What are the main themes in "Paul's Case"?

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The theme of "Paul's Case" is that when the world of illusion, of the superficial, becomes too appealing to us, it can destroy us.

We can feel some sympathy for Paul as he rejects the narrow, hard-working, respectable, and Calvinist world he has grown up in. He wants more than a drab life working in an office and sitting on a Pittsburgh stoop in the evenings. He longs for beauty, but his longing is entirely shallow. We are told that:

It would be difficult to put it strongly enough how convincingly the stage entrance of that theatre was for Paul the actual portal of Romance.

In other words, Paul can't distinguish between surface illusion and reality.

Paul becomes so desperate for a more colorful, beautiful life that he steals a thousand dollars from the bank where he works, quite an amount of money at the time, and heads to live the high life in New York City. This life completely appeals to him. The story says he feels no remorse:

The flowers, the white linen, the many-colored wine glasses, the gay toilettes of the women, the low popping of corks, the undulating repetitions of the "Blue Danube" from the orchestra, all flooded Paul's dream with bewildering radiance. When the rosy tinge of his champagne was added—that cold, precious, bubbling stuff that creamed and foamed in his glass—Paul wondered that there were honest men in the world at all. This was what all the world was fighting for, he reflected; this was what all the struggle was about.

Because he is so shallow, this is all Paul needs. Everything for him is surface. He doesn't desire to accomplish anything. He simply wants to live in a certain way:

He felt now that his surroundings explained him . . . He had only to glance down at his attire to reassure himself that here it would be impossible for anyone to humiliate him.

For someone for whom the window-dressing is everything, we now get a glimpse of how humiliating it was for Paul not to have beautiful things.

Paul kills himself rather than face up to the consequences of his actions. The story leaves us both wondering at his shallowness—is this what his society has told him is important? Is he merely a sociopath?—and wondering if, since the superficial is all he ever wanted, he achieved his dream.

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The themes Cather explores in "Paul’s Case" are rebellion (against authority, conformity, and the American Dream); art as a form of self-destructive escapism; self-deception; and alienation, both of the artist and homosexual in society.

Although Paul idolizes rich and successful men and yearns for the type of lifestyle and material spoils that accompany a life of wealth and privilege, he lacks the discipline and work ethic necessary to realize his dream life. One could argue that he has no concept of the relationship between work and money at all: he absolutely rejects the American middle-class work ethic epitomized by his father, a man who has worked diligently to attain modest success. Preferring to think of himself as a bohemian rebel—a lover of art and all things beautiful—and believing himself entitled to a life of prosperity, Paul steals a large sum of money from his employer and escapes to New York. His decision to fictionalize his life and live in a state of perpetual denial ultimately leads to his death.

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"Paul's Case", by Willa Cather, is the story of a young man who is a misfit to his surroundings. His situation is extreme, and results in Paul's death after carrying out every dream that ever visits his imagination.

One of the most resonant themes in the story is the achievement of wealth under the idea of the American Dream. Paul's father dreams for Paul to attain achievements which are dissonant to Paul's own ideals.To Paul, money is everything because it helps him acquire beautiful things. When he surrounds himself with the gilded society of New York, he feels as if everything in his life has been accomplished. His idea of the American Dream is having wealth.

Another main theme is self-identity. Paul is completely different from his surroundings. Paul is a young man with fantasies that are extremely fancy and far-fetched, all because of his extremely delicate nature. He is literally a misfit, and his search for self-identity provokes severe suffering in him.

Yet, the most important theme might be deception from every perspective. Paul cannot be sincere with his father, his teachers, his friends, or even the people whom he mingles with in New York. Paul is simply unable to be himself because he does not even know exactly what his role in life is meant to be. As he states in the story, he simply wants "to be there" along with the beautiful people. He simply wants to be part of the stamp and not take a specific part of it. Paul is basic atmosphere.

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What are the major themes in "Paul's Case"?

There are six major themes in Willa Cather's "Paul's Case":
the "American Dream", deception, choices and consequences, beauty, alienation, and limitations and opportunities.

You can find out much more about each of the individual themes by visiting the eNotes link below.

Here is a brief excerpt which speaks to the overarching theme of the novel:

The story's major themes revolve around questions about Paul's character. Was he driven to his fate by the destructive values of America, or is he morally corrupt, responsible for his actions? Is Paul, as his teachers, father, and friends agree, a ' 'bad case,'' an abnormal personality, or do the others have an overly narrow view of what is "normal"? Do the worlds of business and industry, represented by Cordelia Street, destroy appreciation of culture and aesthetics, or does Paul choose to live in a world of illusion, destroying his grip on reality?

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