Also let me say that every time I read something from Willa Cather, my estimation of her as a writer rises. She ranks in the upper echelon of American writers. If you wish to read one of the great American novels, read Cather’s My Ántonia.
“Paul’s Case,” which has its own Wikipedia site, is a story about a disaffected adolescent, Paul, living in Pittsburg with an overbearing father in a dourly, conventional neighborhood, who dreams of exotic travel and whimsical experiences. One day he steals a substantial amount of money from his father’s account and runs away to New York City where he spends about a week enjoying the freedom, until it seems he’s going to be found. It should be noted that in some editions (though not mine) the story is subtitled, “A Study in Temperament.” The structure of the story is of two halves, Paul’s life in Pittsburg and his week in New York. Indeed, much of the story suggests polar contrasts, so much so that one can state that the aesthetic, organizing principle of story is that of duality.
The opening scene provides much insight into Paul’s temperament. It’s the longest scene in the story and worthy of close examination. Paul is facing the Principal at his high school in order to be readmitted after apparently being expelled.
It was Paul's afternoon to appear before the faculty of the Pittsburgh High School to account for his various misdemeanors. He had been suspended a week ago, and his father had called at the Principal's office and confessed his perplexity about his son. Paul entered the faculty room suave and smiling. His clothes were a trifle outgrown, and the tan velvet on the collar of his open overcoat was frayed and worn; but for all that there was something of the dandy about him, and he wore an opal pin in his neatly knotted black four-in-hand, and a red carnation in his buttonhole. This latter adornment the faculty somehow felt was not properly significant of the contrite spirit befitting a boy under the ban of suspension.
To be “suave and smiling” and “something of a dandy” after being expelled, to display an “opal pin” and a “red carnation” as a high school student suggests something eccentric about him, perhaps even bombastic.
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. His teachers were asked to state their respective charges against him, which they did with such a rancor and aggrievedness as evinced that this was not a usual case. Disorder and impertinence were among the offenses named, yet each of his instructors felt that it was scarcely possible to put into words the real cause of the trouble, which lay in a sort of hysterically defiant manner of the boy's; in the contempt which they all knew he felt for them, and which he seemingly made not the least effort to conceal. 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. The astonished woman could scarcely have been more hurt and embarrassed had he struck at her. The insult was so involuntary and definitely personal as to be unforgettable. in one way and another he had made all his teachers, men and women alike, conscious of the same feeling of physical aversion. In one class he habitually sat with his hand shading his eyes; in another he always looked out of the window during the recitation; in another he made a running commentary on the lecture, with humorous intention.
“Disorder,” “impertinence,” defiant” are the adjectives used to describe Paul, but it goes further. The lie, which apparently is frequent and which will multiply as the story moves along, and the reflexive flinching away from the teacher’s hand suggest a subversive nature, not subversive in the sense of undermining authority, but subversive in the sense of not being in sympathy with an established order. It’s as if the boy lives in a different plane of reality.
As the inquisition proceeded one of his instructors repeated an impertinent remark of the boy's, and the Principal asked him whether he thought that a courteous speech to have made a woman. Paul shrugged his shoulders slightly and his eyebrows twitched.
"I don't know," he replied. "I didn't mean to be polite or impolite, either. I guess it's a sort of way I have of saying things regardless."
Paul is not deliberately fighting authority. It’s that the authority doesn’t fit with his mode of being. There is a disconnect, and the teachers can’t seem to figure him out.
His teachers were in despair, and his drawing master voiced the feeling of them all when he declared there was something about the boy which none of them understood. He added: "I don't really believe that smile of his comes altogether from insolence; there's something sort of haunted about it. The boy is not strong, for one thing. I happen to know that he was born in Colorado, only a few months before his mother died out there of a long illness. There is something wrong about the fellow."
The drawing master had come to realize that, in looking at Paul, one saw only his white teeth and the forced animation of his eyes. One warm afternoon the boy had gone to sleep at his drawing board, and his master had noted with amazement what a white, blue-veined face it was; drawn and wrinkled like an old man's about the eyes, the lips twitching even in his sleep, and stiff with a nervous tension that drew them back from his teeth.
And so we now get a fuller portrait of the boy, one who has lost his mother in infancy, a boy who has a “haunted” smile, “with forced animation of his eyes.” And then in contrast with the boyish persona, he also exhibits the very opposite, the “blue-veined,” “wrinkled” face of an old man. The polarity is striking.
The disparity between the boyish image and that of the wrinkled old man is startling. But Paul’s character has extremes. Following the scene at the Principal’s office, we see Paul off to his after school job, not some sort business or industrial job as one might expect in what at the time was the center of the steel industry, but an usher at a concert hall.
