic concerns of the story and so on. A close-text analysis of Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case” only reveals further layers of significance. Works Cited Crabtree, Sherry. “Cather’s ‘Paul’s Case. ‘. ” Explicator 58. 4 (Summer 2000): 206. Print.

Fleming, Bill. “Toward a Critical Reading of ‘Paul’s Case’. ” Sam Houston State University. n. d. Web. 5 Jun 2010. Hicks, Jennifer. “An overview of ‘Paul’s Case,’. ” Short Stories for Students. Detroit: Gale, 2002. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 5 June 2010. “‘Paul’s Case’ by Willa Cather. ” Sam Houston State University. n. d. Web. 5 Jun 2010. Saari, Rob. “‘Paul’s Case’: A Narcissistic Personality Disorder, 301. 81. ” Studies in Short Fiction 34. 3 (Summer 1997): 389. Print. Salda, Michael N. “What Really Happens in Cather’s ‘Paul’s Case? ‘. ” Studies in Short Fiction 29. 1 (Winter 1992): 113. Print.

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