In "Paul's Case" by Willa Cather, is Paul a victim of society?Is Paul also a victim of his family background? Of his own character? Of a false ideal? What are details to support this?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Willa Cather's "Paul's Case" portrays a character whose need to escape from everyday reality grows progressively stronger.  While this need is an intrinsic flaw; Paul's family life and society certainly exacerbate his condition.  The materialistic steel city of Pittsburgh with its banal society in which the highlight of the week is for the men to sit resting their stomachs upon their legs as they unbutton their vests and roll up their sleeves, talking about the "iron men" who have acquired so much wealth that they can escape the grey city on Meditteranean trips and the shirt-waisted women who talk insipidly of who ate the most waffles at the Church breakfast cause Paul a repulsion for his

horrible yellow wallpaper, the creaking bureau with the gresy plush collar-box, and...the picture of George Washington and John Calvin...worked in red worsted by his mother

The life of his home and the Pittsburgh neighborhood are not what Paul needs.  Instead, he gets what he wants

much more quickly from music; any sort of music...He needed only the spark, the indescribable thrill that made his imagination master of his senses, and he could make plots and pictures enough of his own....what he wanted was to see, to be in the atmosphere, float on the wave of it, to be carried out, blue league after league, away from everything.

When his father forbids Paul to visit the actor Charley Edwards and forces him from his part-time position of usher, which he loves, to working as a clerk in a bank, Paul's need to escape overtakes him and he steals money so that he can go to New York where the arts and artists thrive.  For a brief time, then, he lives again in an imaginary world, but it is only a transitory world as it must be if he himself is not creating the art.

Unlike true artists, who thrill to the creation of their art, Paul desires only the escape that art provides him.  So, though he has an artistic temperament that is happy in the theatre, his appreciation is superficial as it is only for the imaginative world he can experience.  In this respect, then, he is primarily a victim of his own character for such a false world cannot last. 

It occurred to him that all the flowers he had seen in the show windows that first night [in New York] must have gone the same way, long before this.  It was only one splendid breath they had, in spite of their brave mockery at the winter ouside the glass.  It was a losing game in the end, it seemed, this revolt against the homilies by which the world is run.

For this reason, the disillusioned Paul allows himself to be "dropped back into the immense design of things."

Interestingly, Willa Cather's epitaph reads, "That is happiness, to be dissolved into something complete and great."  enotes "Identities and Issues in Literature" states that the last lines of Cather's "Paul's Case" echo these lines when Paul leaps in front of the train.  However, the difference between Cather and Paul is that she did, indeed, create art while Paul has simply escaped into it.  And, escape is, like the lies that Paul has told so many times and his imaginings, ephemeral; but, art is truth and is eternal.


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Paul's Case

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