As for Paul, he ran down the hill whistling the "Soldiers' Chorus" from Faust, looking wildly behind him now and then to see whether some of his teachers were not there to writhe under his lightheartedness. As it was now late in the afternoon and Paul was on duty that evening as usher at Carnegie Hall, he decided that he would not go home to supper. When he reached the concert hall the doors were not yet open and, as it was chilly outside, he decided to go up into the picture gallery--always deserted at this hour--where there were some of Raffelli's gay studies of Paris streets and an airy blue Venetian scene or two that always exhilarated him. He was delighted to find no one in the gallery but the old guard, who sat in one corner, a newspaper on his knee, a black patch over one eye and the other closed. Paul possessed himself of the peace and walked confidently up and down, whistling under his breath. After a while he sat down before a blue Rico and lost himself. When he bethought him to look at his watch, it was after seven o'clock, and he rose with a start and ran downstairs, making a face at Augustus, peering out from the cast room, and an evil gesture at the Venus de Milo as he passed her on the stairway.
The boy who hated school whistles a stirring chorus from the opera Faust, which perhaps is an allusion that has significance here since the opera is about characters who are outcasts. Interestingly Paul is exhilarated by the art in the hall, and yet rebuffs the classical statues of Augustus Caesar and Venus de Milo. The opera and the paintings (Rico is apparently the artist) come from the Romantic tradition, which associate Paul to a freeing motif, while the classical art suggests an authoritative tradition, in one sense, a reduction of freedom. Later we see that Paul’s father keeps portraits of George Washington and John Calvin in the house, again figures that are authoritative and constraining.
In his element at the concert hall, Paul’s personality bursts out.
When Paul reached the ushers' dressing room half a dozen boys were there already, and he began excitedly to tumble into his uniform. It was one of the few that at all approached fitting, and Paul thought it very becoming-though he knew that the tight, straight coat accentuated his narrow chest, about which he was exceedingly sensitive. He was always considerably excited while be dressed, twanging all over to the tuning of the strings and the preliminary flourishes of the horns in the music room; but tonight he seemed quite beside himself, and he teased and plagued the boys until, telling him that he was crazy, they put him down on the floor and sat on him.
Sensitive, excited, even “crazy,” the other boys forcibly restrain him. Cather is understating the emotional height that Paul reaches. He is like the music that the instruments blare out, taunt and brassy.
When the symphony began Paul sank into one of the rear seats with a long sigh of relief, and lost himself as he had done before the Rico. It was not that symphonies, as such, meant anything in particular to Paul, but the first sigh of the instruments seemed to free some hilarious and potent spirit within him; something that struggled there like the genie in the bottle found by the Arab fisherman. He felt a sudden zest of life; the lights danced before his eyes and the concert hall blazed into unimaginable splendor. When the soprano soloist came on Paul forgot even the nastiness of his teacher's being there and gave himself up to the peculiar stimulus such personages always had for him. The soloist chanced to be a German woman, by no means in her first youth, and the mother of many children; but she wore an elaborate gown and a tiara, and above all she had that indefinable air of achievement, that world-shine upon her, which, in Paul's eyes, made her a veritable queen of Romance.
The music frees “some hilarious and potent spirit within him.” The hall is ablaze in “unimaginable splendor.” The German soprano—a mother figure to him?—becomes a “queen of Romance.” Paul is completely transported. The other plane of reality that Paul lives in has been released, and he is at the height of elation.
And then the concert is over.
After a concert was over Paul was always irritable and wretched until he got to sleep, and tonight he was even more than usually restless. He had the feeling of not being able to let down, of its being impossible to give up this delicious excitement which was the only thing that could be called living at all. During the last number he withdrew and, after hastily changing his clothes in the dressing room, slipped out to the side door where the soprano's carriage stood. Here he began pacing rapidly up and down the walk, waiting to see her come out.
The elation has dropped. He becomes engrossed with the soprano. When she comes out he follows her and her male friend in the rain and watches them go into a hotel.
A quick gust of wind brought the rain down with sudden vehemence, and Paul was startled to find that he was still outside in the slush of the gravel driveway; that his boots were letting in the water and his scanty overcoat was clinging wet about him; that the lights in front of the concert hall were out and that the rain was driving in sheets between him and the orange glow of the windows above him. There it was, what be wanted--tangibly before him, like the fairy world of a Christmas pantomime--but mocking spirits stood guard at the doors, and, as the rain beat in his face, Paul wondered whether he were destined always to shiver in the black night outside, looking up at it.
The rain projects his emotional state. His excitement is over, and by the time he reaches home his emotional state has plumbed to the other extreme.
Paul never went up Cordelia Street without a shudder of loathing. His home was next to the house of the Cumberland minister. He approached it tonight with the nerveless sense of defeat, the hopeless feeling of sinking back forever into ugliness and commonness that he had always had when he came home. The moment he turned into Cordelia Street he felt the waters close above his head. After each of these orgies of living he experienced all the physical depression which follows a debauch; the loathing of respectable beds, of common food, of a house penetrated by kitchen odors; a shuddering repulsion for the flavorless, colorless mass of everyday existence; a morbid desire for cool things and soft lights and fresh flowers.
From an emotional high, he has dropped to depression. Here again is the polarity, elation and despondency, a soul wanting to expand, but forced to contract. I don’t know whether Cather knew of the psychological disorder of bi-polar, but Paul seems to exhibit its tendencies. The story is a psychological study. Even the detail of Paul’s search for a mother figure suggests mental analysis by the author. Indeed, the title of the story “Paul’s Case” alludes to a psychological dossier, a case study of a strange boy who steals an exorbitant amount of money, runs away, and goes on to commit suicide. Cather is pushing us to ask why.
