Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Much of Willa Cather’s writing develops an interest in the minds, ways, and lives of artists: This theme of contrast and discord between conflicting values is present in a number of ways in “Paul’s Case.” Although Paul is not an artist in the sense that he creates works of art, he has the kind of imagination that in a friendlier environment might have developed to enable him to convert the material of his real world into art. As it is, Paul’s case is painful and hopeless. The author shows the reader a world that is blatantly materialistic. The predominant color is gray, while Paul longs for the richness of purple, of light-reflecting crystal. It is sad that for Paul, and indeed for his world, money seems to be the only means to experience the felt life, the excitement of performance. Paul is a spectator. He has no interest in books, which might have helped him to imagine other possibilities. His is a solipsistic vision, stimulated by music that acts like an addictive narcotic on his nervous system and produces an excitement from which he recovers in a state of severe physical and emotional deflation. Paul’s teachers and family seem peculiarly insensitive to his condition, his needs, and his suffering.
In spite of the rather detached and clinical description of this conflict between Paul and his world, the author’s distaste for the materialistic and rather coarse society she describes becomes evident. While Paul is clearly presented as emotionally disturbed and as almost pathologically lonely and isolated, he is also, in part, the victim of a society that is somewhat deadened in its imagination and finer sensibilities. Paul is like an aesthete for whom there is no place to belong, no home, and who finds no kindred spirit anywhere. Had he been able to find a group like Oscar Wilde’s “art for art’s sake” movement or the Bloomsbury group, both artistic cults that flourished during Cather’s lifetime, he might have found a friendly haven in a bohemian subculture, part of an aesthetic minority group. As it is, he is simply a doomed misfit.