In "Paul's Case", what details of Paul's appearance and behavior, as his teachers see him, indicate that he is abnormal?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the first few paragraphs of "Paul's Case," we are given various details of Paul's appearance and behavior, some of which are focalized through the viewpoint of his teachers while others are apparently direct observations by the author.

In the former category, Paul's slightly dandified appearance and the...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

In the first few paragraphs of "Paul's Case," we are given various details of Paul's appearance and behavior, some of which are focalized through the viewpoint of his teachers while others are apparently direct observations by the author.

In the former category, Paul's slightly dandified appearance and the red carnation in his buttonhole do not, in the opinion of the faculty, show a sufficiently contrite spirit for the occasion. "Abnormal" may be a strong word for this, but it does suggest a sense that Paul does not understand what is fitting, a sense which increases as the story progresses and is voiced by the drawing master. It is then revealed that what they really take exception to is Paul's "hysterically defiant manner" and his refusal to conceal the contempt they all know he feels for them. This description, along with the example of his shrinking away from the least physical contact with his English teacher, suggests at least a lack of social skills.

Paul exhibits the same characteristics in his suspension hearing that his teachers have noticed in him before. Apart from his twitching lips and raised eyebrows, there is the complete unconcern about what anyone thinks of him. When he is asked if he thought he was being courteous in making a certain remark, he replies:

"I don't know ... I didn't mean to be polite, or impolite, either. I guess it's a sort of way I have of saying things, regardless."

It is this abnormal indifference, rather than the specific peculiarities of his dress and behavior, that really irritates Paul's teachers.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The first part of "Paul's Case" introduces us to Paul not as the strange character on whose temperament the story is based, but as the young, mischievous student who keeps his teachers on edge. Although he is, indeed, a different class of individual, it would not be fair to classify his behaviors as "abnormal". Here is why.

Cather's description of what the teachers see is more reflective of their pre-disposition against Paul than on any "abnormality" of his. In fact, most of the description that is given is focalized from the perspective of Paul's old-fashioned, and easily-intimidated teachers.

it was scarcely possible to put into words the real cause of the trouble, which lay in a sort of hysterically defiant manner of the boy's; in the contempt which they all knew he felt for them

This means that it is Paul's haughty behavior, his disdain for the teachers, his shameless disregard for them, and the hatred that he felt for school that perhaps prompted him to act even more strangely than he usually would have.

Now, to be fair to the teachers also, Paul did have some quirks and looks that made him different. First, he was very tall and thin, with a narrow chest and eyes that were salient for their large pupils, which made him look as if "he were addicted to belladona".

The quirk that makes him almost look macabre in the eyes of the teachers is the tendency to grin showing his teeth in an effeminate manner.

...his pale lips parted over his white teeth. (His lips were continually twitching, and he had a habit of raising his eyebrows that was contemptuous and irritating to the last degree.)

That was, perhaps, the most aggravating factor of his behavior.

The proper way, however, to label Paul's behavior should not be as "abnormal". This is because there is not a single exact group of social indicators that, combined, would quantify the meaning of the word "normal". A number of variables play a role in the behavior of individuals. Paul's behavior is a result of his unique temperament and sensitivities; he also obviously lacks anchoring and, to make it worse, he is totally disconnected from his reality. Like the red flower at the end of the story, Paul buried himself in the snow of winter by killing himself after having seen what the beautiful life is like, rather than by letting life show him any more ugly realities.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team