The story goes on. Paul steals the money and is off on a train to New York. In New York, he lies that his parents are trailing behind him and he’s able to book an expensive hotel room. He enjoys nights on the town. In a past blog of ‘Lines I Wished I’d Written,” I presented this wonderful scene of Paul on a carriage ride through the city during a snowstorm. Even in New York Paul experiences elations and despondencies. The bi-polar tendencies seems to follow him.
So why is Paul the way he is? Is it a mental illness? Bi-polarism only describes the behavior; it doesn’t describe the character, unless Cather intends to create Paul with mental illness, and there is no evidence of that. It’s as he sits down to eat alone at the dining room of the hotel when Cather gets to the heart of Paul’s nature.
He was not in the least abashed or lonely. He had no especial desire to meet or to know any of these people; all he demanded was the right to look on and conjecture, to watch the pageant. The mere stage properties were all he contended for. Nor was he lonely later in the evening, in his lodge at the Metropolitan. He was now entirely rid of his nervous misgivings, of his forced aggressiveness, of the imperative desire to show himself different from his surroundings. He felt now that his surroundings explained him. Nobody questioned the purple; he had only to wear it passively. He had only to glance down at his attire to reassure himself that here it would be impossible for anyone to humiliate him.
The heart of Paul’s nature is to live in that plane of reality he calls his own and for others to not think anything of it. He can do it in the anonymity of a huge city, a city that values the individual spirit.
So what of his suicide? To end a story with a suicide is, I have to say, rather easy. It’s overly easy, too neat. Sure it provides that closing cadence. But unless that closing cadence is well prepared, it rings discordant, at least to me. To have a suicide at the end, out of the blue, is to crash the story close.
Was the suicide unprepared? First, I don’t recall any suggestion in the story of Paul wanting to end his life. Sure, his emotional state drops low, but he always has a plan to go forward. He comes up with the idea of embezzling his father’s account. Cather could easily have ended with Paul living off the streets when his money runs out. He could have found a way to head across the country into the mountain west as some of Cather’s other characters do. There is no reason he had to throw himself in front of the train. The only rationale for such a conclusion is for Cather to say that Paul was after all mentally ill. He really did have a bi-polar condition, and all the suggestions of his emotional extremes build to that suicide. If you really want to read between the lines, then that’s a viable reading.
However, I don’t think so, not to my reading. The theme of his societal alienation overwhelms the motif of his mental tendencies. He is alienated not because he is mentally ill, but because he is different. The mental illness reading would dissipate the alienation theme, because he would be a sick person, not a different person. This calls to mind another story of a character who throws herself in front of a train, Anna Karenina from Tolstoy. I think Cather’s story owes something to Tolstoy’s novel. But in Tolstoy’s novel, Anna contemplates suicide before she actually commits it. She may have even attempted it once—I just can’t quite remember. It’s prepared. When she does it, it’s not a shock.
Nonetheless “Paul’s Case” is still a fine story. Cather gives it such fine touches, establishing motifs which reoccur to shape the story. I want to end with a passage just before Paul commits suicide. Here Cather pulls together the flower motif, which we first saw in his button hole at the Principal’s office. Here, he has been walking in the snow along the train tracks and stops to take a rest.
The carnations in his coat were drooping with the cold, he noticed, their red glory all over. It occurred to him that all the flowers he had seen in the glass cases that first night must have gone the same way, long before this. It was only one splendid breath they had, in spite of their brave mockery at the winter outside the glass; and it was a losing game in the end, it seemed, this revolt against the homilies by which the world is run. Paul took one of the blossoms carefully from his coat and scooped a little hole in the snow, where he covered it up. Then he dozed awhile, from his weak condition, seemingly insensible to the cold.
One last thing I must mention or I would be remiss. It has been suggested that this story reflects Willa Cather’s possible homosexuality. That Paul is a homosexual who can’t fit into the heterosexual world. That this story is a sublimated or cloaked expression of Cather not fitting into the world. Though it has never been proven that Willa Cather was homosexual, and despite the literary community endlessly conjecturing that every other writer was a closeted homosexual (Shakespeare and Herman Melville—not—come to mind), it is quite probably that Cather was homosexual. She never married and she did live with a woman friend for decades and she wore boyish haircuts throughout her life and she had an obsessed writing habit of writing from a male point of view. I believe she said she felt uncomfortable writing from a woman’s point of view. It’s probable she was, though she never acknowledged it. But she also wrote from a Christian sensibility, and from what I understand her politics were Conservative, so who knows.
Does it matter if this story was inspired from her possible alienation because of her sexuality? It’s an interesting thought, but it does nothing to understand the story. And there is nothing in the story to suggest that it’s a cloaked expression of homosexuality. We readers can only go by what’s written down. How the story comes about is the author’s privy. And he/she may not even know the why and where.