Are we products of nature or of the way we are nurtured? Do our genes dictate who we will be, or is our environment responsible for that? Are we governed by our own free will, or does destiny mandate what will become of us? These are some of the many questions that plague humanity, the questions that give philosophers, sociologists, scientists, and writers material with which to work. Willa Cather, in her short story “Paul’s Case,” brings forth these questions with admirable skill but offers no clear resolution, as can be seen by the two primary types of interpretation her critics have given to the story.
According to Loretta Wasserman, in her book Willa Cather, the interpretations of “Paul’s Case” are divided according to how each individual critic answers the questions. Many see it as a story of a “sensitive, artistically inclined youth crushed by a withering environment, the dreary rigidities of Pittsburgh Presbyterianism and the physical ugliness of Paul’s home.” Others see it as a study of maladjustment or a pathological state.
It is worthwhile to note here that the time in which Cather lived greatly influenced her writing and her views of life. Born in the middle of the second Industrial Revolution, Cather grew up during a time when new scientific knowledge of physics and chemistry helped build gigantic new industries. The steel industry, in particular, centered in Pittsburgh, used Henry Bessemer’s new open-hearth process to create stronger, less expensive steel. His process helped to vastly increase production and profits, which necessitated larger factories, more workers and more machinery. In 1899, Andrew Carnegie created the massive Carnegie Steel Company in Pittsburgh by consolidating many of the local steel works. Only two years later, his company was worth half a billion dollars. However, Carnegie was also involved in the cultural side of life and contributed much money to the arts. He, like Cather, saw that the rapid progress of technology could potentially drown out the more aesthetic side of people, a problem he wished to avoid.
Cather dealt with this technological and aesthetic issue in “Paul’s Case,” which first appeared in her collection of stories called The Troll Garden in 1905. The story is set in Pittsburgh, and the glamorous lives of “iron kings” like Carnegie become a focal point for Paul’s aspirations. According to Cather’s obituary in the Pittsburgh SunTelegraph, it was based on the actual suicide of a high-school student in the Pittsburgh area where she lived. The name for the collection was borrowed from a text of Charles Kingsley, who wrote in his book The Roman and the Teuton that invading barbarians looked at Rome as “a fairy palace, with a fairy garden” inside which trolls dwelled. The stories in the collection deal with encounters in the art world and according to one critic are “implicitly equated with the compelling but treacherous troll garden.” Marilyn Arnold, a professor of English at Brigham Young University, helps explain the relation of the troll garden to “Paul’s Case.” She writes in an essay in Harold Bloom’s anthology Willa Cather:
“Paul is obviously the hungry forest child who is utterly helpless before the luscious appeal of the garden, represented for him in the trappings of wealth and in his adolescent perception of the artist’s world. For Paul there is no reasoned choice, no weighing of alternatives and consequences, no will to resist; for him there is only ugliness and the garden, and he must have the garden.”
Cather later reprinted a revised version of the story in 1920 in another collection called Youth and the Bright Medusa. Again Cather focuses on a vision of youth, but to Cather, given the title of this collection, the vision must have been a horrifying one. Medusa, of Greek mythology, is one of three Gorgons, monsters with golden wings, brass claws, and hair of live snakes who turned to stone those who looked at them. One can assume, then, since Cather created the collections herself, that in her mind, “Paul’s Case” dealt with the fairy garden and its treacheries as well as the aspirations of a young man involved in the world of the arts.
In the first part of the story, we meet Paul through the perceptions of his teachers, his behaviors at school, his position as an usher at Carnegie Hall, and his friendship with members of a stock theater company. We learn that at school Paul is perceived as “contemptuous and irritating” and insolent. However, his drawing teacher sees that “there is something wrong” and “sort of haunted” about Paul. His mannerisms at school, from his avoidance of being touched to his “dandy” dressing and his ” scandalous red carnation,” paint for us a picture of a boy who does not quite fit in to the mold that is expected. In the music hall, again we see that he is not quite the same as the others. He “teased and plagued the boys until, telling him that he was crazy, they put him down on the floor and sat on him.” Even with Charley Edwards, Paul’s young actor acquaintance, we see that Paul does not fit a mold. Charley allows Paul entrance to the theater in part because he recognizes a”vocation” in him, but also because he cannot afford his own dresser. So here, Paul is perceived as having the theater in his blood, but also as having some use to those who have already toiled to make real what is in their blood.
Cather gives Paul no redeeming quality in these first pages. We see his willingness to tell lies at school and to his father. We see his disdain for his neighborhood and his neighbors; we know he feels that all but him and those in his “garden” world are “stupid and ugly.” Yet, with all this, we still find ourselves drawn to Paul. We understand his fervent desire to be part of the “fairy world of a Christmas pantomime” where he “felt a sudden zest of life.” We understand that he does not want to feel “destined always to shiver in the black night outside, looking up at it.” In fact, we feel compassion when he spends the night in the basement. We can empathize with his fear of rats and understand his desperate loneliness when he wonders whether his father could view Paul as a burglar so as to kill him.
