Paul's Case | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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Paul's Case | Quotes


His eyes were remarkable for a certain hysterical brilliancy, and he continually used them in a conscious, theatrical sort of way.


The narrator describes Paul's eyes, and this description is also what Paul's teachers seem to see. Immediately, this passage communicates to the reader that there is something more to Paul than the usual teenage troublemaker. The narrator notes that his pupils have the look of someone "addicted to belladonna." Belladonna is a poisonous plant that was used as a sedative and also taken by women in Renaissance Italy in order to make their pupils larger.

The implication is that Paul gives off the sense of an addict, but what he is really addicted to is superficial beauty. The "theatrical" look in Paul's eyes is a reference to Paul's Romanticism and desire to project an exciting and appealing face to the world.


In one way and another he had made all his teachers, men and women alike, conscious of the same feeling of physical aversion.


Paul shudders away from the touch of his teachers, and the teachers take this as a personal affront. However, never once in the narrative does Paul seem to enjoy or seek out the touch of another human being. This is partly because of the distance he places between himself and other people and perhaps is also a symptom of narcissistic personality disorder. Paul has no close friends and is not affectionate with his family, living in an isolated fantasy world.


This conscious expression, since it was as far as possible from boyish mirthfulness, was usually attributed to insolence or 'smartness.'


This passage describes Paul's smile, which is never associated with laughter or happiness. To the adults in Paul's life, the smile is a sign of his defiant and mocking attitude. For Paul, his smile is part of a mask that he shows the world. Whenever he is around people, Paul's strained smile gives the impression that he is somehow set apart from others. It is as if Paul is always trying to look like he is in on a joke that no one else understands.


Looking wildly behind him, now and then, to see whether some of his teachers were not there to writhe under his light-heartedness.


This description of Paul's behavior is a continuation of his use of a smile as a mask. He tries to look lighthearted and uncaring in order to make his teachers uncomfortable. Paul neither respects nor admires his teachers and finds opportunities to show them that he considers himself above them.


It was at the theatre and at Carnegie Hall that Paul really lived; the rest was but a sleep and a forgetting.


This quote epitomizes Paul's relationship with art versus his relationship with what he feels is the drudgery of his daily life. Paul becomes alive when he experiences beauty through theater or music. Paul gravitates toward experiences of beauty that require little work from him. He does not enjoy reading or making any art himself.


A certain element of artificiality seemed to him necessary in beauty.


Paul associates "the natural" world and realism with ugliness. In the artifice of theater, where people are dressed in costume and stories are confined to the stage, Paul finds beauty. This reference to artificiality is significant, because Paul's sense of beauty seems confined to the artificial—the cut flowers in a case in winter, the romantic stories of the stage, and so on.


What he wanted was to see, to be in the atmosphere, float on the wave of it, to be carried out ... away from everything.


Paul is utterly uninterested in participating in the art that he is obsessed with. He has no desire to create art and seems naive about the hard work that goes into its creation. Instead, Paul is addicted to the experience of beauty. He wants "to be carried" away on that beauty. This quote says a lot about Paul's relationship to the arts and the world around him. He loathes his middle-class existence, but instead of being motivated to create a real escape for himself, he takes the faster route of easy fantasy. He uses theater and music as escapism; his interest in and understanding of these crafts are only surface-level.


When they had shut him out of the theatre and concert hall ... the whole thing was virtually determined.


Paul feels he could have subsisted on his escapes to the theater and the music hall. The rest of his dreary life is offset by his experiences of beauty in those places. However, when he is forbidden those outlets, Paul feels that he is forced into a corner. The only option left to him is to escape by any means possible. In this case, those means are the theft of a large amount of money in order to run away to New York.


He could not remember the time when he had not been dreading something.


Paul finds freedom from a persistent source of dread when he runs away to New York and leaves his dull Pittsburgh life behind. This dread is nameless, and Paul doesn't identify its source. Paul recounts feeling this dread as a shadow from the time he was a child. He describes a feeling of being watched even as he did "things that were not pretty to watch." This passage hints at a darkness in Paul's past, both in terms of his own actions and possibly trauma or experiences out of his control.


How astonishingly easy it had all been; here he was, the thing done, and this time there would be no awakening.


This passage refers back to Paul's feeling of sleeping and waking when transitioning between his experiences of beauty in the theater and the drudgery of the rest of his life. However, in this case the awakening refers to waking into his mundane life from a dream of beauty. In this quote Paul indicates that he has no plan to return to his previous life. Though he thinks this with a sense of relief, there is a foreshadowing of his doom embedded in the quote as well. For Paul, there really will be no awakening after his choice to run away to New York. He chooses death instead of the return to his previous life.


The plot of all dramas, the text of all romances, the nerve-stuff of all sensations was whirling about him like the snow-flakes.


Paul is living his fantasy in his escape to New York. He dresses how he always imagined he would, takes carriage rides, and stays in a fancy hotel. In this moment Paul feels that he is surrounded by the romantic life he always dreamed of. Strangely, Paul isn't taking part in any story line, though he thinks of himself in the midst of "the plot of all dramas." Paul is caught up in what he imagines is unfolding in the lives of others around him. As always, Paul remains isolated and separate from any actual story. He gets his thrill from imagining stories and riding the wave of those imagined experiences.


He drummed a nervous accompaniment to the Pagliacci music and looked about him, telling himself over and over that it had paid.


Paul is beginning to realize the end of his fantasy is drawing to a close. Instead of being completely consumed by the fantasy world he created, Paul begins to feel reality creeping in. This gives Paul a feeling of nervousness and anxiety. He must convince himself that it was worth the cost, though the fact that the cost is Paul's life is not yet revealed.


Money was everything, the wall that stood between all he loathed and all he wanted.


At the end of his adventure, Paul's main takeaway is that money is the key to the life he longs for. Paul doesn't engage in any introspection or philosophical process. Instead, he sees only a material barrier between himself and his fantasy life. This moment indicates the depth of Paul's delusion. He thinks that he could live the glamorous life he longs for if only he had money. Paul fails to recognize the impossibility of existing in a world of pure Romantic beauty, thinking that this world is available to anyone with wealth.


He had looked into the dark corner at last and knew. It was bad enough, what he saw there, but somehow not so bad as his long fear of it had been.


Paul confronts what he thinks is the darkest part of himself. Probably this "dark corner" is also the sense of dread and the shadow that has been following him since childhood. Paul perhaps realizes that his life was always moving toward this moment and that there is something about him that cannot survive in the real world. This is the moment when Paul confronts his own death and makes the choice to end his life rather than go back to his existence on Cordelia Street.


As he fell, the folly of his haste occurred to him with merciless clearness, the vastness of what he had left undone.


In the final moments of Paul's life, he has a moment of regret at his choice to die. This moment gives the story a tragic edge because Paul only realizes the potential of his life once it is too late to turn back from his decision to commit suicide. Paul understands, in these few seconds, how many possibilities his life could have held.

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