In the short story "Paul's Case" by Willa Cather; what details of Paul's appearance and behavior, as his teachers see him, indicate that he is different from other boys?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Paul's teachers have a long list of complaints regarding Paul. Each teacher also seems to suppose that Paul's awkward looks are indicative of something much more sinister lurking within his mind, perhaps even his soul.

 In one way and another he had made all his teachers, men and women alike, conscious that he had the same feeling of physical aversion toward them as he had demonstrated toward his English teacher when he jumped back from her: 

The astonished woman could scarcely have been more hurt and embarrassed had he struck at her. ... he had made all his teachers, men and women alike, conscious of the same feeling of physical aversion.

What the teachers thought:

The first thing that the teachers observe in Paul is that he

was always smiling, always glancing about him, seeming to feel that people might be watching him and trying to detect something.

These expressions in Paul’s face, to the teachers, were signs that he was guilty of "smartness,” and that he exhibited "insolence" toward them. To the reader, these expressions are also indicative of a young man who is emotionally immature, feels an imaginary audience, and is detached from his immediate reality. He is also quite aware of his influence in the “adult” world, in fact, too aware. He expects to cause a reaction. He expects to call attention. We also know that Paul prefers and is mesmerized by the worlds of art and music. All of these traits are signs of a misfit with his pragmatic and practical environment.

Could these things be the product of growing up without a mother, and without the nurturing that Paul may have so desperately needed as a child? The clue to this may be found on the next statement, made by the school master.

The drawing master's thoughts:

"I don't really believe that smile of his comes altogether from insolence; there's something sort of haunted about it. The boy is not strong, for one thing. There is something wrong about the fellow."

Paul father, who is a widower and has other children, does what he can within his situation to bring up his children as safely as possible. Paul dresses up in a theatrical way, reflecting what he is most at one with: art, music, opera. His "conscious, theatrical" way causes the impression that he is "offensive" and insolent.

What the drawing master realized:

The drawing-master ... realized that ... one saw only his white teeth and the forced animation of his eyes. ... the boy had gone to sleep at his drawing-board, and his master had noted with amazement what a white, blue-veined face it was; drawn and wrinkled like an old man's ....

This last statement is very telling as to how tense and exhausted Paul must be, of all of those late nights and living only for his job at the Carnegie.

Paul’s “case”:

Paul is caused feelings of deep aversion because of others because they are not exquisite, they are not perfection and beauty, like the "blue Rico" in front of which he "lost himself" in blissful contemplation.

It was at the theatre and at Carnegie Hall that Paul really lived; the rest was but a sleep and a forgetting.

Paul finally risks all to make his dreams of beauty “real.” The result of chasing this waterfall of a dream is that Paul found a return to stark reality devoid of beauty more horrible than the thought of death. In the moment of throwing himself into his death, he regretted "the vastness of all he left undone" and had visions of "blue of Adriatic water, the yellow of Algerian sands" before the "picture making mechanism" broke and he met his all too tragic death.

Read the study guide:
Paul's Case

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