To what extent is the protagonist of the story "Paul's Case" responsible for the conflict or predicament he or she faces?

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The escapade which forms the principal part of "Paul's Case" is the type of thing which could easily be found in the early chapters of many biographies and autobiographies of the great and the good. To take one example almost at random, the British actor, writer and polymath Stephen Fry went on a similar spree of shopping and high-living at the age of eighteen with some stolen credit cards, subsequently spending three months in prison. It is axiomatic that such affairs look less serious with hindsight, but it is still important to ask why Paul decides to end his life over a comparatively trivial matter. When the matter is reported in the papers, Paul learns that:

The firm of Denny & Carson announced that the boy's father had refunded the full amount of the theft, and that they had no intention of prosecuting. The Cumberland minister had been interviewed, and expressed his hope of yet reclaiming the motherless boy, and his Sabbath-school teacher declared that she would spare no effort to that end. The rumor had reached Pittsburg that the boy had been seen in a New York hotel, and his father had gone East to find him and bring him home.

This does not sound so terrible, but in the next paragraph, we are abruptly told that Paul regards what is to happen to him as "worse than jail." His preference for living over dying is very slight, until it is too late, at which point:

As he fell, the folly of his haste occurred to him with merciless clearness, the vastness of what he had left undone.

Paul is obviously an unusual person. Perhaps he is not very sympathetic or admirable, but one might say this of many people, including teenagers who later turn out to lead useful or even remarkable lives. The title of the story, "Paul's Case," tells us that those around him would rather judge him than attempt to understand, since judging is easy and understanding is difficult.

The detailed description of his states of mind are an invitation to the reader not to make the same mistakes as he does. If all we take away from the story is: "a bad person came to a bad end, which was his own fault," then we are cheating ourselves of an opportunity to increase our understanding.

Paul, like the rest of us, did not make his own mind or shape his own personality. The interaction of that personality with the outside world, the way in which Paul is both apparently rebellious and desperate to conform, is the subject of the story. There is no doubt that other people would have handled his situation better, but to blame him is to waste the opportunity to understand how and why he chose his course of action.

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The more superficial answer is that Paul is entirely responsible for the predicament he finds himself in. He makes the audacious decision to steal a large amount of money from his employer and go on an upper-class spending spree, living the high life for a short time in New York City. He is then faced with the choice between arrest and imprisonment and committing suicide. He chooses suicide, a fate he brought on himself.

But looking a little deeper, we might realize that Cather also implicates the values of the society Paul lives in and has internalized. If you live in a society that values wealth and luxurious living, is not the society itself also at fault if you pick up those values and want those things that society tells you are the most important sources of self worth? Paul is willing to price the price of those false values, which is to trade his life for a few luxurious days.

Paul's problem is that he places far too much value on the shallow surface of life, such as what clothes a person wears or where they dine out. However, he didn't spring from the womb holding those values: he learned them from the larger culture. Paul's predicament is his society's predicament of placing too much importance on the external and shallowly material rather than on internal worth.

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One could argue that Paul is entirely responsible for his predicament. Throughout his life, he's consistently made the wrong choices. Instead of facing up to his responsibilities, he's locked himself away in a fairy-tale world where he gets to act out his fantasies of being a rich member of elite society. Yet despite his unwavering admiration for the rich, Paul does absolutely nothing to improve his station in life. He's not prepared to knuckle down and do the hard work necessary to take him where he wants to be. Instead, he takes a shortcut by stealing from his employer. But even then, he only uses his ill-gotten gains to live out the fantasy of being a wealthy young man-about-town.

Paul has demonstrated time and time again that he's incapable of living in the real world. So it comes as no surprise when, in the story's tragic ending, he takes his own life. Ironically, this is the first—and last—time that Paul has ever taken responsibility for anything. And it's the first—and again last—time that he's been able to resolve the conflict between the real world and the fantasy world in which he's lived for so long.

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