Paul's Case Essays and Criticism
by Willa Cather

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Heredity or Environment?

(Short Stories for Students)

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Are we products of nature or of the way we are nurtured? Do our genes dictate who we will be, or is our environment responsible for that? Are we governed by our own free will, or does destiny mandate what will become of us? These are some of the many questions that plague humanity, the questions that give philosophers, sociologists, scientists, and writers material with which to work. Willa Cather, in her short story "Paul's Case," brings forth these questions with admirable skill but offers no clear resolution, as can be seen by the two primary types of interpretation her critics have given to the story.

According to Loretta Wasserman, in her book Willa Cather, the interpretations of "Paul's Case'' are divided according to how each individual critic answers the questions. Many see it as a story of a "sensitive, artistically inclined youth crushed by a withering environment, the dreary rigidities of Pittsburgh Presbyterianism and the physical ugliness of Paul's home." Others see it as as tudy of maladjustment or a pathological state.

It is worthwhile to note here that the time in which Cather lived greatly influenced her writing and her views of life. Born in the middle of the second Industrial Revolution, Cather grew up during a time when new scientific knowledge of physics and chemistry helped build gigantic new industries. The steel industry, in particular, centered in Pittsburgh, used Henry Bessemer's new open-hearth process to create stronger, less expensive steel. His process helped to vastly increase production and profits, which necessitated larger factories, more workers and more machinery. In 1899, Andrew Carnegie created the massive Carnegie Steel Company in Pittsburgh by consolidating many of the local steel works. Only two years later, his company was worth half a billion dollars. However, Carnegie was also involved in the cultural side of life and contributed much money to the arts. He, like Cather, saw that the rapid progress of technology could potentially drown out the more aesthetic side of people, a problem he wished to avoid.

Cather dealt with this technological and aesthetic issue in "Paul's Case," which first appeared in her collection of stories called The Troll Garden in 1905. The story is set in Pittsburgh, and the glamorous lives of "iron kings" like Carnegie become a focal point for Paul's aspirations. According to Gather's obituary in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, it was based on the actual suicide of a high-school student in the Pittsburgh area where she lived. The name for the collection was borrowed from a text of Charles Kingsley, who wrote in his book The Roman and the Teuton that invading barbarians looked at Rome as "a fairy palace, with a fairy garden" inside which trolls dwelled. The stories in the collection deal with encounters in the art world and according to one critic are "implicitly equated with the compelling but treacherous troll garden." Marilyn Arnold, a professor of English at Brigham Young University, helps explain the relation of the troll garden to "Paul's Case." She writes in an essay in Harold Bloom's anthology

Willa Cather


Paul is obviously the hungry forest child who is utterly helpless before the luscious appeal of the garden, represented for him in the trappings of wealth and in his adolescent perception of the artist's world For Paul there is no reasoned choice, no weighing of alternatives and consequences, no will to resist, for him there is only ugliness and the garden, and he must have the garden

Gather later reprinted a revised version of the story in 1920 in another collection called Youth and the Bright Medusa . Again Cather focuses on a vision of youth, but to Cather, given the title of this collection, the vision must have been a horrifying one. Medusa, of Greek mythology, is one of three Gorgons, monsters with golden wings, brass claws, and hair of live snakes who turned to stone those who looked at them. One can assume, then, since Cather created the collections herself,...

(The entire section is 6,491 words.)