Paul's Case Themes
by Willa Cather

Paul's Case book cover
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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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Much of Willa Cather’s writing develops an interest in the minds, ways, and lives of artists: This theme of contrast and discord between conflicting values is present in a number of ways in “Paul’s Case.” Although Paul is not an artist in the sense that he creates works of art, he has the kind of imagination that in a friendlier environment might have developed to enable him to convert the material of his real world into art. As it is, Paul’s case is painful and hopeless. The author shows the reader a world that is blatantly materialistic. The predominant color is gray, while Paul longs for the richness of purple, of light-reflecting crystal. It is sad that for Paul, and indeed for his world, money seems to be the only means to experience the felt life, the excitement of performance. Paul is a spectator. He has no interest in books, which might have helped him to imagine other possibilities. His is a solipsistic vision, stimulated by music that acts like an addictive narcotic on his nervous system and produces an excitement from which he recovers in a state of severe physical and emotional deflation. Paul’s teachers and family seem peculiarly insensitive to his condition, his needs, and his suffering.

In spite of the rather detached and clinical description of this conflict between Paul and his world, the author’s distaste for the materialistic and rather coarse society she describes becomes evident. While Paul is clearly presented as emotionally disturbed and as almost pathologically lonely and isolated, he is also, in part, the victim of a society that is somewhat deadened in its imagination and finer sensibilities. Paul is like an aesthete for whom there is no place to belong, no home, and who finds no kindred spirit anywhere. Had he been able to find a group like Oscar Wilde’s “art for art’s sake” movement or the Bloomsbury group, both artistic cults that flourished during Cather’s lifetime, he might have found a friendly haven in a bohemian subculture, part of an aesthetic minority group. As it is, he is simply a doomed misfit.


(Short Stories for Students)

"Paul's Case" is a story about a young man who loves art and beautiful things so much that he steals money and goes to New York to live a life of opulence and grandeur. When his crime is discovered, Paul commits suicide rather than return to the dreary, middle-class life he escaped in Pittsburgh. 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?

The American Dream
The American Dream is an underlying theme of the story. Paul's father and the rest of Cordelia Street, a "perfectly respectable" middle-class neighborhood, believe in values of hard work, family and church. During their leisure time, they sit around swapping stories about their bosses, the "captains of industry" who worked themselves up from poverty to lead large corporations and live in luxury. Paul despises the monotonous lives led by Cordelia Street residents, who believe that if they work hard, they too might lead such glamorous lives. But Paul shares their same desire: to become rich and lead a life without worry. He too likes to listen to the "legends of the iron kings." Disdaining the "cash-boy stage," Paul wants the "triumphs of the cash boys who became famous."

Paul does manage to live a life of leisure and beauty, but not through hard work, and only for one week. Through lies and crime, he gains access to what he considers his real home, the New York City high life exemplified by the Waldorf Hotel. There, his...

(The entire section is 1,447 words.)