Paul's Case | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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Paul's Case | Context


Realism in American Literature

The tradition of realism in literature, which can be dated back to early 19th-century France, continued as a movement through the early 20th century. In American literature, realism became a prominent movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many well-known American authors from this time period wrote in the realist style, including Mark Twain (1835–1910), Henry James (1843–1916), and Willa Cather. Realism is a style of writing or art that tries to accurately reproduce reality, as opposed to the focus on beauty and drama that can be found in 19th-century Romantic works. Realism emerged in the arts during a time of growing interest in scientific method and rationalism, reflecting a general shift away from Romanticism.

A characteristic of realism in American literature is an emphasis on the depiction of reality rather than the unfolding of the plot. Realism also focuses more on the motives and personalities of complex characters rather than narrative plot. Many writers of literary realism delve into the complexity of human nature, using their characters as a vehicle for this exploration. Additionally, realism often focuses on the issues of the middle class, and many of the writers in this style were from middle-class backgrounds themselves.

Willa Cather fits firmly into the literary realist style, writing stories based on her own experiences of people and places. She is avidly interested in character development, and her writing is often characterized by a mixture of complex character studies and vivid sensory details. "Paul's Case" fulfills many of the most prominent characteristics of American literary realism. The story is a study of Paul's character and his temperament, as the subtitle "A Study in Temperament" openly states. The focus of the narrative is less on plot movement and more on the exploration of Paul's nature in action. Paul is from a lower middle-class background, and he longs for a life of wealth and glamour. "Paul's Case" could be considered an analogy for the literary shift from Romanticism to realism. Paul is a pure Romantic in a world that no longer values Romanticism, and his obsession with glamour and his aversion to the grittiness of reality eventually lead to his death. This is perhaps a reference to society's shift away from a Romantic approach to literature and art toward industrialization and an increased focus on rational philosophy and science.

Pittsburgh at the End of the 19th Century

The late 19th century in Pittsburgh was characterized by a dramatic upswing in manufacturing and industrialization. The expansion of the railroad and the abundance of coal in the surrounding area brought significant economic growth to the city of Pittsburgh. A town with multiple navigable rivers, Pittsburgh was an important departure point for people and goods heading to the American West. The combination of these factors led to a boom in development in the latter years of the 19th century through the beginning of the next.

Against this backdrop the middle class boomed, but not always with a hope of workplace advancement. With the rise of large department stores and offices, a demand grew for white-collar middle-class workers such as clerks, secretaries, and bank tellers. These positions paid very little and had limited opportunity for promotion or increase in wages. Though the middle class grew significantly as a result of a need for white-collar workers, these jobs were often just another type of tedious drudgery. The increase in the middle class throughout the late 19th century led to a more prominent class separation. Many middle-class communities established better, and more insulated, neighborhoods, leaving the lower-class communities behind. This is the Pittsburgh of Cather, who was a working woman surviving on her earnings as a writer in this era. It also serves as the setting for her story "Paul's Case," a story of a young man who feels suffocated by the tedium of his lower—even gritty—middle-class life and expectations.

What Is "Paul's Case"?

The exact nature of Paul's "case" is a question that haunts Cather's narrative. Is Paul simply a troubled young man who makes a series of bad decisions, or does he suffer from some deeper personality disorder? Is he an analogy for Romanticism, or is he a young gay man struggling against the repression of a society that doesn't accept his sexual orientation? Paul's character could be examined through any of these lenses, though critics struggle to agree on Cather's actual intent.

In many ways Paul seems to be a poster child for narcissistic personality disorder. This type of personality disorder can be described as a condition in which a person has an overinflated sense of self-importance. People with narcissistic personality disorder often feel superior to other people and set themselves apart from much of society as a result. A common symptom of this disorder is a fixation with beauty or wealth. Paul displays hints of all of these symptoms. He is obsessed with beauty and glamour to the point of being unable to live in the "real" world. Paul also sets himself apart from his middle-class community, feeling superior to his classmates and teachers. Contradictorily, although Paul has no actual talents or achievements to speak of, he somehow feels that he is better than his lower-middle-class roots.

The argument has also been made that Paul is gay. In this interpretation, the story of Paul's attraction to beauty and eventual downfall are rooted in the idea that Paul is a misunderstood young man living in a society that refuses to accept him. Other critics who interpret Paul's character as gay see in him a reference to the Irish writer Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), who was jailed for homosexuality a few years before Cather wrote her story. Cather openly condemned Wilde in the period after his conviction, and Paul's character has some overlap with Wilde's case. Wilde is closely associated with the aestheticism and decadent literary movements, whose adherents believed art should be created for no other purpose than beauty and pleasure. Wilde is also associated with Romanticism, expressly dedicating himself to Romantic poet John Keats's (1795–1821) famous principle of beauty: "Beauty is truth; truth beauty." Cather criticized Wilde's writing as being "false" and "insincere," qualities that are abhorrent to an adamant realist. In fact, Wilde was known for wearing a carnation in his buttonhole just as Paul does in Cather's story. These overlaps make a case for the connection between Paul's character and Wilde himself. This reading makes Paul's character less tragic or symbolic and, instead, creates a narrative about a shallow and self-absorbed young man who wrongly values false beauty in a way that the famous figure Oscar Wilde did. But equally, if Cather, whose own sexual orientation remains a mystery, may have sympathized with Wilde's humiliation and the tragic end to his short life, Paul may take on larger and more positive aspects, even if not stated outright.

Paul's character can also be examined as a representation of Romanticism. In the industrial setting of Pittsburgh, he is a remnant of a Romantic tradition that has become irrelevant. Paul's fragility and his powerful draw to music, art, and beauty spell out his doom amid the mundane reality of middle-class Pittsburgh. Paul can be interpreted as the epitome of the Romantic character, longing for a world of beauty and romance beyond a stark and depressing reality. Like the type of Romantic that he represents, Paul desires the impossible. He does not possess the ability to live a life of endless drudgery amid the drab backdrop of the city. In this interpretation of Paul's character, he is not a morally dubious young man with a personality disorder; instead, he is the Romantic victim of a harsh and callous world.

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