How is Willa Cather's "Paul's Case" modern?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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As in much Modernist literature Willa Cather's character, Paul of "Paul's Case" seeks to find meaning in a petty world.  As Georg Simmel, a Modernist, wrote,

The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historic heritage, of external culture, and the technique of life.

The subject matter of Modernist literature is traditionally mundane, and Willa Cather's sets her story in the most ordinary world of blue-collar Pittsburgh. In the exposition, for instance, Paul is called in to face the faculty at Pittsburgh High School where he has been suspended for disorder and impertinence, "yet each of his instructors felt that it was scarcely possible to put into words the real cause of the trouble."

The trouble is that Paul rejects the petty existence of his environment:  his ugly room with

its horrible yellow wallpaper, the creaking bureau with the greasy plush collar-box, and ....the pictures of George Washington and John Calvin"

over his wooden bed.  The banal routine of his family and neighbors who sit our on their front "stoops," talking with nieghbors about the cost of things or the "legends of the iron kings" who travel Europe seem repugnant to Paul:

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

In order to establish any meaning in what Paul perceives as a life of meaningless and strict conformity, he must live in the world of the arts: 

So in the midst of that smoke-palled city, enamored of figures and grimy oil, Paul had his secret temple.

Like Hemingway's old man in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," Paul finds some solace from the "immense panorama of futility...which is contemporary life," as T. S. Eliot once commented.  He finds this solace when he goes to the opera; after being denied this outlet, Paul violates the work ethic of John Calvin and the honesty of George Washington, stealing from the bank where he has been made to work.  He travels to the city of the arts, New York, and lives in an illusionary world for a short time, until he reads the Pittsburgh newspapers.  Then, when all the world has "become Cordelia Street," the new stage which Paul has constructed and in which he can live is shattered.  Meaningless comes upon him and he throws himself before a train, an ending far removed from the Romantic one the reader may have expected.


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