In Willa Cather's short story "Paul's Case," is Paul responsible for his actions and could anyone have helped him?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In Willa Cather’s short story titled “Paul’s case,” Paul seems at least as responsible for his actions as most people are for theirs. Paul is not mentally handicapped (indeed, he seems unusually intelligent). He is unhappy and frustrated, but this is also true of many other people who do not behave as irresponsibly as Paul does. Paul’s decision to steal $1000 is not a decision that is in any way forced upon him. He exercises his free will. The narrator’s description of the theft is significantly phrased:

At the bank [Paul] had made out a new deposit slip. His nerves had been steady enough to permit of his returning to the office, where he had finished his work and asked for a full day’s holiday tomorrow, Saturday, giving a perfectly reasonable pretext. The bankbook, he knew, would not be returned before Monday or Tuesday, and his father would be out of town for the next week. [emphasis added]

All the italicized phrases suggest Paul’s responsibility for his actions. He acts with deliberation and reason and thus is responsible for his choices. He is not under the influence of any drug, nor is he so depressed that he cannot act differently than he does. If Paul were merely a victim of fate, or of his circumstances, or of some uncontrollable impulses, the story would be less morally interesting than it is.

Even after he steals the money, Paul has other options than the ones he chooses. He could mail the money back to the company from which he stole it. He could give it away to some good cause as a way of soothing his conscience. He could spend just enough of it to help him find employment in some obscure, out-of-the-way place where he might be able to live a relatively free life, and then he could return the money, perhaps with interest.  Nothing forces Paul to act as irresponsibly as he does in New York.

Paul might have been helped if he had sought help. His attitude from the beginning of the story, however, seems to be one of superiority and contempt. Paul suffers from pride (an enormously common human failing that hardly anyone can avoid), but in his case his pride seems to make it unlikely that he will ever reach out to anyone and simply ask for help.

 

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