Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Cather writes here with characteristic restraint. She implies, she understates, she hints, believing that it is important to leave the reader to figure things out and become actively involved in “making” the story. The author purports to be writing a case history and thus aims for an emotionally detached quality in the style. She wants to let the facts speak for themselves, and she concludes without diagnosis or explanation. In spite of her desire not to appear to take sides or to prejudice the reader’s judgment, the nature of this writing brings one close to Paul and not to anyone else. By making the reader intimate with Paul’s thoughts, perceptions, and feelings, she draws the reader’s sympathy to him. The author takes the role of omniscient narrator, so that when she says, “in Paul’s world, the natural nearly always wore the guise of ugliness,” she justifies Paul’s need for artificial beauty. Paul may be deluded and extreme, but the author’s facts about his ugly world are not to be disputed.
Cather also has a special talent for creating the visible, an eye for that detail or mood or scene that calls on her talent and experience as a journalist when she wrote for a Pittsburgh paper and later for McClure’s magazine. She characterizes Paul’s thoughts of home by “damp dish towels” and shows the reader the champagne in his glass at his hotel dinner as “cold, precious, bubbling stuff that creamed and foamed in his...
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The years from 1900 to 1910 witnessed great growth in business and industry in America. Fortunes were made producing steel and iron: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and J. P. Morgan all made vast amounts of money during this period. They were the most famous of the "robber barons," those whose wealth was created by questionable labor practices and whose businesses were favored by the government since they were fundamental in creating the infrastructure necessary for the United States to become a world power. In "Paul's Case" such industrial leaders appear in references to the "iron kings" discussed on Cordelia Street on Sunday afternoons.
With fewer government regulations on business than there are now, industry leaders ruthlessly pursued profit. Their profits allowed them to become voracious consumers of material goods. Thorstein Veblen, in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), coined the term "conspicuous consumption" to describe such ostentatious display of money and luxury through clothes, travel, cars, and architecture. This use of wealth is most apparent in "Paul's Case" in the section devoted to New York—the Waldorf Hotel, Paul's dress clothes and silk underwear, his champagne and opera. Edith Wharton's novel The House of Mirth, published the same year, also deals with the era's high society, focusing on a beautiful and young upper-class woman who seeks to secure her fortunes by marriage but can bring herself to sacrifice...
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"Paul's Case'' centers on a high school student so taken by the life of wealth and culture that he runs away to New York City on stolen money to live lavishly, if only for a while. When his old middle-class life threatens to reclaim him, Paul commits suicide. The narrator's attitude towards Paul's actions is ironic. The narrator does not endorse Paul's decision to steal in order to live grandly. Nor does the narrator affirm Paul's decision to commit suicide after he realizes that"money was everything.'' The authorial voice often seems to be talking to the reader, reflecting on what the characters do not realize. For instance, while Paul despises Cordelia Street, it is described as a "perfectly respectable" middle-class neighborhood. Similarly, Paul's starry-eyed response to the world of the arts is directly contrasted to cruder realities: references to a "cracked orchestra" beating out an overture or jerking at a serenade hardly sound sublime, yet Paul's senses are "deliciously, yet delicately fired" nonetheless. Cather's distanced, sparse authorial voice hints at her attitude towards the events she narrates.
Cather uses symbolism to great effect in this story. Flowers are a continual motif, expressing Paul's character and his views of life. The red carnation Paul wears to meet with his teachers is to them a sign of his outlandish and insolent attitude. It is described as "flippantly red" and "scandalous." Paul...
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Compare and Contrast
1900s: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is the center of steel manufacturing in the United States. Many industrialists, including Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and J. P. Morgan, made fortunes producing steel. When the residents of Cordelia Street share their "legends of the iron kings," they most likely are discussing one of these Pittsburgh industrialists.
Today: Steel still ranks among the ten largest industries in America, but by the end of the 1980s, the last of the Pittsburgh steel plants closed.