Cather draws us into Paul’s fantasy world. When he sits on the “lowest step of his stoop” he listens to another young man speak with his father. They are talking of the young man’s boss, apparently one of the “iron kings.” The talk of “palaces in Venice, yachts on the Mediterranean, and high play at Monte Carlo appealed to his fancy.” We share in the excitement Paul feels as the orchestra tunes up and his feeling of its “being impossible to give up this delicious excitement.”
Cather contrasts Paul’s two views of his world. He is drawn to “the exotic, tropical world of shiny glistening surfaces” and will, as he later demonstrates, do anything to avoid “the flavorless, colorless mass of everyday existence.” Although the narrator explains that Paul lives on “highly respectable” Cordelia street, we are also given Paul’s own view of his home. He has a “cold bathroom with [a] grimy zinc tub” and over his bed hang “the pictures of George Washington and John Calvin, and the framed motto, ‘Feed my Lambs,’ which had been worked.. .by his mother.” Critic David Carpenter suggests that Cather puts these pictures on Paul’s wall to emphasize that “the uncreative, superficial and life-destroying values perpetuated in the homes of Pittsburgh are essentially American values.” When we look at this view, we might then begin to assume that Cather is siding with the environmental influences on our lives. Wasserman also explains how the embroidered hanging done by Paul’s mother “symbolizes his poignant longing for love” that is as absent in his life as his mother is.
There is also a resemblance to Cather’s own life in the story that makes the reader aware that such an assumption may have some validity. Edward Brown and Leon Edel write in Willa Cather: A Critical Biography that “the dichotomy of Pittsburgh” provided what was to Cather “the breath of life”: “out of its ugliness and slums, its industrial smoke and flame sprang the beautiful things.” They continue to explain that Cather became enamored of the Pittsburgh stock company, where she forged a lasting relationship with one of the actresses in ways quite like Paul’s and Charley’s. They further illuminate the similarities when they say Cather painted the neighborhood where Paul lives with the “petty-bourgeois dreariness that Willa Cather had resented during her years of boarding-house living.” Professor Dorothy Van Ghent, in an essay included in Bloom’s anthology, adds further credence to the assumption that Cather may side with the concept of environmental influence. She writes that Paul is a “young, artistically or merely sensitively gifted person . . . whose inchoate aspiration is offered no imago by the environment, and no direction in which to develop except a blindly accidental one.”
However, David A. Carpenter points out in his American Literature essay that Cather made great use of irony in the story, and unless a reader is watchful for the irony, the easily drawn assumptions could be erroneous. In literature irony often comes in the form of sarcasm. For instance, in a passage describing Paul’s romantic response to the theater, the narrator remarks that “the moment the cracked orchestra beat out the overture… or jerked at the serenade .. . all stupid and ugly things slid away from him.” Dramatic irony, also evident in “Paul’s Case,” comes from a character saying something that will have a hidden meaning to the readers, a meaning he himself does not realize. Carpenter uses the scene where Paul sits alone in the Waldorf’s dining room to explain this. Paul looks around at the splendor of the room and wonders, “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 He rather thought he had.” Clearly, the readers know that Paul has not always lived in the Waldorf. Yet Paul is so entranced in his fairy world that he believes it is where he has always been, and that is why he feels so at peace with himself, because he need tell no more lies. What is very ironic here is that Paul is now living a lie, not just telling one.
However, even as Carpenter vacillates between whether Cather is espousing environment or heredity as deciding factors, Arnold comes down clearly on the side of psychological defect and heredity when she writes:
“Cather portrays in Paul a being who is alienated by more than environment and lack of human contact and understanding… [other Cather characters] could all have been saved by altered environmental circumstances and human caring, but not Paul. He thinks an environmental change is all he needs, but he is wrong.”
She further states that Cather “makes it clear that not only is Paul not an artist, but his perception of the artist’s life and the artist’s glittering world is miles from the truth.” In the words of the actors, his is “a bad case.”
We need to remember, though, that Paul is an adolescent. Wanting a life different from the one we are born into is a large part of adolescent longing. Denying the obvious, such as that it is necessary to work to achieve one’s dreams, is a denial we have all made at one time. Believing that all we need to become the real person we are is a change in environment is also a feeling many of us have encountered. So, then, perhaps “Paul’s Case” really is a case study—one in which a confused and troubled young man with genes that require excitement actually benefits from a change in environment.
Jennifer Hicks, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Willa Cather, Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.