Abandoned by Society: A Study of Setting and Attitudes in “Paul's Case”
“Paul's Case” by Willa Cather describes the unfortunate life of a young rebellious man. Paul's attitude is a very uncommon one in the early 1900s, the setting of this story. Boys in this time were expected to be polite and respectful to their elders. They were expected to honor their father's wishes. Society expected boys to earn an education and strive for successful careers. In Pittsburg, intelligent young men were expected to work in a professional career. Unskilled labor was respected, but if a boy expressed the level of intelligence that Paul did he was expected to become a lawyer, banker, or doctor. Paul is forced to give up his dreams of the theater and to work as a clerk. He hates this job and his life, so he steals three thousand dollars to enjoy the New York life. When his theft is discovered, Paul commits suicide by jumping in front of a speeding train. Paul hates his life in Pittsburg to the point where he would rather die than go back. In “Paul's Case,” Paul's rebellious attitude and suicide is caused by the cultural expectations of men in the story's setting.
Paul's natural tendencies of narcissism clash with the expectations of his teachers and father. He is a constant problem in the classroom, and the teachers know he has no interest in school. His attitude towards his teachers and the principal is condescending and patronizing. A paper by Rob Sarri explains that Paul's attitude is a perfect example of narcissism, a disorder in which an individual is obsessed with his or her self (Sarri 389). Paul possesses all nine of Freud's signs of narcissism. These include a sense of self-importance, fantasies of power and success, unreasonable expectations of others, disrespect for those considered “beneath him”, and extreme arrogance (Sarri 391). Paul's disorder compels him to rebel against his surroundings. He causes problems at school and battles with his father over his future. Paul feels he is better than his society and that he is destined to live a better life. His job at Carnegie Hall allows him to socialize with those that he feels are worthy of his time.
Paul escapes the pressures of his society's expectations by imagining himself in various fantasies. This demonstrates his tendencies to run from his problems rather than face them. He has fantasies about the theater and the actors he knows. These fantasies are a sign of Paul's dissatisfaction with his life. He allows these fantasies to interfere with his real life and his school work. A symbol of Paul's dislike of reality and his obsession with his fantasies is the red carnation he wears. According to an article by Sherry Crabtree, the carnation represents Paul's feelings of alienation from Cordelia Street and his high school (Crabtree 206). He wears it to show his relationship to the theater life, and uses it to tell his fellow students that he is more sophisticated than them (Crabtree 207). How much of the story is reality and how much of it is fantasy is a topic of argument among critics (Salda 113). Paul's vision of reality is so obscured that it is impossible for readers to tell reality and fantasy apart. One critic even suggests that Paul never left his basement after he came home in the beginning and that the whole remaining story is a complicated fantasy (Salda 116). This is purely up to the reader's interpretation of the story and the impact of Paul's surrounding on his attitude is important regardless. If the described events were really a complicated fantasy in Paul's damaged mind, they were still caused by the expectations of his society.
Paul's possible homosexuality and the homophobic nature of his society are part of the influence the setting has on Paul's life. Paul both hates and fears Cordelia Street. Paul's sexual preferences are never specifically mentioned in the story, but many critics have explored this topic (Summers 103). There are many events and symbols that indicate Paul as homosexual. His obsession with the young actor Charley Edwards and the details of his encounter with the young Yale student from San Francisco are the largest clues to Paul's homosexuality (Summers 109). Critics agree that Cather intended for Paul to be homosexual to represent her own homosexuality, but she could not state her or Paul's sexuality outright for fear of persecution and censorship (Summers 108). Paul's alienation is a metaphor for his homosexuality, but his sexual orientation is not the outright cause of his tragedy (Summers 110). If Cordelia Street represents typical early twentieth century society, then Paul, as a possible homosexual, is expected to resent his surroundings. Regardless of his sexuality, Paul is not normal and the people in his life know that. They try to understand him and make him conform. His dad withdraws him from school, bans him from the theater, and forces him to work as a clerk for a Pittsburg firm. This worsens the situation and Paul becomes irrational, leading to his suicide.
Paul's attitude and actions are result of the influences on him. No one in the story tries to understand Paul. His father and teachers view him as a rebel. His fellow students most likely think he is a snob, and the actors that Paul works with do not care about him. Even Charley Edwards, who was Paul's friend, has no problem when Paul's father instructs him that Paul will never visit him again. Paul's father has a plan for Paul, one that was exactly the same as all the other boys on Cordelia Street. Paul is expected to excel in school and to work for one of the respectable corporations where he has opportunities to advance in the ranks and become very successful. There is a young man on Cordelia Street that Paul's father hopes Paul would try to emulate. A clerk for a steel corporation, the man had married at twenty-one and has a successful career and four children. The people of Cornelia Street admire this hardworking young man, and Paul's father wants Paul to succeed like this. Paul has a higher view of success though, and in his view, the life of the young clerk is dull and poor. The actions and thoughts of his father anger Paul and do not help Paul's situation. Whenever his father tightens his grip on Paul, Paul grows more rebellious.
