Paul's Case | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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Paul's Case | Themes


Romanticism versus Reality

In "Paul's Case" Willa Cather displays the gritty literary realism that she is known for. Her protagonist is repulsed by the reality of middle-class Pittsburgh and turns to Romanticism as a method of escape. Though a lover of art and literature herself, Cather eschewed the Romantic tradition of the 19th century in favor of a more realistic portrayal of contemporary life. In her narrative Paul's character is trapped between the Romantic world in his imagination and the reality of his middle-class city life. This tension seems unbearable to Paul, who longs to dissolve the reality of Cordelia Street (where he lives with his father and sisters) into the glamour of his Romantic ideals. Paul's dismissal of the real world and its necessities becomes obsessive. He cannot even bear to look at things he considers ugly or mundane, such as the wallpaper of his room or his schoolmates. Instead of trying to find a way to reconcile the real world with romance and beauty, Paul completely eschews the real world. This way of living is untenable, as Paul demonstrates at the story's end. There is no way to live a full and meaningful life in a fantasy world, ignoring what is actually required for daily living and human relationships.

Paul not only chooses to ignore anything of substance—he fails to see the reality underlying all of the art and beauty he holds so dear. Paul is attracted to the flame of music and art and theater, which sweep him up in feelings of excitement and longing. However, he completely ignores or is unaware of the work and difficulty that go into making real art. When Paul's father approaches the theater company to inform them that Paul is no longer allowed in the theater, the actors are surprised to learn of the depth of Paul's illusions about their work. The women in the company are described as "hard-working" who "[support] indigent husbands or brothers." They laugh when they hear of Paul's fantasies about them and their work in the theater. The fact that Paul spends so much time in the theater and yet clearly never had a real conversation with anyone about their profession indicates that he is uninterested in the reality of their art.

It is this lack of depth that plays a role in Paul's doom. He does not have the ability to perceive more substance than surface-level glamour. Paul does not allow himself to think deeply about his own nature or his place in the world. Instead, he tries to lose himself in beauty, rather like an addict might lose themselves in alcohol or drugs. Many people work to live balanced lives by integrating beauty and romance with the reality of everyday living. Paul never seems to consider this balance. Instead, he approaches these two aspects of life in a polarized way. He abhors all things gritty and real, worshipping beauty and romance only in their shallowest forms.

The Transience of Beauty

Paul only values transient things. He is caught up in that transience and superimposes it onto his own life. Paul finds excitement and value in a red carnation, cut flowers under glass, and in theater and music. All of these things are ephemeral by nature. They provide only a fleeting experience. Paul's attraction to transient beauty in the world foreshadows his own doom because he cannot imagine a way of living that does not involve indulging in luxury rather than experiencing reality. This is not a sustainable way to live, eventually leading Paul to see no way for his life to continue.

Additionally, Paul entertains a Romantic fantasy about the transience of his own life, thus making it more like the beautiful but transient things he most admires. As he waits in the snow for the train to come, Paul thinks back on the cut flowers he saw in a glass case in New York. Paul's thoughts about those flowers reflect his attitude toward his own life. He muses that their time in the case is the "one splendid breath they had, in spite of their brave mockery at the winter outside the glass." Waiting for the train to come, Paul frames his own life like that of the flowers. His splendid breath was his escape to New York, in which he "bravely mocked" the drudgery of everyone's lives back home on Cordelia Street. Now that he has had his "one splendid breath," Paul cannot conceive of any option but to pass out of the world entirely.

Troubled Youth, or Personality Disorder?

"Paul's Case" presents the story of a young man who struggles with deeply rooted psychological issues. Though Paul's character is developed over the course of the narrative, the source of his fixations and inner darkness is never revealed. On one level Paul appears to be a teenaged boy with some overly exaggerated Romantic ideas about life. Though he is presented as an unusual case, many of Paul's thoughts and passions are not so different from many people his age. He longs for a life of beauty and wealth, romanticizes transience, and shows a disregard for the adults in his life. Paul views the adult world as a drab and depressing version of reality. He shows a level of naivety in his assumption that the lives of actors and musicians are glamorous, conflating their stage presence with their real lives. These qualities and thought processes are shared by many adolescents.

However, Cather portrays Paul as a young man whose darkness and disorders are more profound than the normal inner turmoil of a passionate youth. There is a "hysterical brilliancy" in his eyes, and Paul's interest in beauty and disdain for anything ordinary moves into the realm of obsession. Paul's teachers allude to trouble stemming from his mother's death, and Paul notes that he has done some dark deeds in his past. These hints create a sense of an almost pathological flaw at the heart of Paul's personality.

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