Paul’s Case, written by Willa Cather (1906) would seem to suggest that America’s relentless pursuit of the good life is apt to destroy young impressionable minds, making them yearn for things beyond their reach. Paul escapes into a dream world where he indulges his “morbid desire for cool things and soft lights and fresh flowers” because he finds the atmosphere of Cordelia Street repulsive to his sensitive nature. A close look at Paul’s character would show us this story is not just about a case of psychological disorder, but in fact one boy’s “revolt against the homilies by which the world is run”, a disturbing view of society by which we are forced to take a closer look upon ourselves.
First, we take a look at Paul’s character or personality. Paul appears on the surface to be a hopeless introvert: lonely, insecure, and averse to his physical surroundings. His teachers are outraged by his seeming insolence and defiance, although they acknowledge “there is something wrong with the fellow” and “something sort of haunted” about his smile, but nobody knows exactly how he feels. His drawing master suggests it may have something to do with his fragile health and the early death of his mother. Whether understood or not, Paul becomes a different person as he lives his fantasies albeit in a limited way during his stint as an usher at the Carnegie Hall, and while watching performers at the theatre in their rehearsals. He “was a model usher; gracious and smiling he ran up and down the aisles . . . he carried messages and brought programmes as though it were his greatest pleasure in life, and all the people in his section thought him a charming boy. . .” But it is during the performance that Paul is transported to another world. The “first sigh of the instruments seemed to free some hilarious and potent spirit within him . . . He felt a sudden zest of life; the lights danced before his eyes and the concert hall blazed into unimaginable splendor.” For him, it was “impossible to give up this delicious excitement which was the only thing that could be called living at all.”
The reader may well ask: why does Paul dream of living in style if only to escape from the boring routine of Cordelia Street? Daydreaming is an ordinary defense mechanism, and one can escape from his worldly cares temporarily by pretending to be a conquering hero or a suffering one. There would be no harm in that. Perhaps the author would want us realize that the very thing we despise, i.e., money is the very thing we need to make our dream a reality. Paul hates Cordelia Street “where fagged-looking businessmen got on the early car” because its inhabitants are pre-occupied with thoughts on how to make money. Society is wont to exert pressure on the youth to succeed. Paul’s father points out to him daily as a “model” a young man who had married for money. He allows his son to work as an usher not because it would develop his character but because “he thought a boy ought to be earning a little.” Paul’s experience is full of “petty economies, wholesome advice as to how to succeed in life . . .” Perhaps Paul becomes sick of the tediousness and the hypocrisy of it all, and develops the tendency to take refuge in the sanctuary of his secret world.
Paul’s fantasy world of blue Adriatic waters and yellow Algerian sands may have been fired up by his talks with Charley Edwards, the young actor, as well as his scrap book of detailed luxury taken from Sunday papers. The more Paul immerses himself in them, the more he detests Cordelia Street. He loathes “ugliness and commonness” and has a “shuddering repulsion for the flavourless, colourless mass of every-day existence.” Notwithstanding Paul’s prejudice, I am of the view that he was not originally averse to Cordelia Street. The place is not a slum, neither is his father poor; he was able to pay immediately the money absconded by Paul. But his impressionable mind and sensitive nature was gradually conditioned by his exposure to the pleasures of the theatre and Carnegie Hall, mingling with the “fine people and gay colors” which experiences he considered “orgies of living”, to detest the perceived bleakness of his own home. With such acquired attitude and his own temperament, his transformation or decline became inevitable.
Toward this change, it is apparent that Paul developed first the habit of lying which he finds “indispensable for overcoming friction”. He lies before the Principal and the faculty for them to lift his suspension. He lies to his father in order to go to the theatre. He lies to his classmates about his acquaintance with the performers at the theatre. He lies at the hotel about his parents being abroad. He lies to Denny & Carson’s, of course, to make his getaway inconspicuous. But his lying, even at school, was not for pleasure; “but to be noticed and admired, to assert his difference from the other Cordelia Street boys . . .” His propensity to lie possibly arose from his escapist tendency, his inability to accept the reality of Cordelia Street. A saying goes: “the liar is brother to the thief.” Thus, it is also possible his non-aversion to lying conditioned his mind for the more serious offense of stealing, absconding with the firm’s money, for which “remorse did not occur to him”.
Having “dressed the part” in a New York hotel, Paul finally realizes “money was everything, the wall that stood between all he loathed and all he wanted.” It comes as a puzzle that he had not realized it earlier. Perhaps it may be due to Paul’s aversion to his father’s and Cordelia Street’s ideas about the path to success. He chose to stay at the Waldorf knowing his money was good only for a few days. Knowing he would be found, he buys a gun to end his life before it happened, displaying a defeatist attitude. Despite his capacity for conjuring a world of fantasy, he lacks the imagination to make good his escape. He could have used the money for starting a business in a place far away. Maybe he lacked the talent for such ventures; he is, after all, different. He lacked ambition. “He had no desire to become an actor, any more than he had to become a musician. He felt no necessity to do any of these things; what he wanted was to see, to be in the atmosphere, float on the wave of it, to be carried out, blue league after blue league, away from everything.”
Paul’s tragedy becomes inevitable following his decision to actually “dress the part.” Like an actor, he intends to play the role to the very end. “He would show himself that he was game, he would finish the thing splendidly.” He knows that his “revolt against the homilies by which the world is being run” is about to end, and he cannot help comparing his stand to that of the flowers in glass cages: “it was only one splendid breath they had, in spite of their brave mockery at the winter outside the glass. . .”
In retrospect, his teachers’ vision of a “miserable street cat set at bay by a ring of tormentors” after the confrontation at the Principal’s Office foreshadows Paul’s end: the “street cat” is run over by a train.