Paul's Case Analysis
by Willa Cather

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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Cather writes here with characteristic restraint. She implies, she understates, she hints, believing that it is important to leave the reader to figure things out and become actively involved in “making” the story. The author purports to be writing a case history and thus aims for an emotionally detached quality in the style. She wants to let the facts speak for themselves, and she concludes without diagnosis or explanation. In spite of her desire not to appear to take sides or to prejudice the reader’s judgment, the nature of this writing brings one close to Paul and not to anyone else. By making the reader intimate with Paul’s thoughts, perceptions, and feelings, she draws the reader’s sympathy to him. The author takes the role of omniscient narrator, so that when she says, “in Paul’s world, the natural nearly always wore the guise of ugliness,” she justifies Paul’s need for artificial beauty. Paul may be deluded and extreme, but the author’s facts about his ugly world are not to be disputed.

Cather also has a special talent for creating the visible, an eye for that detail or mood or scene that calls on her talent and experience as a journalist when she wrote for a Pittsburgh paper and later for McClure’s magazine. She characterizes Paul’s thoughts of home by “damp dish towels” and shows the reader the champagne in his glass at his hotel dinner as “cold, precious, bubbling stuff that creamed and foamed in his glass.” By the use of such images and the vivid language conveying them, Cather is able to convey what Paul sees and feels and how intense the conflict must be that causes him to want to die rather than return to the flatness and drabness that he has managed to escape for a little more than a week.

It is interesting to note that the case history had become a vigorous form of psychological writing in the later half of the nineteenth century and has in the twentieth century established itself as a major story form, particularly in the genre of crime and detective fiction. Clinical case histories have escaped the confines of medical reports and obtained a wide, popular audience.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The years from 1900 to 1910 witnessed great growth in business and industry in America. Fortunes were made producing steel and iron: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and J. P. Morgan all made vast amounts of money during this period. They were the most famous of the "robber barons," those whose wealth was created by questionable labor practices and whose businesses were favored by the government since they were fundamental in creating the infrastructure necessary for the United States to become a world power. In "Paul's Case" such industrial leaders appear in references to the "iron kings" discussed on Cordelia Street on Sunday afternoons.

With fewer government regulations on business than there are now, industry leaders ruthlessly pursued profit. Their profits allowed them to become voracious consumers of material goods. Thorstein Veblen, in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), coined the term "conspicuous consumption" to describe such ostentatious display of money and luxury through clothes, travel, cars, and architecture. This use of wealth is most apparent in "Paul's Case" in the section devoted to New York—the Waldorf Hotel, Paul's dress clothes and silk underwear, his champagne and opera. Edith Wharton's novel The House of Mirth, published the same year, also deals with the era's high society, focusing on a beautiful and young upper-class woman who seeks to secure her fortunes by marriage but can bring herself to sacrifice neither love nor wealth.

Still, some of the wealthy found ways to spend their surplus in ways that benefited society as a whole. Andrew Carnegie established himself as the country's leading philanthropist by granting money to libraries, foundations, and venues for the arts, including music halls that bear his name in New York City and, as described in "Paul's Case," Pittsburgh.

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

"Paul's Case''...

(The entire section is 1,864 words.)