Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
“Paul’s Case,” the only short story Willa Cather approved for anthologies, opens with a young boy called before his high school principal and teachers. They are unable to discern exactly what the boy’s problem is but they know that his offenses are many and that, mainly, he annoys them. He is suave and smiling, a bit of a dandy, wearing a flower in his lapel, certainly not appropriately dressed for one expected to be contrite. A slight tremor in his hands is the only hint of nervousness. His theatrical ways make him seem disdainful, which he is, and insolent. Within minutes, the educators fall into a frenzy of criticism, each taking a turn outlining the boy’s many faults.
Paul makes a great show of indifference. He leaves jauntily, whistling a tune from an opera, hoping that they will observe how little their petty grievances affect him. Indeed, Paul has a fantasy life that, while not protecting him from the reality of “Sabbath School picnics, petty economies, wholesome advice as to how to succeed in life,” nevertheless makes his existence bearable.
His other world consists of Carnegie Hall, art museums, and theater. His math and Latin are weak, but he knows the world of art and the glamour of performance. His true home is not the stultifying, middle-class house with its “unescapable odors of cooking,” but rather the cultural building. At the museum, he teases the Venus de Milo with a hand gesture, makes a face at Augustus...
(The entire section is 475 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The story begins in industrial Pittsburgh at the height of American industrial expansion and at a time when wealth, power, and material values are supreme and dominate the thought and goals of the nation. Paul is a misfit in every way, and the reader is given a detailed description of his conflicts with school, home, and society. Paul is different from his peers. He dresses with a kind of dandified elegance, sporting fancy neckwear and a flower in his lapel. He is bored with school and hates his shabby room at home and his middle-class neighbors and the street where he lives. Paul’s mother died shortly after his birth, and he has been reared by his father, who seems distant and preoccupied with money and hard work.
Paul’s real love, his only true mental and spiritual life, seems to be realized in the glamour and color of the world of theater and music. He works part-time as an usher in Carnegie Hall, where concerts are held. There he loses himself in the music, the glitter of performance, and the fantasy of a world that is sensual and utterly removed from the prosaic day-to-day needs and routines of his domestic and school worlds. He wants to be noticed, to be important, and he seems to be devoid of the psychological equipment that enables others to accept the limitations and realities of their circumstances. Paul creates for himself a fantasy life that forces him to lie continuously.
Paul’s conflict with the demands of the school...
(The entire section is 549 words.)
"Paul's Case" by Willa Cather is, as the subtitle states, "a study in temperament.'' The story chronicles a few months in the life of Paul, a student at Pittsburgh High School, who would rather be at the opera than in class.
Part I: Paul in Pittsburgh
The story begins with Paul's faculty hearing one week after he has been suspended from school. Paul is smiling, and his accusers find his appearance—especially the red carnation in his lapel— "not properly significant of the contrite spirit befitting a boy under the ban of suspension." The teachers, full of ill will, list disorder and impertinence as two of the charges against him, but they feel it "scarcely possible to put into words the real cause of the trouble."
Paul is described as "suave,'' having eyes with "a certain hysterical brilliancy,'' shuddering from a teacher's casual touch, and having a "contemptuous and irritating" habit of raising his eyebrows. Only his drawing master hints afterward that Paul's behavior may not be what it appears, that perhaps his teachers do not understand the boy. At this point, the teachers share a feeling of dissatisfaction with the meeting and their own behavior, which they liken to that of petty bullies.
Cather introduces the importance of art into Paul's life when he arrives early to Pittsburgh's Carnegie Hall, where he is an usher. First Paul revels in his solitude in the picture gallery. He dons his uniform "excitedly"...
(The entire section is 987 words.)