“Paul’s Case,” the only short story Willa Cather approved for anthologies, opens with a young boy called before his high school principal and teachers. They are unable to discern exactly what the boy’s problem is but they know that his offenses are many and that, mainly, he annoys them. He is suave and smiling, a bit of a dandy, wearing a flower in his lapel, certainly not appropriately dressed for one expected to be contrite. A slight tremor in his hands is the only hint of nervousness. His theatrical ways make him seem disdainful, which he is, and insolent. Within minutes, the educators fall into a frenzy of criticism, each taking a turn outlining the boy’s many faults.
Paul makes a great show of indifference. He leaves jauntily, whistling a tune from an opera, hoping that they will observe how little their petty grievances affect him. Indeed, Paul has a fantasy life that, while not protecting him from the reality of “Sabbath School picnics, petty economies, wholesome advice as to how to succeed in life,” nevertheless makes his existence bearable.
His other world consists of Carnegie Hall, art museums, and theater. His math and Latin are weak, but he knows the world of art and the glamour of performance. His true home is not the stultifying, middle-class house with its “unescapable odors of cooking,” but rather the cultural building. At the museum, he teases the Venus de Milo with a hand gesture, makes a face at Augustus Caesar. In the museum he is comfortable, puts on no shows, is himself, neither having to impress nor defend.
Willa Cather knew Paul’s world. She too was a nonconformist, impatient with society’s notions about what constitutes a proper education and upbringing. She believed that students should be exposed to the classics through other means than just reading them or reading about them. Much of her education occurred outside the classroom, in opera houses, theaters, and concert halls. Cather believed that the dream of happiness was the only reality, the true thing unattainable, always slightly out of reach. When thievery enables Paul to fulfill, temporarily, his dream of velvet carpets, fresh flowers, expensive clothes, and fine wine, to become “exactly the kind of boy he had always wanted to be,” one that “it would be impossible for anyone to humiliate,” he is destroyed. It is not the threat of punishment that destroys him but the far worse threat of society waiting to rehabilitate him.
Cather’s epitaph reads: “That is happiness: to be dissolved into something complete and great.” The echo of these words from her novel My Ántonia (1918) conclude “Paul’s Case,” when Paul leaps in front of a train: “Then, because the picture-making mechanism was crushed, the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things.”
The story begins in industrial Pittsburgh at the height of American industrial expansion and at a time when wealth, power, and material values are supreme and dominate the thought and goals of the nation. Paul is a misfit in every way, and the reader is given a detailed description of his conflicts with school, home, and society. Paul is different from his peers. He dresses with a kind of dandified elegance, sporting fancy neckwear and a flower in his lapel. He is bored with school and hates his shabby room at home and his middle-class neighbors and the street where he lives. Paul’s mother died shortly after his birth, and he has been reared by his father, who seems distant and preoccupied with money and hard work.
Paul’s real love, his only true mental and spiritual life, seems to be realized in the glamour and color of the world of theater and music. He works part-time as an usher in Carnegie Hall, where concerts are held. There he loses himself in the music, the glitter of performance, and the fantasy of a world that is sensual and utterly removed from the prosaic day-to-day needs and routines of his domestic and school worlds. He wants to be noticed, to be important, and he seems to be devoid of the psychological equipment that enables others to accept the limitations and realities of their circumstances. Paul creates for himself a fantasy life that forces him to lie continuously.
Paul’s conflict with the demands of the school curriculum, the learning of grammar, theorems, and history, reaches a point where the principal informs Paul’s father that the conflict between his son and the school’s teachers requires that some action be taken. The father takes Paul out of school, puts him to work as a “cash-boy” in a business office, and forbids him access to theaters or concerts. Paul’s compulsion to be lost in a world of sensual experience, a life of elegance, leisure, and pleasurable sensation, finally confronts the pressures on him to work, conform, and obey the rules of his humble and prosaic background. His life is now intolerable. His need for the “fairy tale” world that he tasted “behind the scenes” drives him to a plan that seems obvious to him and not even a struggle for him as he executes it.
Paul steals a large sum of money from his employers and makes his way to New York. Here, for eight fantasy days, he resides in splendor at the Waldorf hotel, one of the great palace hotels of the turn of the century. Dressed in new finery, Paul wines and dines and goes to concerts, drives around in carriages, and loses himself in pleasure. Finally, just before Paul has exhausted his finances, he reads in the Pittsburgh papers that his father, having paid back the stolen money, is coming to New York to search for his son. Paul has a vision of home, his dingy room, the drab social life of a provincial town, and the prospects of no further escape. The contrast with the last few days of his fairy-tale life is too much for him, and he takes the final steps that lead to his suicide. Thus the author closes Paul’s case.