“Paul’s Case” is a story about a young man who loves art and beautiful things so much that he steals money and goes to New York to live a life of opulence and grandeur. When his crime is discovered, Paul commits suicide rather than return to the dreary, middle-class life he escaped in Pittsburgh. The story’s major themes revolve around questions about Paul’s character. Was he driven to his fate by the destructive values of America, or is he morally corrupt, responsible for his actions? Is Paul, as his teachers, father, and friends agree, a “bad case,” an abnormal personality, or do the others have an overly narrow view of what is “normal”? Do the worlds of business and industry, represented by Cordelia Street, destroy appreciation of culture and aesthetics, or does Paul choose to live in a world of illusion, destroying his grip on reality? The
The American Dream is an underlying theme of the story. Paul’s father and the rest of Cordelia Street, a “perfectly respectable” middle-class neighborhood, believe in values of hard work, family and church. During their leisure time, they sit around swapping stories about their bosses, the “captains of industry” who worked themselves up from poverty to lead large corporations and live in luxury. Paul despises the monotonous lives led by Cordelia Street residents, who believe that if they work hard, they too might lead such glamorous lives. But Paul shares their same desire: to become rich and lead a life without worry. He too likes to listen to the “legends of the iron kings.” Disdaining the “cashboy stage,” Paul wants the “triumphs of the cash boys who became famous.”
Paul does manage to live a life of leisure and beauty, but not through hard work, and only for one week. Through lies and crime, he gains access to what he considers his real home, the New York City high life exemplified by the Waldorf Hotel. There, his “surroundings explained him.” In the lap of luxury, Paul realizes that “this was what all the struggle was about” and that “money was everything.” Willa Cather prompts her readers to consider whether the American dream of wealth might have corrupted Paul, fostering in him a love of materialism which leads to his ruin.
It is through deception that Paul achieves his dream, however briefly, and Cather leaves open the possibility that his achievement is itself a form of self-deception. At home, his lies to his father cover his trips to the theater, and his tall tales at school paint the life he wants to live. In New York, although he feels at peace, freed from “the necessity of petty lying,” he is living the biggest lie of his life: that he is a rich boy from Washington awaiting globe-trotting parents. He feels that “this time there would be no awakening,” which is either a delusion or a foreshadowing of his suicide.
Choices and Consequences
Related to the themes of the American Dream and Paul’s use of deceit to claim it is the question of free will. Is Paul a sensitive adolescent who is crushed by his environment, or is he a lying thief who refuses to take responsibility for his actions? In the last line of the story, Cather writes that Paul “dropped back into the immense design of things,” suggesting that his death was destined to happen. The portrait in Paul’s bedroom of theologian John Calvin, well known for his ideas on predestination, lends weight to this possibility. But Paul also seems to choose his fate: for example, he decides that, if he were to choose again, he would do the same thing. It is left to the reader to decide whether Paul had no choice but to escape Pittsburgh and life altogether, or whether his love for illusion and artificiality signals his own weaknesses.
For Paul, beauty is life, and beauty can only be found in illusions: “the natural nearly always wore the guise of ugliness, .. . a certain element of artificiality seemed to him necessary in beauty.” Paul feels alive and comfortable in art galleries, the theater, the symphony, the opera. Looking at paintings or listening to the opera, Paul”loses himself.” His identity dissolves and he merges with his surroundings. Art is a religion for Paul; the narrator describes the theater as his “secret temple.” In the story, beauty can be powerful, fascinating Paul and allowing him to feel free. It can be destructive as well, when it makes ordinary life seem “worse than jail.”
Caught up in his dreams of beauty and glamor, Paul is estranged from most of humanity. Cather shows his alienation in his discomfort around the people one might expect him to be most comfortable among—his family, neighbors, and fellow students. In the very first sequence, during his faculty hearing, Cather indicates this in the reference to how he shuddered away from his teacher’s guiding hand. His own street arouses his “loathing,” and when the neighbors gather for friendly chat on a Sunday afternoon, he sits alone on the bottom step, “staring into the street.” In class he makes much of his friends at the theater and cannot “bear to have the other pupils think” that he takes school at all seriously. He has only “contempt” for the humdrum world, in which he is convinced he does not belong. Only among strangers, the glittering parade of the wealthy in New York, does he truly feel at home, and even then he has “no especial desire to meet or to know any of these people.” Although he is among them, he is not really part of their society.
Limitations and Opportunities
Paul’s alienation grows out of the limitations he perceives as binding him. His father is focused on the business world and disapproves of Paul’s desires—”his only reason for allowing Paul to usher was that he thought a boy ought to be earning a little.” Paul has to lie to slip away to the theater, suggesting that if his father knew his real errand, he would have kept Paul home. When he reaches the theater, he breathes “like a prisoner set free.” Finally he is denied his cultural activities altogether, an event that he regards as an opportunity to escape and live the life he wants. When he learns that his father is coming to New York to bring him back to Pittsburgh, a fate “worse than jail,” he decides his only escape from such boundaries now is death.
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.