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“Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather

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            One of the writers of great consequence during the first half of the 20th century, Willa Cather set the story in motion with the scene where Paul, the protagonist, is confronted with the likelihood of expulsion from the school he goes to. “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament” is a classic story of the many internal and external ordeals of a not-so-typical teenage boy struggling with the burden of having to break free from the norms of society, that eventually led to the boy’s tragic end.

Having been left motherless, Paul grew up without having to know affection and what it felt like to be cared for. His father was such an overbearing and overpowering figure in his life, causing Paul to live in perpetual fear of him. Paul was relentlessly being pushed to become like the neighbor that his father held in great esteem; a man who was considered to be the ideal husband and father and, as the clerk of one the magnates of a steel corporation, is regarded as a “man with a future”. This assessment, not to mention the daily tirade he gets from his father, pressuring him to come into the mould of another, further flags his already diminishing self image. Matters are not helped by the circumstances in which Paul finds himself in at school causing trouble not so much in a grand level, but in a way where he earns the hostility of his teachers. He offends them with his “disorder and impertinence”. One example from which this behavior of Paul’s can be observed is seen in the following passage:

“Once, when he had been making a synopsis of a paragraph at the blackboard, his English teacher had stepped to his side and attempted to guide his hand. Paul had started back with a shudder and thrust his hands violently behind him.”

This encounter clearly reflects his being unaccustomed in receiving attention of any kind, let alone guidance and care from an elder, where the readers find Paul shimmying away in a manner that is deeply insulting to his teachers. Looking through the whole incident in another perspective, it was perhaps one of Paul’s many armors; a shield to guard his vulnerability. He might have wrongly interpreted such unexpected gestures and took it to mean that his teachers find him inferior as compared to the other students. This rubs at his self esteem causing him to put his shield up and play the insolent part. The resulting antagonism between teachers and students must have instigated Paul to think of himself as an outsider and therefore decided to reciprocate what he thought his teachers thought of him; someone who isn’t worth their while.  All of his antics leave his teachers and his father in a state of perplexity at what they see as Paul’s “abnormal” behavior without stopping to think that he is just a misunderstood boy longing to be noticed and accepted.

In the story, Cather narrates, “When questioned by the Principal as to why he was there Paul stated, politely enough, that he wanted to come back to school. This was a lie, but Paul was quite accustomed to lying; found it, indeed, indispensable for overcoming friction”.  Owning the lie that “he wanted to come back to school”, he boldly faced his hostile teachers as well as the compassionate principal in his usual unflappable mask. Paul has done so out of mere necessity rather than an actual enthusiasm to go back to one of the many places that was an integral part of the superfluous reality where he felt he didn’t belong to. Over the years Paul has become a chronic liar, finding it much convenient in getting out of scrapes of all sorts. Lying, to others as well as to himself, was his escape from whatever demons he was hiding from. In the story, Paul was constantly having the feeling as if someone was watching him; an indication to be interpreted as if he was hiding something. He continually lied to avoid fearsome confrontations with his father; he lied to his fellow students about how he was closely acquainted with the actors in the theaters, providing “proof” of such account in the form of autographed pictures from the actors in question. This was a desperate attempt on Paul’s part to release himself from the stigma of conforming to a society that he thought he never wanted to be part of. He tried to prove that he was different from everybody and acted as if his presence was a mere favor on his part. The irony is that the more he tried to break free from the mould, the more his need for acceptance becomes evident.

            Paul’s passion for beautiful things is evident throughout the story; spending time staring at paintings in a gallery, is appreciation of flowers and his careful selection of his clothing. Working as an usher in Carnegie Hall, immersed in the glamour of music and the lifestyles of the wealthy, Paul comes alive, and where the rest of his life, as the author wrote, was “a sleeping and a forgetting”.  Paul thought of the theater as his own sanctuary where the “real” Paul would come alive without the slightest restriction and reprimand from society. Here, he felt as if being released from a prolonged strangulation and allowed deeply gratifying breaths of fresh air.  He is truly convinced that “there”, along with his kind of people was where he belonged. Unfortunately, no one was rooting for him to fulfill his dreams, deigning him to be a boy of perverse imaginations. In comparison to its irresistible charm, returning home after every shift had never been so unappealing to a deeply impressionable boy. His delusions, unfulfilled dreams, as well as the lack of moral support from his family and his elders, were the reasons why he was finally removed from school by his father and forced to work in a company. This only strengthened his resolution to escape to a life he thought he was meant to live.

            The story develops in such a way that a better understanding of Paul’s character is revealed when Paul flees to New York with money stolen from the company he worked at. Albeit an extremist, Paul is not really the “abnormal” boy they made him out to be but one with solid dreams and ambitions. Although admittedly his methods were unorthodox not to mention morally and lawfully wrong, he demonstrates fervor and an extreme determination in attaining those dreams. For a few days, Paul was able bask in the grandeur that the money he had stolen could buy, acquiring the best wardrobe, the best meals and the finest hotel accommodations. For a few days, he was able to show his true self without the world bearing upon him with reprimands and criticism.

            As all good things eventually come to an end, the end came for Paul’s “alternate” reality came when he read of his crime and his father’s search of him in the newspaper. Knowing that it was only a matter of time before he was found and forced to return to the dreariness of his home, Paul decides to end his life; not by the revolver he bought but by jumping in front of the train. It is essential to note a passage at the end of the story: “As he fell, the folly of his haste occurred to him with merciless clearness, the vastness of what he had left undone”.

There are times when the end is but on the horizon, certain things, questions unanswered and muddled thoughts, come to a person with such clarity that is frightening but for the fact that you have just a split second for dwelling on it, and the threat of the fear grabbing hold of  you never comes after that. Paul knew. He realized his mistakes at that exact moment. It brings into focus Paul’s hastiness in acquiring the acceptance he desires and paying for it with his life. On the other hand, numerous people can sense a connection with Paul’s character. Whether they admit it or not, the need for acceptance is an innate part of their being and like Paul they go through certain lengths to be acknowledged. It is just a matter of gauging to what extent they are willing to devote themselves for its attainment.

Works Cited

Cather, Willa. “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament.” American Literature. Ed. William E.
Cain. Vol. 2. New York: Penguin Academics, 2004

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