1900s: Spurred by the country's new-found wealth, grand hotels are built in U.S. cities, attracting wealthy travelers and rivaling European palaces in their glamour. In Pittsburgh, Paul is entranced by glimpses of the Schenley Hotel, and in New York, Paul chooses to stay at the Waldorf, the most luxurious of these luxury hotels.
Today: Urban luxury hotels are less popular. With the arrival of the jet age, more remote areas are now easily accessible, leading rich vacationers to prefer resort areas such as the Caribbean or the French Riviera.
1900s: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is founded with a $10 million gift from Andrew Carnegie, the Pittsburgh steel magnate who devoted the last years of his life to philanthropy, donating large sums to establish cultural and educational institutions. Carnegie founded Pittsburgh's Carnegie Music Hall, where Paul works as an...
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Topics for Further Study
Research the Age of Steel, particularly in Pittsburgh, How does your knowledge of Pittsburgh during the 1890s and 1900s helps you understand Paul, Paul's father, and the other residents of Cordelia Street?
Investigate the values and definitions of the "American Dream,'' and compare your research with your analysis of Paul's values.
Do you think Paul chose his fate, or do you think environmental or natural laws determined his destiny? Research theories of free will and determinism in philosophy and social science to enhance your analysis.
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"Paul's Case" was adapted for television, directed by Lamont Johnson, produced by Ed Lynch, and starring Eric Roberts, Michael Higgins, and Lindsay Crouse, PBS, 1980. Released as part of the "American Short Story Series, Part 2," the 52-minute film is available from Coronet/MTI Film & Video.
The story was also released as a book-on-tape by Harper Collins in 1981.
In 1986, Caedmon Audio Cassette released Paul's Case.
(The entire section is 64 words.)
What Do I Read Next?
My Antonia, Willa Cather's 1918 novel about the lives of immigrants in the Midwest, is one of her finest and best-known novels.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, focuses on Jay Gatsby, a man who lives through romantic dreams. Gatsby defines the American character torn between idealism and materialism.
The Andrew Carnegie Reader, published in 1992 by the University of Pittsburgh Press, contains a selection of Carnegie's writings on business and philanthropy, including "The Age of Steel" and "The Gospel of Wealth According to St. Andrew."
Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, published in 1891, is a key work of the Aestheticist movement. Dorian, vain and rakish, wishes to remain eternally young and handsome. Dorian's portrait ages instead of Dorian, and is kept hidden until the novel's end.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
"And Death Comes for Willa Cather, Famous Author," in Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, April 25,1947.
Arnold, Marilyn. Willa Cather's Short Fiction, Ohio University Press, 1984.
Bloom, Harold. Willa Cather, Chelsea House, 1985, pp. 71-86,177-83.
Brown, Edward Killoran and Leon Edel Willa Cather: A Critical Biography. Alfred A Knopf, 1953.
Carpenter, David A. "Why Willa Cather Revised 'Paul's Case'' The Work in Art and Those Sunday Afternoons," in American Literature, Vol 59, no 4, December, 1987, pp 590-608.
O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. Oxford University Press, 1987.
Rosowski, Susan J. The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism, University of Nebraska Press, 1986.
Summers, Claude J "A Losing Game in the End: Aestheticism and Homosexuality in Cather's 'Paul's Case'," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 36, 1990, pp. 103-19.
Wasserman, Loretta. Willa Cather, G.K. Hall, 1991.
Weigel, John A. "What Kind of Psychology for Students of Literature?," in CEA Critic, Vol. 20,1958, pp. 1,5.
Woodress, James. Introduction to The Troll Garden, by Willa Cather, edited by James Woodress, University of Nebraska Press, 1983.
Discovering Authors Modules (CD-ROM publication), Gale Research, 1996.
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Bibliography (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. Sexchanges. Vol. 2 in No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.
Wasserman, Loretta. Willa Cather: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twain, 1991.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
(The entire section is 55 words.)