There are few things in Paul's life for which he really cares, but these things are unhealthy attachments and help contribute to his depression. He loves working at the theater and he enjoys the companionship of the actors and other ushers. He feels that the people at Carnegie Hall are worthy of being his friends. Paul seems to be friends with the young actor Charley Edwards. The theater becomes a second life for Paul. Here he can imagine being rich and sophisticated. Paul obsesses with the theater until everything in his life is an act. His attitude at school and at home is a charade. One literary critic suggests that Paul has different costumes that he puts on for each part of his life (Page 553). These costumes incorporate his visible appearance and his mentality. His costume for meeting with the faculty at school is described in the story as “a trifle outgrown, and the tan velvet on the collar of his open overcoat was frayed and worn” (Cather 1). His attitude is polite, but the readers and the teachers know he is really patronizing them. Paul does not fit into this role well, as evidenced by his ill-fitting clothes (Page 553). He fits very well into the role of an usher and a fan of the theater (Page 553). Paul separates his life into two parts. One part is his role as a student and a resident of Cordelia Street. The other part is his job at the theater. When his life at the theater is taken away, Paul becomes distressed.
Paul's desire to live out his fantasies is a major cause of his actions in the final weeks of his life. Against his wishes, Paul works as a clerk for a local firm. Paul's favorite part of his life, the theater, is taken away from him, leaving him only his fantasies for solace. Paul's obsession with the opulent lifestyle and his narcissist attitude leads him on a rash course of action. Paul steals three thousand dollars from his company and uses it to spend two weeks living out his fantasies. He uses the money to live the extravagant lifestyle of which he used to dream. One critic compares the lifestyle that Paul experiences in New York to the lifestyle of Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Quirk 580). This article suggests that Fitzgerald was heavily influenced by Paul when he created the character of Gatsby (Quirk 579). Both characters come from moderate backgrounds and rise to riches for a brief time, and both of their lives end in tragedy (Quirk 580). The society of Cordelia Street frowns upon this type of lifestyle. They appreciate honest people who succeed by working hard and living modestly. The people of Cordelia Street and Pittsburg could not accept Paul, and Paul does not want to conform to their ideals.
Paul is deathly afraid of his real life and of the society of Cordelia Street. Paul lives the high life in New York for two weeks, but he learns from a newspaper that his theft has been discovered and that his father is coming to New York. Paul is distraught and scared, so he decides to kill himself. He is afraid of going back to Pittsburg and Cordelia Street because he knows he will never be happy in that life. He has experienced the high life and he believes he cannot go back. Now he feels that he'll never know anything else but Cordelia Street. The story states, “He rose and moved about with a painful effort, succumbing now and again to attacks of nausea. It was the old depression exaggerated; all the world had become Cordelia Street.” (Cather 12). He calmly realizes that the only way for him to escape his old life is by taking it away. By throwing himself in front of the train he is able to escape his fears and the expectations of Cordelia Street.
Ultimately, Paul makes his own decision and throws himself in front of the train. He chooses to take his own life. He is not killed by Cordelia Street, his teachers, or his father. They influence his decision though and the influences from Paul's home are evident in his final hours. Paul chooses to kill himself because he loathes his existence in Pittsburg. Willa Cather chose the subtitle “A Study in Temperament” to point out the dangers of intolerance (Carpenter 598). Paul is very different from normal Pittsburg youth, but the forces of Cordelia Street and Pittsburg High try hard to make him conform to the expectations of society (Carpenter 598). The people in Paul's life do not try to understand or accept him. Instead they work to shape him to match their ideas of a successful man. The actions of Paul's father cause Paul to enter a state of serious depression. Banned from attending the theater, Paul feels he has to do something rash to experience the sophisticated life. This is why he steals the money, but once he tastes the high life he feels he cannot return to Pittsburg.
Paul knows he can never be the man that his father and neighbors want him to be. His suicide is a final act of defiance to his father and to society. Paul is an “unusual case” because of his attitude, but the “case” the title refers to is Paul's tragic life and the influence society had on it. The society he lives in refuses to accept him. This is a classic case of intolerance, a major problem throughout history and in the present. Overcoming intolerance and prejudice is the largest problem society faces. This is not an extinct topic, and “Paul's Case” remains relevant. Paul escapes the pressures of his society and the humiliation of returning to Cordelia Street by taking his own life. Through its intolerance and expectations, society causes Paul to commit suicide.
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Summers, Claude J. “A Losing Game in the End: Aestheticism and Homosexuality in Cather's ‘Paul's Case'.” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies 36.1 ( 1990): 103-119. Web. 12 Apr. 2010