“Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather is, as the subtitle states,”a study in temperament.” The story chronicles a few months in the life of Paul, a student at Pittsburgh High School, who would rather be at the opera than in class.
Part I: Paul in Pittsburgh
The story begins with Paul’s faculty hearing one week after he has been suspended from school. Paul is smiling, and his accusers find his appearance—especially the red carnation in his lapel— “not properly significant of the contrite spirit befitting a boy under the ban of suspension.” The teachers, full of ill will, list disorder and impertinence as two of the charges against him, but they feel it”scarcely possible to put into words the real cause of the trouble.”
Paul is described as “suave,” having eyes with “a certain hysterical brilliancy,” shuddering from a teacher’s casual touch, and having a “contemptuous and irritating” habit of raising his eyebrows. Only his drawing master hints afterward that Paul’s behavior may not be what it appears, that perhaps his teachers do not understand the boy. At this point, the teachers share a feeling of dissatisfaction with the meeting and their own behavior, which they liken to that of petty bullies.
Cather introduces the importance of art into Paul’s life when he arrives early to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Hall, where he is an usher. First Paul revels in his solitude in the picture gallery. He dons his uniform “excitedly” before entering the hall to become a “gracious and smiling” model usher. Before seeing Paul in the world of art and music, the reader sees him as a twitchy, uncomfortable fellow. At Carnegie Hall Paul reveals a “vivacious and animated” persona freed by his surroundings and music.
After the concert Paul follows the German soloist, a woman with an “indefinable air of achievement,” to her hotel. He imagines himself part of her world, entering “an exotic, tropical world of shiny, glistening surfaces and basking ease.” Awakened from his daydream, he heads home to Cordelia Street, a perfectly respectable part of town that he views as ugly and common.
Because it is late, Paul decides not to enter the house and face his father’s displeasure. Instead he climbs through a window into the basement, where he sits awake all night fearing rats. He imagines his father mistaking him for a burglar, imagines himself warning his father in time to avoid being shot, and wonders whether his father would ever regret that warning.
On Sunday, the last Sunday in November, Paul and his father and sisters visit on their front steps, according to neighborhood custom. Paul’s father talks with a young clerk who works for one of the steel magnates and who he feels is a good model for Paul. Although the man had once needed to “curb his appetites,” he has settled down to marriage and a business career; he is “a young man with a future.” For Paul, all that really registers is the talk of faraway lands and success stories. That evening he sneaks to the theater under the guise of meeting a friend for help in math.
Paul lives for his weekends at Carnegie Hall and the theater, where he has a young actor friend named Charley Edwards who invites him to rehearsals and generally encourages his dreams. Yet the weekends also reinforce in him the thought that school is “trivial.” He has more problems at school, is sent again to the principal, and is removed from school. His father makes him give up his job at Carnegie Hall and begin working in the office of Denny & Carson.
Part II: Paul in New York
Next the story jumps to January, and Paul is on a train bound for New York City. When he arrives, he buys a new wardrobe and books a room at the Waldorf Hotel. He has planned this escape even before leaving school, Cather notes, and now he has “a curious sense of relief’ at being where he feels he belongs. Cather then explains the embezzling that afforded Paul his escape. He has stolen nearly one thousand dollars from a deposit he was to make for Denny & Carson.
As he begins to live the high life of his dreams, Paul shows no remorse for his theft. He sees this life as “what all the struggle was about” and wonders how any honest men exist. Paul lives richly, but inconspicuously, bearing himself with quiet dignity. It is as if he were made for the life he has chosen. He is happy watching the pageant, enjoying his flowers and his sense of power. He is released from “the necessity of petty lying, lying every day” and spends eight happy days before news of his theft appears in the Pittsburgh papers.
Paul learns that his father is coming to New York to find him. After spending a few moments vividly remembering the “gray monotony” of Cordelia Street, he gives the reader a moment of foreshadowing when he realizes that the “glare and glitter about him.. .had again, and for the last time, their old potency.” He decides to “finish the thing splendidly.” Briefly wondering whether he could have spent the time after his theft any differently, he decides that “he would do the same thing tomorrow” and that”he had lived the sort of life he was meant to live.” As he looks at his revolver, it becomes plain that he plans his suicide.
Paul leaves New York on a train and takes a cab west out of Newark, dismissing the driver once they get to the countryside. He walks awhile, noticing that his lapel carnations are “drooping with the cold.. .their red glory all over.” His own glory ends in an impact with a train as he remembers all he has not done—”the blue of Adriatic water, the yellow Algerian sands” that he has not seen.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.